Why Iran is Helping to Define the Trump Doctrine
Americans tend to fall into two camps when discussing President Trump: the “never Trumpers,” who oppose him and anything he does, and the “love Trumpers,” who adore him no matter what he does or how he does it. There are not many people in the middle, who may not have voted for him, but do not necessarily automatically oppose whatever he does or how he does it. The thing is, some of the things Trump does are difficult for Americans to object to, such as wanting to strengthen national security and do something about the out of control immigration crisis. They object to his tactics, but not his objectives. Foreign policy is no exception. Most Americans agree, for example, that Iran and North Korea are threats to their neighbors (and ultimately, the US) and that China’s most objectionable behavior toward the US has been occurring for far too long.
President Trump’s decision not to bomb Iran following the downing of an unmanned American drone over the Persian Gulf has once again raised questions about just what the Trump Doctrine is. Since his inauguration, policy analysts have characterized his doctrine to be a combination of transaction-based strong-arm tactics and unilateral action, yet there have been few international incidents which have served to define what Trump will do in a time of crisis.
The drone incident has proven instructive in that regard. Despite the overwhelming advice of his core national security staff, including Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton, Trump chose a path of moderation and common sense. Some of his supporters and even many of his detractors will say this is evidence of a clear thinking decision maker who understands the concept of proportionality and sensitivity to the consequences of such decisions. This is, after all, a side of Trump that most Americans (or the world) have not seen: a cool, level-headed, cautious, and thoughtful leader.
Despite his ongoing effort to distance himself from former President Obama when consequential decisions confront him, the truth is that he has not proven himself to be all that different. Nor, for that matter, might he necessarily be considered all that different from any number of previous US presidents who have chosen to ignore the advice of their advisors and follow their own gut instincts. Obama did that repeatedly. While not meaning to equate the two, that much, they appear to have in common, and the same could be said of any number of previous US presidents.
….Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality. Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration. No more John Kerry & Obama!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2019
In the cases of Iran, North Korea, China, the Trump Doctrine might be characterized as a combination of engagement, bluster, willpower, negotiation skills, and brinksmanship. In each case, Trump has been willing to toss out the old playbook and implement a completely new strategy. The result, in each case, has been a partial success, even as the final outcome remains unknown. Trump’s critics will probably never acknowledge that there has been some benefit to his tactics, but in fact, there has. Kim Jong-Un is in a holding pattern, Xi has been backed into a corner on the bilateral trade issue, and Iran is in a very difficult economic situation. While Trump’s tactics remain highly objectionable to a broad range of actors in America and abroad, he is, in fact, getting plenty of things done.
The world has come to expect that America will remain perfectly content to continue to play by the set of international rules and bodies it was instrumental in creating. It has not been accustomed to thinking of America as a change agent. That is where Trump has excelled. The truth is that the international order has been ripe for fundamental change, whether vis-a-vis the manner in which the global legal regime operates, the UN and multilateral development banks function, or emerging and developing countries participate in global affairs. Rather than waiting for the rest of the world to decide if, when, or how disruption may occur, Trump has attempted to take the reins, with some success in each case.
If, in the case of Iran, Trump were to have chosen to go through the standard diplomatic protocol to gain European acceptance to agree to scrap and modify the Iran agreement, he would still be waiting, for the Europeans who had no intention of doing so. Part of his doctrine is to call a spade a spade and move on. America’s allies may not like Trump’s predilection toward unilateralism and strong-arm tactics, but, just as he noted during his presidential campaign that America does not have time for political correctness, given all the various problems that plague the US and the world, similarly, there is little time for diplomatic protocol. There are too many pressing challenges in the international arena, with too many potentially serious consequences, to await consensus on all of them.
America’s perpetual trade deficit with China, Beijing’s state-driven theft of intellectual property, and its incessant cyber intrusions against the US government and its businesses are additional examples of why the Trump doctrine was called for. China has not responded particularly well to previous US administrations’ requests to modify its behavior on any of these subjects. Trump was right to suggest that he does not blame China for doing what it is doing, but rather successive US administrations who have allowed this to happen. There was little alternative but to do what Trump has done if he was serious about doing something about it.
There will continue to be shrieks of outrage about what Trump has done and will continue to do in the foreign policy arena, from among its allies and its enemies alike, but this is not a popularity contest. The stakes are simply too high to worry about offending various states’ sensibilities. A country can either lead or be led. America is in the habit of leading, although not in a Trumpian manner. The only other country that is leading the world on a global scale is, of course, China, and it, too, is doing so on its own terms (and has done so for many years). One can certainly legitimately criticize how Trump is doing what he is doing, but it is more difficult to challenge why he is doing it.
History may not be kind to Mr. Trump’s demeanor, brashness, and tactics, but historians may ultimately find that his boldness was not only warranted at this juncture in history, but welcome, given China’s rise, Iran’s proximity to becoming a nuclear power, and North Korea’s troubling nature. We are living in an era where the intersection of populism and nationalism continues to produce national leaders who care less for protocol and more about getting things done. Trump excels at promoting disruption on a grand scale. There will continue to be plenty of obstacles that lay in the path of achieving his objectives, but chances are better than even that progress will be made, no matter how many feathers he may ruffle in the process.
A version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post.