Before Donald Trump began to slur his words and concoct fake verbs like “tolerize,” he declared last week that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon … . Their pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens the civilized world. We’ll never let that happen.”
Great. If that’s what he wants, perhaps he’d take a deal that among other things compelled Iran to cut its uranium-enriching centrifuges by nearly 75 percent until the late 2020s and submit to ongoing international inspections.
Oh wait! Those were the terms of the historic nuclear deal that Trump tore up two years ago because it had one fundamental problem: It was a signature achievement for Barack Obama. So of course it had to go.
Obama had embraced the credo best expressed in Godfather II by Michael Corleone: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” If Trump was not a husk of a human ruled by petty pique, he would understand the wisdom of entrapping a foe via international engagement. But because he’s so hung up on Obama, and so personally weak, he had to flex what he thinks is “strength.” His disastrous decision to tear up the nuclear deal has ramped up the dangerous tensions that presently plague us.
“The logic of Tehran’s response is straightforward and utterly predictable: If the United States wants to make life difficult for Iran, its leaders will demonstrate that they can make life difficult for the United States too,” explained Stephen Walt, one of our smartest foreign affairs experts. “It wouldn’t take more than a shred of strategic thinking to anticipate Iran’s response and recognize that unilateral pressure was not going to work.”
But Trump, lacking a shred of strategic thought, apparently couldn’t fathom the possibility that Iran would refuse to knuckle under, that instead it would lash out. The result is the current tit-for-tat violence that could trigger a war.
That’s why Obama’s embrace of the Corleone credo made perfect sense. Alas, Trump’s impulsive instinct is to destroy every last vestige of Obama’s work — as evidenced by his oft-repeated false accusation that Obama funded terrorism. Thanks to the “foolish” nuclear deal, he said, the Iranians “were given $150 billion … . The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”
In truth, the actual amount was reportedly closer to $50 billion and, contrary to Trump’s insinuation, it was not American taxpayer money. It was Iran’s money that had been frozen until the signing of the nuclear deal in 2013. Nor does Trump have any proof that the sums owed to Iran were specifically spent to manufacture the missiles Iran had launched. What he said last week, in his latest attempt to smear his predecessor’s achievement, was just the usual stew of lies and bellicosity. I was reminded of a conversation I had in 2015 with Ami Ayalon, a former director of Israel’s domestic security service. Ayalon was visiting Philadelphia, at a time when candidate Trump was attacking Obama’s nuclear deal. Ayalon told me that Trump was being foolish: “To kill the deal is to kill American leadership in the Middle East. Their assumption that we should simply reject this deal, and that we could then go back and negotiate a better deal? This is nonsense. This can only be heard from a person who does not understand anything about Iran.”
Nor, of course, does Trump understand anything about democracy. His spinners went to Capitol Hil, ostensibly to explain why he was right to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, but mostly to tell Republican senators that they should not dissent or debate the warrior-in-chief’s decisions. Which prompted a conservative Republican senator, Utah’s Mike Lee, to blow a gasket in front of the press corps:
“(It) was probably the worst briefing I’ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate,” Lee complained. “I find it insulting and I find it demeaning to the Constitution of the United States. It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional. And it’s wrong.”
Leave it to Trump to shred every remnant of the Corleone credo. As evidenced Wednesday, he can’t even keep his friends close.
Dick Polman as a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania.