When President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, arrived unannounced in the White House press room Wednesday and announced that “we’re officially putting Iran on notice” — a position the President clearly agrees with, as he made clear in a tweet Thursday morning — after its latest ballistic missile test and several attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen, the most immediate question was this: or else what?
Over the past week, the President has burned a whole lot of his diplomatic capital.
Gen. Flynn said the US, or at least he, was particularly upset because Iran was “threatening friends and allies in the region.” The bigger question is whether the US really has very many friends and allies in that region or anywhere else. And without anyone standing shoulder-to-shoulder with President Trump, could this be read as a pretty empty threat?
Let’s examine just what kind of room for bluster and challenge this administration might muster. The President could make good on yet another of his campaign promises and “tear up” the Iranian nuclear deal. The problem is that this is not simply a pact between the US and Iran, but rather between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, France, Russia, China, and the US) plus Germany. None of these other countries seems prepared right now to rush with the US into such an impetuous and ill-conceived action.
The other possible action the US could take would be to “snap back” a broad array of economic sanctions against Iran, the removal of which was the carrot for Tehran to agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set to pay Trump a visit at the White House in two weeks and with Israel eager to see the treaty removed and sanctions reinstalled, this could be an appealing move.
It’s not so attractive to the rest of the world, however.
Europe has embraced both the lifting of sanctions and the freeze of the Iranian nuclear program. But at the same time, Europe has also embraced a continuation of another series of sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea.
Due to be renewed in July, President Trump has thus far failed to endorse any renewal. So, the recent step-up in hostilities over the past week by pro-Russian elements in eastern Ukraine could be seen as a test as to whether President Putin might be able to drive a further wedge between Western European leaders and the Trump administration.
Instead, there’s a broad and growing sense that Trump is becoming the third rail of international diplomacy. What European leader is going to embrace Trump or his ideas if they’re only going to get gob-smacked like British Prime Minister Theresa May, who invited the President to visit the Queen, only to see him turn around as soon as she’s airborne and come out with his immigration ban? By the time she arrived back in London, following a brief stop in Turkey, some 1.6 million Brits had signed a petition demanding that her invitation on behalf of the Queen be rescinded and Parliament scheduled a debate on the issues for February 20. (To be fair, 114,000 signed another petition supporting Trump.)
At the same time, broad parts of the world are holding their breath to see where Trump might even expand his list of pariah nations whose tired, poor and huddled masses will have to look for other shores where they might breathe free.
There are, after all, a host of non-banned countries with large Muslim populations. India, for one, is calculating that Muslim-dominated Pakistan will be impacted next, while Pakistan sees the Trump immigration program as a potential tilt by the US toward India.
Even such a perception is a dangerous idea, especially if Pakistan reacts by stepping up aid and comfort it has long given to Taliban forces in Afghanistan and its own nearby border provinces. The US, of course, accounts for at least 9,800 of the 13,000 NATO troops that remain in Afghanistan.
In Europe, France, Britain and Belgium — each with longstanding colonial-era ties with Muslim-dominated countries in Africa and the Middle East — are all worried that some of these might be next on Trump’s immigration ban list.
More critically, of course, Europe, but especially Germany, has been ground zero for the tsunami of refugees pouring out of the Middle East and that Trump has now banned. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces her own fraught battle for re-election later this year, has not minced words. “I have made it clear once again that the fight against terrorism does not justify a general advance against certain countries and people with a certain belief,” Merkel said on Tuesday, referring directly to Trump.
Finally, Trump used a telephone call with the Prime Minister of Australia last weekend to build another wall — with one of America’s most reliable allies — perhaps pushing it even more firmly into the arms of China, with whom it already enjoys a warm and profitable trading relationship.
Trump terminated the call early after an acrimonious exchange when Malcolm Turnbull demanded that the United States honor a pledge by President Obama to accept 1,100 Iranian and Iraqi refugees that Australia had parked on the South Pacific island of Nauru. Then the President rounded out the insult by tweeting about the “dumb deal.”
So, with all these bridges burned, it’s worth reflecting, just what political capital can Gen. Flynn and President Trump muster to confront Iran with threats that, to the mullahs in Tehran, can only appear empty? Broad swaths of his own State Department — at least 1,000 officials in American embassies from Jakarta to Nairobi, across Europe and back to Washington — have already signed a letter condemning his immigration ban and by implication questioned his entire world view — one that will in no way make America or the world safer.
Oh, and incidentally, it might be useful at the same time if President Trump were to get his enemies straight. Russia and Iran are both fighting ISIS — which the President has identified as America’s biggest existential threat. So if that’s still the case, why pick a fight with a country that should be your ally in this battle?
On so many fronts, Trump has already dug himself into a deep hole. It’s time he stopped digging.