Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Meaning of Withdrawal
The Meaning of Withdrawal

The Meaning of Withdrawal

The deed has been done to the deal: on Tuesday, as by now everyone above the age of about six knows, President Trump withdrew United States from the so-called Iran deal—formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Before and especially since then, enough electronic ink has been spilled in efforts either to explain or to spin what has happened to fill a virtual ocean basin. The riptides are treacherous; none but the intrepid should dare to enter. I, however, am intrepid, and with any luck at all, so are you, dear reader.

Let’s dive right in, first by posing the seven key questions:

  • Was the decision a mistake, or not?
  • What broader context do we need to understand and parse the commentary thus far on the decision?
  • Mistake or not, does it mean that the United States is on the road to war with Iran, a war that almost certainly would drag in other parties (Israel, Lebanon courtesy of Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia most likely, the United Arab Emirates by extension, maybe Bahrain by extended extension, and so on)?
  • Does it represent a new breach too far to repair with America’s closest European allies?
  • Does it complicate the effort to drive a nuclear deal with North Korea, as the elite media and associated chatterati assume?
  • Does it suggest or imply that the Trump Administration now actually has an Iran policy, and perhaps even a broader policy for the region?
  • What does the decision tell us about the Administration’s broader strategy compass and likely future trajectory, not just in foreign and national security policy but also for domestic U.S. politics?

Now let’s turn to answers. Novices in these treacherous swells, bring your inflatable water-wings. You might need them.

Mistake, or Not?

 If one thinks that the deal, whatever its several birth defects, was working to limit and slow the danger of an Iranian nuclear breakout, then leaving the deal is a mistake unless one has in mind some better way of limiting that danger. And it had better be a lot better, because the diplomatic costs of the decision are real: the main two being the dissing of America’s best European allies—with whom we still have much important business to conduct in tandem that we cannot achieve unilaterally, not least with regard to Russia—and undermining the U.S. government’s reputation for consistency and predictability worldwide.

Well, which is it? If the Trump Administration has a better way in mind to limit the dangers posed by an Iranian nuclear breakout, what might they be? There are only two generic possibilities.

The first is the use of force, at one level or another, to seriously degrade if not entirely destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure—if not also to try to destroy the regime. If one thinks that the use of force is inevitable on account of the short fuses built into the deal, a reasonable case can be made that doing it sooner is better than doing it later, especially if you don’t trust your successors to bite the bullet and do what is required.[1] As Lord Vansittart said, “it is usually sound to do at once what you have to do ultimately.”[2]

The counter to this advice is some form of Micawberism: waiting, hoping against hope, for “something to turn up” that will enable one to wriggle out of doing what one really doesn’t want to do. That was essentially the Obama Administration’s choice: the regime would moderate; or by showing that the United States did not seek regime change, the mullahs would decide to forgo the expense and danger of building a nuclear arsenal; or something else useful would happen. To its considerable credit, however, the Obama Administration recognized the dilemma for what it was, and did not make the disastrous analytical error, popular in some circles, of simply assuming that an Iranian breakout would be no big deal since deterrence would inevitably and unerringly work despite circumstances and a context vastly different from that of Cold War U.S.-Soviet deterrence.[3]

Not all forms of Micawberism are illusory—it depends on the case to hand. Sometimes something does turn up: The Royal Navy was in the fight of its life in late July 1588 when a huge storm swamped the Spanish Armada. Besides, it was not irresponsible to resist unleashing another spasm of American violence in the heart of the Middle East at a time when we were still engaged in two other shooting wars, and when the political carrying capacity for a third was decidedly low—certainly in the President’s own party but broadly in the nation as well. A can-kicking exercise can become quite appealing under such circumstances.

The second generic possibility is the re-establishment of the sanctions regime and its further tightening, putatively to be used to renegotiate the deal to get a better outcome. This idea, whose origin rests in arguments used to oppose the deal in 2015, is either naïve or disingenuous. It took a long time and a lot of effort over more than one administration to strengthen the sanctions regime to the point that, combined with the generic incompetence of the Iranian regime’s economic management techniques, it inflicted real pain. Having just dissed our own partners in that effort, it is highly unlikely that the Trump Administration can resurrect a similarly draconian sanctions regime—unless of course the Iranians in due course engage in behavior roughly as chest-bumping as that of the Trump Administration. That’s possible, but unlikely anytime soon.

The notion that a more painful sanctions regime could be used after the fact to renegotiate a better deal depends on the premise that the Iranian regime would agree to do something that runs hard against the grain of its own interests. The deal as signed was strategically ambiguous, and had to be to be concluded. For both sides it constituted to some extent a wager against an indeterminate future. Under such circumstances, neither side gets a do-over. To insist on one exemplifies bad faith, and to succumb to such an insistence amounts to humiliation under duress. That sort of thing doesn’t happen except under very extreme circumstances—so extreme that if it takes an American knife to the Iranian throat to get them to agree, one can take it for granted that the terms of such a forced agreement will not be honored, and so one might as well just slide the knife downward and have done with it.

In sum, whether the decision to withdraw was a mistake or not isn’t as simple a question to answer as many commentators seem to think. And that is precisely because the situation created by the Iran deal, in all its necessary ambiguity, has not surprisingly been a mixed one.

On the one hand, the deal has slowed Iranian momentum toward a nuclear breakout, even if it has not stopped a range of critical ancillary activities other than those represented by spinning centrifuges. But on the other the deal essentially codified and in effect blessed Iran’s status as an incipient nuclear power, and represented a major concession from earlier U.S. insistence that the weapons program be abandoned in total as opposed to partially and temporarily frozen.

Also on the one hand, the deal has not moderated Iran’s regional and wider international behavior, as the Obama Administration promised, albeit with a wink and a nod and a false demurral, would occur. The sequestered Iranian assets thawed by the deal have mostly been used for military and proxy expeditionary support in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere—in every case directed against the interests of the United States and an assortment of allies and partners in the Middle East. On the second other hand, however, that very fact has stimulated a good deal of popular ill will toward the regime, and has contributed to an increasingly fissiparous optic between the Rouhani government on the one side and the Supreme Leader/IRGC phalanx on the other—as illustrated in recent days by Rouhani’s extraordinary public statement about the government’s opposition to the latter’s banning of the “Telegram” app.

Where this spinning wheel will stop no one knows. That’s why, as noted above, the best way to characterize the deal from the perspective of the protagonists is as a wager against the future. If the deal ends up teasing the clerical leadership and its domestic allies into a level of overreach that eventually tanks the regime, and if it is ultimately replaced by a more normal, post-revolutionary regime, that will be an excellent outcome from the U.S. perspective. In turn, it would make what happened on Tuesday seem in retrospect to have been of minor importance, except if it could be demonstrated that U.S. withdrawal from the deal accelerated a wave of fatal Iranian hubris. That is obviously a very different outcome from the existing regime becoming more moderate; but it is an outcome that will have required, at least for its first few acts, a good cop/bad cop tandem that neither the Obama Administration nor the Trump Administration could either imagine or admit.

But we don’t know if this will happen, and even if it does we don’t know when—before or after a disastrous catalytic regional war occurs. I would have advised against withdrawal, because the prospect of war—especially a wider catalytic war in the region—bears too many imponderable dangers to risk. It would have been wiser to insist not on a renegotiated deal but on a follow-on agreement, and that demand our allies would have readily supported.

That said, it’s too soon to know with any assurance whether the withdrawal was a mistake or not. It too, like the deal itself, represents a wager against the future. All consequential decisions in foreign and national security do.

Parsing the Commentary

The U.S. debate over the Iran deal was one of the most profoundly dishonest debates in our history. It illustrated the politicized rancor that characterizes American politics writ large these days, and demonstrated the truth of the verity, usually attributed to the late Christopher Hitchens, that partisanship makes people stupid. And the stupidity, let loose to roam the nation at large, produces a level of general understanding about complex issues roughly analogous to a coconut’s grasp of differential calculus. The Iran deal debate was no exception.

The Obama White House line was that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” What it really believed is that almost any deal was better than no deal, because the only responsible alternative to a deal—with the Iranians racing pell-mell toward breakout—was to resort once again to force. It also dissembled about what kind of war it wanted to avoid by suggesting that a war with Iran would be another Iraq-scale ground war, complete with calamitous occupation. No serious person, anywhere, imagined a military campaign against Iran looking like that. Yes, they spun and spun well beyond the threshold of lying, as Ben Rhodes’s infamous interview with David Samuels revealed.[4]

Equally disingenuous was most of the opposition to the deal. A few opponents came clean and confessed that they preferred a military campaign to a deal—and in doing so they expressed the secret hopes of the Sunni Arab state elites and of many Israelis as well. But most insisted that there was some third way—a better deal backed by the aforementioned hyper-charged, new and improved, sanctions regime. Few of the people who made that case actually believed it, but it seemed politically useful to make it anyway in opposition to those who were making equally but politically opposite dubious claims. Don’t forget: Most of these folks, on both sides, were trained as lawyers, and so felt a lot more comfortable than they should have declaiming about things they knew to be eyewash.

Now, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s withdrawal, we are witness to the second coming of all this hogwash, repurposed for a different political context. When supporters of the deal tell you it was the best thing since sliced bread, and that, for example, the verification safeguards of the deal are airtight, don’t believe them. As to the latter, if you actually read the JCPOA you’ll see that on-demand IAEA inspections are limited to certain kinds of sites and, more important, require the unanimous consent of the P5+1 to go forward. That group includes Russia, which would act as Iran’s lawyer now as it once did for Saddam Hussein in Iraq under roughly similar circumstances—all on behalf of frustrating U.S. policy. Who believes that under current political circumstances the Russian government would help facilitate on-demand spot IAEA inspections of Iranian facilities? If that’s you, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

When supporters of withdrawal tell you that the decision does not make war more likely, and that they really just want to get a better deal via a strengthened sanctions regime, don’t believe that either. I wish I had another bridge to sell.

Does Withdrawal Mean War with Iran?

It might, but war is not inevitable.

It might because the Iranians might react to petulance with petulance. They might elect to restart their program and dare us to do something about it. You don’t need a crystal ball to see where that kind of dynamic might lead.

But the Iranians may choose another tack. They might decide to play aggrieved party, milking the U.S. withdrawal for all the sympathy it can haul. And the world being the way it is, and Trump being the way he is, that’s several supertankers’ worth of sympathy.

More specifically, the Iranians might stay within the constraints of the deal because the other members of the P5+1—Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany—have not withdrawn. Remember that the Iran deal is not a treaty, or even an executive agreement between the sides. It is an odd duck, though not a unique one. It is, in essence, what its name suggests it is: a joint declaration. In other words, one side says we will do X, Y, and Z at the same time that the other side says it will do A, B, and C. The deal would obviously break down entirely if the Iranian side withdrew, but not just because the P5+1 becomes the P4+1.

Now, in Europe the P5+1 is often called the E3+3. Do the Europeans do this just to be cute? Not exactly. The P5 are the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and that mattered when these negotiations got going because the demands arrayed against Iran were couched in the language of several fairly useful UNSC resolutions. But Germany is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council: It’s the +1. For manifest political reasons having to do with the vicissitudes of the European Union, the Europeans prefer to see themselves as working in unison: hence E3 and, by default, +3—now +2.

If this seems silly, the political meaning of it isn’t silly at all. The E3 are hoping that, together, they have enough leverage to keep the Iranians from acting out of the deal. The Iranians know that, and so they expect to be offered something for letting the E3 succeed in their aspiration, temporarily at least. What might the coin of that offer look like? 

It could be economic, and the JCPOA specifies some carrots for the Iranians that could bear elaboration. But it could also transcend the four corners of the JCPOA document to include certain European dispositions toward Syria, or Yemen, or Bahrain, or Qatar, or the Palestinians and Israelis. Use your imagination, and remember: EU policies toward various Middle Eastern actors and contingencies have been shown over the years to be remarkably flexible, much more flexible in many regards than a succession of U.S. administrations have thought helpful or wise.

Note finally on this point that the Iranians and the Russians are in cahoots with each other in Syria, and the Russians can be counted on to encourage the Iranians to harvest European largesse, because that largesse doubles as an enormous wedge to drive between the United States and its key European NATO allies. The Russian leadership loves such wedges. If you like a metaphor, think lettuce wedges…..with Russian dressing.

In sum, the slough to war can be avoided through the shifting of the U.S.-European-Iranian triangle in such a way that the American withdrawal appears as an act of self-exclusion; or, put a bit differently, as “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[5] But the price of American self-exclusion is not trivial: the ceding of leverage and influence with respect to U.S. interests and allies in the Middle East. The Europeans play the couriers as they flee, having been pushed after all, from us; the Russians are the recipients.

A Transatlantic Breach Too Far?

It could be, at least for a while.

There is a history here. First came the U.S. withdrawal from the TTP, but with implications for the T-TIP; then came the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; along the way was the Brussels Summit at which President Trump refused to explicitly endorse Article V of the NATO Treaty; then the “easy to win a trade war” remark and the tariffs—and now this.

But not just this: Mark the way of this. Emmanuel Macron comes to the United States, and we all know his view of the Iran deal. He puts it to Trump; Trump smiles and is cordial. Angela Merkel follows, with the same view. Trump harrumphs, and she goes home. And then Trump ignores them both, doing it even sooner than the May 12 deadline requires, so that no one can miss the intended humiliation. It’s reminiscent of how Trump handled Mitt Romney before the inauguration, dangling the State Department job before this prominent member of the establishment, the Republican Party establishment at that, before humiliating him as well.

The press in the United States and in Europe is now referring to this as a “snub.” It goes much deeper than that. It is personal, because Trump makes everything personal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump really does ultimately support Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, and the likes of Nigel Farage in Britain. How comfortable AfD types would have felt in Charlottesville this past summer, among what Trump called some “fine people.” Just as the vast majority of what seems to be foreign policy in the Trump Administration is just signaling for domestic political purposes in Trump’s quest to realign American politics, so his manipulations of NATO-European leaders seems tailored to encourage certain political outcomes in those countries. (So Teresa May was smart not to come to Washington in recent weeks.) To the extent there is a “nationalist internationale” reminiscent of its 1930s’ fascist forerunner, Trump seems to be aware of and subtly supportive of it.

Absent an in-your-face threat to a NATO member—and perhaps even then—ever fewer European believe the U.S. government would come to that member’s assistance, or would try to rally the alliance as a whole to do so. Alliances thrive on the predictability inherent in trust. Where there is no trust, there can be no predictability, and where there is no predictability there is no deterrence. And right now there is little trust, perhaps even none at all, across the pond. Another conventionalized speech like the one the President gave in Warsaw this past July, and even another act of symbolic solidarity in expelling some Russian diplomats, can’t fix this now. We are below and beyond that.

Of course, there have been rough spots in the Transatlantic relationship before—many of them, in fact. But in Cold War times the specter of Soviet power and pretension worked as a great salve to heal all wounds. That specter is no more; Russia today is a pale shadow of that specter in west European eyes. Russia, they think, is “new” Europe’s problem, which “new” European governments anyway exaggerate. “New” European elites resent the cavalier attitude of their wealthier EU associates toward what they consider existential security concerns. And they worry that in due course Germany, its Russlandverstehers in the lead, will create Rapallo 2.0 at their expense.

But this has nothing to do with Iran, right? Not right. Just as the E3 fleeing Washington on account of differences over the Iran deal provides a wedge for the Russian leadership to harm the Transatlantic connection, so that wedge deepens divisions within the EU. The Polish, Czech, and Hungarian governments never had any access into the P5+1 negotiations, yet the deterioration of the P5 into the P4 materially harms the two institutional arrangements on which these newly independent countries depend most: NATO and the EU. All the more so, just by the way, for the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian governments.

And if that were not enough, on the other geographic flank of the alliance, the Turkish government is now far more beholden to the Russians than to us. That is largely owed to a combination of Turkish mistakes and bad luck going back several years now, but Russian skill and American errors have helped shape the current situation as well.

Dean Acheson once said, at least on this occasion not meaning to be witty, that “things are not always as they seem, but sometimes they are.” Well, if NATO seems to be bleeding in the gutter right now, that’s because it is. Now, some will immediately object that if you look not at “high politics” but at budgets and improvements “on the ground” things look vastly better than they have in years. There’s a fair bit more money flowing to necessary tasks, even in Europe for a change. That’s both true and irrelevant. At staff levels things are indeed improved and improving. NATO careerists on both sides of the ocean are happy, and methodically dismiss brow-furrowed diagnoses of trouble. But capabilities don’t mean much if there is no political will to use them.

What our smiling colleagues seem to miss is that the United States has two policies toward Russia: one, the government’s policy, toward that country, and a second generally contradictory policy, Trump’s policy, toward its leader. (Vignette interlude: Imagine Admiral Mike Rogers, the recently retired Director of NSA, showing the President in the Oval Office unredacted sigint intelligence proving Russian government interference in the November 2016 presidential election, and the President looking back at Admiral Rogers and saying simply, “Well, I have a different view.”) Same for NATO-Europe: The U.S. government has one set of policies toward our allies, and the President has a different and often contradictory policy toward their leaders. Secretary of Defense Mattis is clearly on record as advising against withdrawal from the Iran deal; but the President did it anyway.

It is hard to blame anyone, say at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany, for not fully taking in this strangeness, because it is indeed very strange. It is an affront to experience and logic alike. But should push come to shove, which policy will prevail? Short of something like a military coup, the President’s will.

And a Prospective Nuclear Deal with North Korea?

The bumper sticker visible on the media and think-tank street is that if the U.S. government walks away from a pledge made by a previous Administration, then the future credibility of all Executive Branch international commitments will be degraded accordingly. This is true in general terms, but specific negotiations are not conducted in general terms. Just because a president, any president, thinks an element of the U.S. security architecture is not in the national interest doesn’t mean that all aspects of that architecture are called into question. During the Bush 43 Administration the U.S. government withdrew from the ABM Treaty. I had hoped that withdrawal would have taken place much earlier, for circumstances and technology had changed dramatically since the thing was signed in 1972. By the time we withdrew, it hardly made any difference: the Cold War was over, the strategic nuclear competition had thus been rendered vastly less salient, and so the practical outcome of the withdrawal was very minor.

The point is that agreements are kept or not kept because they serve the interests of the signatories. So if—and this is highly speculative, of course—the U.S. and North Korean governments manage to reach an agreement that both sides believe to be in their interests, the staying power of the agreement will hinge on those paired beliefs. It will not hinge on the terms of other agreements, whether still in force or not. And if some day one side or the other changes its mind about the ongoing utility of a U.S.-North Korean agreement, as happened with the Iran agreement (for good reasons or not isn’t the point here), then the agreement is liable to lapse.

That is just the nature of international agreements among sovereign states. Agreements entered into freely—in the context of perceptions of relative power and leverage outside the negotiating room, which are always present to shape negotiating outcomes—are just that. And just as governments enter such arrangements freely, they can withdraw from them the same way simply by paying some (small or not-so-small) reputational price for doing so. That’s different from situations, as mooted above, in which one side signs a piece of paper at the point of a bayonet, in which case coercion rather than free will seals the deal. Again, such arrangements will be subverted at first opportunity by the coerced party, and so really are not worth much qua agreement.

No one today imagines a U.S.-North Korea agreement being signed under extreme coercion, nearly amounting to a situation of unconditional surrender. So if a deal delivers something that both sides value, it will stick. There is no such thing as a reputational virus that floats through the air, necessarily contaminating one negotiating experience with another.

Such a deal is theoretically possible—basically, a nuclear stand-down from North Korea in return for diplomatic normalization and a formal pledge of no regime change from us—but whether it will actually come about is impossible to say. I doubt that President Trump fully grasps the relentlessly complex geopolitics of East Asia, or cares to grasp them. He is, in my view, capable of getting fleeced in a negotiation so long as he thinks he can present the outcome as a “win” as seen through the prism of U.S. domestic politics. If that happens, we can perhaps look forward to a Democratic president one day disowning a Korea deal.

So Is There Now an Iran Policy?

I doubt it, but it depends on what we mean by “policy.” Sometimes policy means an integrated, well-thought out plan that matches objectives to means, or at least tries to. Sometimes policy is used to mean a more general set of orientations to specific problems, but that does not necessarily include a lot of dot connecting from problem to problem within regions, let along among them. And sometimes policy refers only to certain instincts or intuitions, often not explicitly articulated, that may or may not congeal into something more over time if a President has to revisit the same problems area repeatedly during his tenure.

The latter describes fairly well the Obama Administration’s adventure in Syria policy. That policy area was in due course connected to a larger picture, one defined by the tantalizing payoff of a diplomatic breakthrough over Iran afforded by a nuclear deal. The gist was: make a deal with Iran, bring it in from the cold as Nixon brought in China, and create a new regional balance of power that would allow the United States to reduce its presence in a part of the world in which it was “over-invested.” If the Saudis et al. didn’t like it, too bad. But a policy in the first sense—a truly integrated policy on a regional level, let alone on a fully global level—the Obama Administration, in my view, did not attain. Not “doing stupid shit” does not require that kind of effort. Both its admirers and detractors exaggerated the Administration’s policy sophistication the better to support or criticize it.  

And so what of the Trump Administration? Well, if one goes back and rehearses the logic already laid out here, one could conclude that the Trump Administration does indeed have an Iran policy: in simple form, it would be that Iran is an implacable and dangerous adversary that needs to be thwacked good and hard. In that scenario, the withdrawal from the deal expects to catalyze a sequence of events that gives the Administration an opportunity to attack Iran, and at the same time to roll back its forward positions in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Like the idea or not, there is a logic to it. If it exists—and the replacement of Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, and of H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, can and has been read as the building of a “war cabinet” in preparation for a fight—it is a policy at least as coherent as the Obama policy toward Iran.

But I doubt it exists. If there were such a policy—I mean a real policy, not a Pinocchio policy—then how to explain Trump’s manifest urge to get the United States entirely withdrawn from Syria, an act that would constitute an unalloyed gift to the mullahs? Yes, he walked that back after someone explained to him the implications, but there’s no mistaking his basic isolationist/unilateralist instincts here. Just as he disdains in his personal life being bound to any inconvenient rules or norms, so he yearns to break U.S. policy free of constraints and obligations in general. His policies are projections of his personality in a purer form than any President heretofore.

Until there is evidence of more coherence and integration on the policy level, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal strikes me as yet another example of his affinity for one-off in-your-face displays of petulance. He likes to flip off buttoned-down types. It draws attention, and if Donald Trump knows how to do anything really well, that’s it. He probably has no idea what comes next, and no idea of how to get an idea about it. That’s one reason why war is both entirely possible but not inevitable for already being intended or planned. Vansittart again, this time speaking about Kaiser Wilhelm, but eerily applicable to Donald Trump: “The Kaiser . . . may not have liked war, though he liked doing everything that led to it.”[6]

And What Next?

Everything has a context, without which nothing is fully intelligible. And that certainly goes for the decision to withdraw from the Iran deal. So what is the context that matters?

As noted, we live in a highly partisan, and hence publicly very stupid, environment right now. It makes having serious and honest conversations about consequential decisions much more difficult, and the fact that the American political class has let the formidable powers of deep literacy slip away with its general abeyance of sustaining reading habits doesn’t help. 

But it also doesn’t help to exaggerate, at least to exaggerate the wrong things. There have been plenty of over-the-top episodes in American politics and in our foreign policy debates over the years. The imperialist jingoism of the 1890s counts; the ravings of Father Coughlin and the America First movement of the 1930s do, too; the McCarthy witch hunts of the early Cold War era also come to mind, as does the staged moral panic of the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s. There have always been fringe, populist-tinged undercurrents in American politics, but because foreign and national security policy has been mainly an insulated domain of elites, the weirdness has never been decisive or even influential, except rarely.

The difference between then and now is that now the fringe is in power in the White House, and that has led to a mass breakdown in process—one suspects deliberately—which always affects policy outcomes in one way or another. The personnel volatility of the Administration thus far may reflect not so much an inexperienced President who doesn’t know what his in-box looks like, but a President who is determined to master the political stage by undermining even the institutional apparatus that was created and exists to serve his office.

President Trump is engaged in a political insurgency designed, in effect, to bring about global regime change, despite the fact that the regime he wants to change is one of mainly American design, construction, and maintenance. His war plan has two fronts: the attack on the so-called administrative and “deep” state domestically; and the attack on the institutional framework of the so-called liberal international order.[7] So Trump may not have policies as they are conventionally understood, but he may well have a strategy of statecraft, however idiosyncratic and illiberal it may be, that combines domestic and foreign aspects into a whole. He may not know or much care what withdrawing the United States from the Iran deal will lead to in the Middle East, but he does seem to know at least in broad outline what the skein of that and related decisions, taken together, are leading to.

When a few months ago White House aide and speechwriter Stephen Miller called Trump “a political genius,” most of us scoffed. But then most of us have thought for the better part of a year that Trump, defined as the sum of his many deficiencies, would yield to more experienced management, and that therefore the arc of policy would regress to the mean. That has not happened, and the decision to leave the Iran deal sharply punctuates the point. Its larger meaning for the future may therefore inhere in that broader context.

[1] This is not a mere decorative remark. Menahem Begin ordered the June 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in part because an election was near, and he feared that, if he lost, his Labor Party replacement would not be willing to do what he believed was a necessary deed.

[2] Robert S. Vansittart, The Mist Procession (London: Hutchinson, 1958), p. 50.

[3] For years I and others tried to debunk this widespread and dangerous foolishness; see, for example, my “Culture and Deterrence,” Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Note, August 25, 2006.

[4] David Samuels, “How Ben Rhodes rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age,” The New York Times, May 5, 2016.

[5] For those who might need to buy a vowel here, it’s Macbeth, Act V, Scene V.

[6] Mist Procession, p. 151.

[7] To understand why I say “so-called,” please see my “Parsing the Liberal International Order,” The American Interest Online, October 27, 2017.