Donald Trump has brazenly brought us to the brink of war. He carelessly snatched conflict from the jaws of a functioning peace deal. For months, we watched as his government recklessly ratcheted up pressure on Tehran without even bothering to put together a plan. The world now confronts an unnecessary conflict created by this clumsy, clownish diplomacy.
We were told Barack Obama was a weak negotiator. Trump would surely and swiftly get us a better deal. All he’s delivered is distrust in our reliability and exacerbation of the dangers we face. This isn’t greatness, it’s how great powers fall.
Failure is a prominent feature of Trump’s foreign policy. North Korea’s heading backwards. Despite a strong start, Venezuela’s stalled. Even the one bright spot, reforming NAFTA, recently became a case study in why not to take his tweets, tariffs, and threats as more than a desperate attempt to score a short, superficial win.
World leaders have caught on to the simple keys for success with Trump: Flattery first. Japan’s Shinzo Abe and France’s Emmanuel Macron get high marks on this score. Should that approach fail, figure out a way Trump can claim he won: Mexico, Canada, and the European Union offer instructive examples. Finally, you may end up resorting to using some dramatic theatrics.
North Korea, China, and Iran firing off threats, tariffs, and missiles actually very much appeals to Trump’s penchant for reality TV-esque flair. They keep the audience tuned in to the show. Kim Jong-Un testing a nuclear weapon would be like Trump’s former contestant on The Apprentice (and later a White House staffer) Omorosa throwing a chair through the conference room window. You take a moment to look up from your phone and focus on what happens next.
Iran’s started throwing chairs. They’ve also closely followed Pyonyang’s playbook. Tehran doesn’t want to alienate European capitals, but at the same time they need quick economic relief. So, having intermediaries, such as the Houthis, attack oil tankers provides just about the right balance of shock value, while ostensibly happening outside their direct control.
This dangerous dance is being executed on top of an unstable house of cards, and one wrong move may send things crashing down. Trump’s current team doesn’t inspire great confidence. Gone are the moderate voices with experience managing global crises. Equally concerning are the massive gaps in key national security posts that remain across the administration. All of this increases the likelihood of missteps or mistakes by Washington.
With no strategy, no strong staff, and no support from allies, Trump may end up leading America into a costly conflict. While many are quick to point out our military superiority, it has almost always been used in conjunction with other countries’ capabilities. Even in the Iraq War, we could count on key allies like the United Kingdom and Australia. What does war look like without them by our side?
America has struggled for nearly two decades to defeat the Taliban next door to Iran. Some may argue Tehran is a more conventional adversary, but they are also skilled in fighting asymmetric wars through groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis. Their experience includes planning and working through intermediaries to execute devastating attacks on the American military in Iraq. This would not be an easy or short battle.
Taking us to war under those conditions would put on full display the staggering dilution and diminishment of American might. Other adversaries, including China and Russia, would see such a move as an opening. With Washington encumbered by war, they could expand their designs on and destabilization of South East Asia and Eastern Europe. The world would enter a period of unprecedented upheaval for the modern era, as regional power-struggles fueled conflicts.
Last year I wrote we were witnessing the end of the American era – but it doesn’t have to be followed by an era of such intense instability. Congress needs to stand up. The President clearly does not have a plan or a path forward for resolving the standoff he created with Iran.
Donald Trump will probably still take credit for saving the day, before he sets off to start another made for TV drama.
Bruen is President of the crisis communications firm, the Global Situation Room, Inc. He was Director of Global Engagement at the White House and spent twelve years as an American diplomat. In addition to teaching crisis management at Georgetown University, he serves on the Board of the FDR Foundation at Harvard and the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin.