USA Today Editorial: Ever since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, he has frequently boasted that under his leadership America would grow tired of winning.
Two-and-a-half years into his administration, it’s more like we’re growing tired of waiting to win.
Whether it’s a 13-month trade war with China (which took a perilous turn for the global economy this week as Beijing devalued its currency and the stock market plunged), a stalled 14-month charm offensive to strip a North Korean dictator of his nuclear bombs, or a fraught 15-month standoff with Iran over that nation’s malign behavior in the Middle East, foreign policy victories have been few and far between.
Trump’s posture toward Iran has been particularly confounding. He pulled the United States out of a multinational Obama-era nuclear deal that was succeeding in keeping Tehran from building a nuclear weapon and reimposed crippling economic sanctions.
To what end?
Trump seems trapped between his own competing interests: an urge to dismantle Obama policy even as he tries to renegotiate a similar deal; a desire to avoid a new war while looking tough and threatening; and a need to form alliances with other Iran-deal signatories — Britain, France and Germany — unhappy with the U.S. withdrawal.
SECRETARY OF STATE: Trump administration pressure is weakening Iran’s regime
All is being run from a White House buffeted by disagreement. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to favor regime change to end Iran’s bad-actor behavior of developing ballistic missiles and using proxy forces to create havoc in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. National security adviser John Bolton has gone further in advocating the use of force.
But Trump ruled out regime change and is skittish about starting a new war in the Middle East after promising voters he would pull the United States back from foreign entanglements. He prudently called off a counterstrike after Iran shot down an American drone in June. (The United States took down an Iranian drone a month later.)
The confusion and contradictions don’t stop there:
* Trump covets a diplomatic resolution and tweeted on May 15 that “Iran will want to talk soon.” But nothing has come of it, and last week the White House oddly sanctioned Iran’s chief diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif. As Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., noted on Twitter: “If you sanction diplomats you’ll have less diplomacy.” Just last month, with Trump’s blessing, Paul had invited Zarif to an Oval Office meeting, according to The New Yorker.
* Last month, after Iran allegedly sabotaged oil tankers and seized a British merchant ship (two more vessels have since been taken), the U.S. military announced creation of a coalition to guard shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Only Britain has joined. Others might have been dissuaded by Trump’s contradictory June tweet that “countries should be protecting their own ships.”
* Trump has often called the 2015 Iran deal a “disaster.” But last week, he extended for 90 days the sanction relief protecting a key part of the accord in which Russian, Chinese and European technicians help Tehran shape its nuclear program for peaceful purposes. Evidently, it’s not all bad.
To be sure, Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has succeeded in slashing Iran’s oil exports by 95%, afflicting the nation’s economy with rising inflation, sagging wages and higher housing costs. Hardest hit is Iran’s middle class — the very sector that pushes for more reform. Conversely, there are signs the crisis is strengthening the hold that hard-line clerics have on the country.
Trump’s erratic Iran policy has allowed the clerics to scapegoat Washington, provoked Tehran’s aggressive pushback, established that America won’t keep its word, and potentially reignited a nuclear crisis that had been quelled at least into the next decade.
If that’s winning, we’d hate to see what losing looks like.
Cartoon by Tom Curry.