Remember how some people used to think that an isolationist Donald Trump would slay the zombie neocons of the Republican Party? “Here’s why Trump’s foreign policy terrifies neocons” (Washington Post). “The Neocons v Donald Trump” (New York Times). “Trump,” wrote the former Obama administration official Rosa Brooks in Foreign Policy, “has little time for… neoconservatives.”
Surprise! It was all a(nother) big lie. Consider Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who has emerged as the new darling of the neoconservatives. On 5 September, Haley addressed an audience at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – home to the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton and dubbed “Neocon Central” by its critics – and issued a scathing denunciation of the “flawed and very limited” Iran nuclear deal.
The 2015 deal relaxed sanctions on Tehran in exchange for new restrictions on, and inspections of, Iran’s nuclear programme. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it was painstakingly negotiated between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US), the European Union and Iran. And yet the Republican-led US Congress passed a separate law insisting that the president notify lawmakers every 90 days whether Iran is in compliance. Trump last did so in July – but with great reluctance.
At the AEI, Haley argued that the president would be within his rights to refuse to re-certify the deal in October. Yet, in true Trumpian fashion, her speech in support of that argument contained a long list of demonstrable untruths, including: “Iran has been caught in multiple violations over the past year and a half”; “Inspectors are not allowed to look everywhere they should look”; and the deal “wasn’t supposed to be just about nuclear weapons”.
Report after report from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors has confirmed that Iran is sticking to the JCPOA terms. “Haley’s speech was the most compelling argument I have heard against the deal, but dishonest in key ways,” Ilan Goldenberg, who served as the Iran team chief in the Pentagon under Barack Obama, tells me. “Especially with regards to the quality of the inspections regime, which is incredibly rigorous and nearly unprecedented.”
It is worth noting that the 45-year-old Haley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, is a foreign policy neophyte: she was appointed as US ambassador to the UN despite having no experience of international affairs and diplomacy. Neocons, however, like empty vessels. The former Reagan officials Wolfowitz and Richard Perle jumped on board the know-nothing George W Bush’s campaign in 2000 and the pundit Bill Kristol helped persuade John McCain to make the fact-free Sarah Palin his running mate in 2008. As my old boss Arianna Huffington once observed of Palin: “She’s perfect for the neocons: likeable on the outside, a blank slate on the inside.”
Haley, to be fair, is much smarter and politically savvier than Bush and Palin. She has impressed liberals such as the philanthropist Melinda Gates, who told Quartz that the UN ambassador “is doing a particularly good job”, and the Eurasia Group director, Ian Bremmer, who calls her an “exceptionally talented politician”. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants, Sikhs from the Punjab, and, according to a recent Vox profile, “She stands out in an administration run chiefly by white men. Telegenic and poised, she has a knack for the limelight…”
In the short term, a US state department source tells me, the ambitious Haley has her eye on being secretary of state (the incumbent, Rex Tillerson, is losing Trump’s confidence). In the long term, she wants to run for president, no less. Her undermining of the Iran deal will only help boost her credentials in the eyes of the neocon-heavy Republican foreign policy establishment. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to lay the blame for a potential nuclear crisis with Iran solely on Haley. Trump has described the nuclear deal as “the worst deal ever” and calls Iran “the number one terror state”. He appointed not only the hawkish Haley to his cabinet but also his defence secretary, James Mattis, who once described the three biggest threats to US national security as “Iran, Iran, Iran”, as well as the CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, who has claimed that the Iranians are “professionals at cheating”.
Trump has long insisted there is a better deal to be done with Tehran. As ever, he is deluded. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted on 14 September: “The #JCPOA is not (re)negotiable. A ‘better’ deal is pure fantasy.” On 13 September, 80 of the world’s leading nuclear nonproliferation specialists issued a joint statement warning that “abandoning the deal” would “isolate the United States” and “increase the likelihood of wider conflict” in the Middle East.
Then there is the knock-on effect on North Korea. If, according to the US government, the Iran deal is not worth the paper it is written on, how can anyone expect Kim Jong-un to agree to a similar deal to curb his own nuclear programme? “Why, in the midst of a major nuclear crisis on North Korea, Trump would generate a new crisis on Iran is beyond me,” says Goldenberg.
The answer is as clear as it is dispiriting: Trump is obsessed with undoing Obama’s signature achievements at home (health care) and abroad (the Iran deal). A Republican president without a grand political vision of his own has made it his mission to do the exact opposite of whatever his Democratic predecessor did.
So, goodbye to the Iran deal. Welcome back to the neocons. And God help both the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, where millions of lives hang in the balance. Trump’s balance, that is.