After ripping up Obama’s Iran playbook, Trump quickly pieces it back together
Following years of trashing his predecessor’s engagement with Iran, Trump found himself echoing key elements of the Obama approach to avoid creating another front in America’s Middle East wars.
President Donald Trump started with over-the-top, machismo rhetoric toward Iran. He ended by backing down so far that he sounded more like his predecessor.
In a span of just 24 hours, Trump went from threatening to devastate Iran and bomb its cultural sites — a move widely considered a war crime and condemned by Republicans — to calmly delivering a measured address about slapping economic sanctions on the country, striking a new nuclear deal and urging an international institution — NATO — to become more involved in the Middle East.
“The fact that we have this great military and equipment … does not mean we have to use it,” Trump said in televised remarks late Wednesday morning, surrounded by a phalanx of men in uniform who stood in a half-moon formation behind his podium. “We do not want to use it.”
The about-face was classic Trump: ratcheting up the tough talk and then retreating with a conciliatory tone. It’s a playbook the president rolled out for China, North Korea, Iran and a long list of domestic policy concerns. And it’s dizzied some of his allies and adversaries who are still trying to make sense of a president who is wrapping up his third year in office.
Iran was just the latest example of a pattern of behavior in which the Trump administration acted boldly, ratcheted up a situation and then sought credit for extinguishing the crisis.
“The president narrowly avoided a needless war today,” said Wendy Sherman, the former under secretary of State for political affairs under President Barack Obama and the lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal. “The president is both the arsonist and the fireman. He set the world on flames when he left the JCPOA and then when he decided to kill Qassem Soleimani. Now, he wants to be the fireman and say, ‘I put this all out. It was President Obama who caused all of the problems.’ And, of course, President Trump caused the problems.”
Trump concluded his speech Wednesday signaling open arms with a far gentler style than his typical posture of us-versus-them politics. “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” Trump said.
Republicans lawmakers and Trump political advisers expressed relief publicly and privately that Trump had appeared to de-escalate a looming and, to many, self-inflicted conflict during an election year — even as a long line of foreign policy officials and experts warned the country could and likely would retaliate again.
“I worry there might be more provocations by Iran,” said Fred Fleitz, who served as national security adviser John Bolton’s chief of staff and now leads the Center for Security Policy. “Although I think yesterday was a show-of-force gesture by the Iranians, I think they’re still going to push proxies to conduct acts of revenge and it may spark some difficult decisions for the president on how he might respond.”
“On the other hand, I think this is an opportunity for some skilled and imaginative diplomacy — to talk to the British, the French, Germans, and maybe even Russians and to tell [the Iranians], ‘Don’t go down this road as President Trump is not going to hold back.’”
Even though Republicans and Democrats have reliably split on Trump’s foreign policy approach, the GOP’s internal fault lines have also grown over Trump’s handling of a wide range of issues such as tariffs, Tehran and a tendency to vacillate wildly between policy positions.
Time and time again, Trump has made a bold or controversial policy move only to later back down or reverse entirely. It occurred with 2019’s government shutdown over additional funding for the border wall, his desire to smack China with severe tariffs, his administration’s policy of separating migrant children from parents as they crossed into the U.S. and his sudden move to withdraw American troops from Syria.
In the past 24 hours, Trump spoke to both Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who criticized the Soleimani killing, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who had been urging a strike for months. And oddly enough, both Paul and Cotton praised the president’s handling of the Iranian offensive against U.S. bases in Iraq.
As Cotton put it, “Iran started a fight. We ended a fight.”
“My hope is that we don’t have the same kind of problem: a protracted war with Iran. I think he doesn’t want that,” said Paul, who spoke to Trump after his Wednesday address and has urged diplomacy. “My hope is that this is the end of the military escalation. And if it can, then sure I’m willing to be part of moving forward.”
Trump also has spoken to both Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Though both unabashed hawks, each said Trump’s restraint was the correct course.
Trump is getting what “he wanted to do all along, which is to get into a negotiating position. Now he’s got their own foreign minister saying they’re ready to do that,” Inhofe said. “He’s in a good position. I know there are a lot of people that think that he‘s got to go in there and go for that blood and all that. Why do that? He’s already won.”
And at least one Senate Democrat was swayed by a classified briefing on Wednesday about the killing of Soleimani. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he now had a “better understanding right now of why they did what they did when they did it.”
But to most Democrats, Trump’s strike in Iran was just the latest example of his erraticism. Trump has spent years trashing Obama’s 2015 deal with Iran that was built on international engagement — in many ways, the diplomatic result he is looking for now.
And they say that the U.S. is in a worse position than it is a week ago. As Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) put it, “I worry that President Trump’s legacy will be a nuclear-armed Iran.”
“Anything that moves us toward more de-escalation is positive. But I think overall there just has been no strategy, no proportionality, no predictability in the administration’s response from one event to the next. And I think that is why we got to such a bad place,” he said.
Still, there are more battles ahead for Trump to win — and his administration did him no favors in ticking off two Republican senators on Wednesday.
Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Paul of Kentucky said they will support an effort to constrain Trump’s military stance toward Iran, mostly because of how insufficient they found Wednesday’s briefing.
"One of the messages that we received from the briefers was: Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran. And that if you do you'll be emboldening Iran,” Lee groused. "It is not acceptable ... to come in and tell us that we can't debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran. It's un-American. It's unconstitutional. And it's wrong. And I hope they will show more deference to their limited power in the future.”
Experts warn that beyond the missile attack seen Tuesday night, Iran could push for proxies to attack the U.S. or allies, could launch costly and disruptive cyberattacks. The Department of Homeland Security warned after Soleimani’s death that “an attack in the homeland may come with little or no warning.”
“The regime will look for other opportunities and we remain on an escalation glide path because they have chosen to more actively confront Washington to bring about an end of the sanctions,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
But Trump aides and allies insist the president’s approach has left the U.S. approach to Iran better than it was under his predecessor. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani, they argue, sent a clear message to the Iranian regime that is intended to deter future attacks from Iran-linked groups.
Those in defense of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign say that despite the 2015 nuclear deal, the U.S. and Iran were always on a collision course. Except now, as the two countries come head to head, Trump is dealing with an economically anemic regime.
Within the Republican Party, for a day at least, many allies and critics alike were too relieved to quibble on Wednesday.
“He did a very nice job with his address,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “I’m aware that the action in killing Soleimani, who was a very bad person and deserved to die, that there’s an upside from that act. And a downside.”
“Which of those results occurs long-term depends on what Iran does,” Romney said. “I don’t believe there’s any interest on the part of the president to go to war with Iran.”