It wasn’t an evening address from the East Room. No need to sit at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. He didn’t even make the effort to put out a statement on White House stationary. A tweet was President Donald Trump’s preferred place to threaten war with Iran.
Trump has a predilection for pre-dawn pronouncements of new policies on the platform. We marvel as those messages seem to magically move millions. Advisors are an afterthought. The media has mostly been made redundant. Many are left believing the traditional rules no longer apply.
This tweet might be different.
To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
It remains hard to effectively convey some powers of the presidency on social media, and the prospect of war can be counted among them. We still very much need the authority derived from the ambiance and accoutrements of the office.
There is something reassuring about standing in the same place as Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan. There is a power to the setting, the seal, the symbolism. The “my fellow Americans” moment. Trump’s tweet lacked those critical features. He knew it, hence the need to put the message in all caps.
Even with such emphatic extra emphasis, the threat was missing the requisite gravitas. Twitter is a medium of the moment. Boasting, barbing, and even the banality of boredom work quite well. When it comes to war and peace, we need more.
Exerting military might must have meaning. Especially in the United States, our leaders have long sought to cast their actions as in keeping with our founding values and time-honored traditions. Calling us to conflict meant speaking directly to the American people, in slow, solemn terms. The seriousness of their resolve was clearly evident.
Those who would oppose us would witness that resolve, and the cost we were ready to bear. The threat of force was credible because it was backed by more than a person or a party.
A tweet is short, solitary, and soaked in partisanship. This is the same place where he takes cheap political shots at the opposition. It is neither linked to the past, nor designed to long linger. @RealDonaldTrump is not where wars should start. We need a real presidential address from the real White House.
In its absence, our imagination fills in the details. We picture a president alone, in his ostentatious pajamas. Fox News his sole comforting companion. Twitter his only outlet.
Those early morning tweets reflect solitude, not strength. Their impulsiveness dilutes the desired impact. There is no plan: just an angry man lashing out.
But they worked for North Korea, didn’t they? The White House would have us believe the bombast and bomb-laden tweets Trump launched against Pyongyang brought them to the negotiation table. In reality, Kim Jong Un saw much of his own strategy at work in the radical rhetoric. Rather than a strength, it actually proved to be a weakness. The President pushed the United States so far out on a limb that he needed a lifeline.
The young North Korean leader finally tossed one to his impetuous American counterpart: provide me with the respectability I’ve long sought without condition and we can call it progress. That strategy has largely failed to deliver any real results.
It also won’t work with Iran. They already had a deal, and the credibility it confers. The remaining signatories are sticking with the original agreement, so there is really little incentive to give in to Washington’s new demands.
Such aggressive attacks end up making Tehran look like the reasonable one; many world leaders can relate. These days there are a quite few other countries that can attest to the illogical positions taken by the Trump administration. American threats are a shadow of their former self.
Months after pulling out of the Iran Deal, it’s still not clear what a better deal would entail. Moreover, they are likely to get a lot less out of North Korea. This makes it much more difficult to argue Iran needs to give ground.
We then factor in that the warning came not with a roar, but a chirp. There were no generals briefing on plans. No ambassadors delivering direct messages in foreign capitals. Just a capitalised tweet that failed to capitalise on the real powers of the American presidency.
As it has in the past, the US government will clumsily try to catch up. But the moment of maximum impact has passed. America’s position now looks isolated and ill-considered. The attempts to squeeze significant concessions out of Iran are likely to come up dry.
Twitter may have helped propel Trump to the presidency. It may be a useful tool for maneuvering around the establishment to message directly to your base. Yet, we have likely just learned its limitations. An early morning chirp fails to capture the weight of war. For Iran, even the wacky sound of a cuckoo-bird is unlikely to serve as a sufficient deterrent from their current course.
Brett Bruen is president of the Global Situation Room, Inc., an international consulting firm. He serves as adjunct faculty member in crisis management at Georgetown University and on boards at Harvard University, University College Dublin, and UNICEF. Under President Obama, he was director of global engagement at the White House and spent 12 years as a US diplomat.