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OPINION | Fourth Estate

Trump’s Maybe War with Iran

Faced with a foreign crisis, the president wants everyone to know he might do something. But also that he might not.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - JANUARY 03: President Donald Trump speaks during a 'Evangelicals for Trump' campaign event held at the King Jesus International Ministry on January 03, 2020 in Miami, Florida. The rally was announced after a December editorial published in Christianity Today called for the President Trump's removal from office.

Of all the yawp to come out of President Donald Trump’s mouth—the lies that now number in the tens of thousands, the venomous threats he lobs against individuals and entire nations, his wide-ranging, petty insults—nothing induces more global chaos than his routine practice of stepping up to the microphone and saying he will do something, while also insisting he will not do that very same thing.

On Tuesday, Trump said the United States was “totally prepared” to attack Iran—“if we have to.” As to whether such an attack would target Iranian cultural sites, the president said it would not—or rather, that it would not “if that’s what the law is.” So maybe it would?

As the crisis with Iran unfolds after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, Trump may believe that his maybe-I-will-maybe-I-won’t rhetoric affords him some strategic ambiguity. Or maybe he is just sincerely telling everyone he has no inkling of what he’s going to do next. But why not just say that? Instead, by consistently trying to have it both ways in his public statements, Trump adds another load of chaos and havoc to a world already brimming with it. When a president routinely hedges like this, is it any wonder that foreign nations (not to mention U.S. citizens) grow distrustful of his true designs?

No country and no policy is safe from Trump’s maybe, maybe not construction:

Just last month he used this will-I-or-won’t-I tactic while discussing the topic of a new arms control agreement with Russia and China. “We may do it with Russia first and then go to China, or we may do it all together,” Trump said. “Or it may not happen. I mean, to be honest with you, maybe it won’t happen.”

In September, while touring the border wall in Otay Mesa, Calif., Trump was musing aloud to reporters about the U.S. military repelling an enemy attack. When a reporter asked who this powerful attack would be staged against, Trump responded, “I’m not saying anything. I’m saying there may be a very powerful one, and maybe it won’t be necessary.”

In August, speaking about a China trade deal: “And they want to get something done. Now, maybe it won’t get done,” Trump said.

But the president especially relishes the construction when he arrives on the scene of a major foreign-policy crisis. It’s been his rhetorical crutch for years now whenever he decided to jawbone the North Koreans. Last May: “We think relationships are building with North Korea. We’ll see how it all works out. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.” Last March: “Maybe it will be wonderful and maybe it won’t.” In June 2018: “I am totally prepared to walk. It could happen. Maybe it won’t be necessary.” On April 24, 2018, (“So we’ll see where that all goes. Maybe it will be wonderful and maybe it won’t”); April 21, 2017, (“Now maybe that’ll work out or maybe it won’t”); and March 29, 2018 (“And we’ll see how it all turns out. Maybe it’ll be good and maybe it won’t”), Trump again leaned on his crutch, all on North Korea.

Trump’s maybe-I-will-and-maybe-I-won’t responses may sound like information, but they’re not. They’re noise. He uses this verbal tic as a hedge and a dodge, to say something without saying anything at all. He deploys other dodges that are equally content-free. Ask him when something is going to happen and he loves to respond, “You’ll find out,” “We’ll see,” “soon,” “eventually,” or “in the coming weeks” to fill the available space.

For Trump, such vague responses accomplish several goals. They maintain his status as the news subject. They kick the story down the road for another set of Trump-centric questions. And they allow news consumers to extrapolate from his nonanswers whatever they want to think he’s saying.

Trump has long used nonanswers like these during business negotiations to appear unpredictable and nonchalant about the outcome and to foster the illusion that he’s in control, says Trump biographer Tim O’Brien. (O’Brien is now working on Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign.) Trump has even relied on this technique inside his White House, according to Cliff Sims’ 2019 White House memoir, Team of Vipers, and was transparent about why he acted the way he does.

Sims writes that one day in the Oval Office, he heard Trump boast of how his behaviors had unsettled the North Koreans. “Now they don’t know what to make of me,” Trump said. “Maybe I’ll do it, maybe I won’t.”

Maybe or maybe not do what?! The thought immediately came to Sims, but he wasn’t brazen enough to ask. Trump didn’t elaborate, but he did sketch his theory of how the mask of unpredictability conveys power to the wearer.

“They don’t have any idea. No one does. And that’s a good thing,” Trump said, according to Sims. “That’s how it should be. It’s negotiation, and you can’t be any good at it if you’re afraid. And why would you be when you have the upper hand? At some point they say, ‘That’s enough,’ and you win. We’re going to win this one, believe me.”

In an earlier time, President Richard Nixon similarly flustered world leaders with veiled threats and statements that implied he might do anything. Nixon called it the “Madman Theory.” According to Axios’ Jonathan Swan, Trump consciously practices a version of the theory. In 2017, Swan wrote that Trump instructed his top trade negotiators to tell South Korea the president is a “crazy” guy who might pull out of trade negotiations completely if he didn’t get his way. The threat was not an isolated one. Trump has repeatedly warned the North Koreans that continued threats of the United States will end in that country’s destruction. But it’s been all bluffing on Trump’s part.

If you were the Iranians, what would you have learned from Trump’s filibustering of the North Koreans? To dismiss such talk as either bluster or mush? That Trump followed through with force in Iran doesn’t add clarity or stability to the chaos he’s engendered. It only foreshadows that he can launch a missile strike from a Reaper drone from either the maybe or the maybe not position.

The weakness of Madman Theories is that unpredictable or threatening behaviors don’t automatically cow adversaries. Nixon’s threats didn’t work on North Vietnam, which ended up winning the war. In Pyongyang, North Korean leaders appear to have ignored Trump’s hedging and threats and are reportedly preparing a new series of weapon tests. (Note to Trump: It’s hard to cow nations that possess nukes and long-range missiles.)

But what of Trump’s unpredictable assassination of Soleimani, you say? Won’t that cow the Iranians? To steal a dance move from the president, maybe it will and maybe it won’t.

But mostly maybe not. After 40 years of cold war with the United States, the Iranians aren’t likely to surrender their regional ambitions over the killing of a military chief.

The major unintended effect of Trump’s continued unpredictability is the global example it sets. Autocrats, dictators, despots and tyrants everywhere have got to be taking notes from the Trump handbook on how to play world strongman. Long after he leaves the White House, his lesson will remain.

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Trump’s “Maybe I will, maybe I won’t” statements can’t be fact-checked because they generate no direct assertions of fact. Send instructions on how to be a despot to [email protected]. My email alerts have never encountered a question they can’t dodge. My Twitter feed always has the upper hand. My RSS feed is a dead madman.