On October 6, 1980 Donald Trump was interviewed by Rona Barrett, one of America’s most famous gossip columnists, on NBC. It was several weeks before Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the presidential election and near the end of the Iran hostage crisis in which the Iranian regime took 52 American diplomats and citizens prisoner after the embassy was stormed and then held them for 444 days.
It was a long and meandering interview about Trump’s story to date (he was then 34). About half way though, Barrett asked Trump if he could make America perfect how would he do it. Trump replied that America “should really be a country that gets the respect of other countries.” The exchange continued:
Donald Trump: ….The Iranian situation is a case in point. That they hold our hostages is just absolutely, and totally ridiculous. That this country sits back and allows a country such as Iran to hold our hostages, to my way of thinking, is a horror, and I don’t think they’d do it with other countries. I honestly don’t think they’d do it with other countries.
Rona Barrett: Obviously you’re advocating that we should have gone in there with troops, et cetera, and brought our boys out like Vietnam.
Donald Trump: I absolutely feel that, yes. I don’t think there’s any question, and there is no question in my mind. I think right now we’d be an oil-rich nation, and I believe that we should have done it, and I’m very disappointed that we didn’t do it, and I don’t think anybody would have held us in abeyance.
As historians Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman have observed, this interview is the first known comment by Trump on U.S. foreign policy.
Fast forward to January 4, 2020, a day after the U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani. Trump tweeted:
….targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2020
One of the puzzles about Trump’s strike on Soleimani is why he did it and what he will do next. His administration has pursued a very hawkish policy on Iran beginning with the travel ban, tough new sanctions, walking away from the Iran nuclear deal, and ratcheting up pressure in the year that followed. But, in recent months Trump tacked in a different direction. He did not fire back after the September attacks on Saudi oil facilities. He has professed not to care about the Middle East beyond the oil and ISIS. He seems to want to avoid war, particularly in an election year. And, he was desperate for talks with the Iranian leadership, going so far as to try to surprise the Iranians by dialing into a meeting between President Rouhani and President Macron on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
The historical record offers an answer. The Iranian revolution, which led to the hostage crisis and an energy crisis, was one of Trump’s formative experiences in thinking about America’s role in the world. In the years that followed, he became obsessed with the symbolism of respect (and the acquisition of oil). He was furious that allies did not pay fealty to the United States. He was outraged when foreign leaders did not meet the American president at their plane. The only time he became frustrated with Vladimir Putin in office was when he looked as if he was disrespecting Trump’s military strength — such as when Russian planes buzzed America’s ships or when the Russians produced a map showing Mar-a-Lago within range of their nuclear weapons. Trump does not hate Iran per se — his desire for talks is evidence of that — but he does have an obsession with avoiding a humiliation. For Trump, the embassy protests looked like a mash-up of 1979 with Benghazi — the ultimate challenge to his own perception of himself as a strongman.
There are contradictory reports of the decisionmaking process around the Soleimani strike. Some reports say that the Pentagon added the option as a throw-away to make the other option seem more reasonable. A report in the Washington Post says Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper had been trying to get Trump to sign on for some time. The Post report may be an attempt by Pompeo and Esper to claim credit and defuse charges of incompetence, but in any event, a consistent element of all reports is that Trump did not sign on to the strike until after the Iranian backed protests outside the embassy.
Trump often lashes out at people after he thinks they criticized him, even if a fight does not serve his interests — think about his attack on the parents of the fallen U.S. soldier Humayun Khan or his cruel comment about Debbie Dingel. He has the same reaction to actions that undermine his own image of America as a strong and unrivaled nation while he is at the helm. He would almost certainly not have responded the same way if Iran had continued to hit U.S. allies or to make strategic gains in Iraq.
The killing of Soleimani is a strategic error. It provides short-term gratification upon the demise of a man responsible for the deaths of many Americans, but it damages U.S. interests in the region and beyond. However, many of the downsides mean very little to Trump. He does not care that Iraq might kick U.S. troops out as long as they pay him back for the base. Likewise for Iran abrogating elements of the nuclear deal. He does not mind that this undermines the protest movement in Iraq or in Iran. He cannot envisage the return of ISIS. He couldn’t care less that that the Saudis now feel in imminent danger and want a de-escalation. As for international law and creating a precedent for targeted killings of government officials, forget it.
And yet, having killed the second most important person in Iran, Trump now finds himself in a bind. If Iran reacts by attacking Americans, Trump will feel compelled to respond, but that runs the risk of the wider war that he wants to avoid. So he is trying to put the genie back in the bottle by threatening fire and fury if Iran retaliates, just as he is bombastic domestically when in a tight spot. It is unlikely to succeed and, paradoxically, makes all-out war with Iran more likely. In the Barrett interview, Trump spoke about “a sparkle of war” in the Middle East. The phrase is an apt one to sum up Trump’s approach to foreign policy — he likes the sparkle and hopes others will be scared into submission. But bluster does not always work.
All-out war between the United States and Iran is unlikely, primarily because it would not serve Iran’s interests. Iran may bide its time, target U.S. allies instead of Americans, or press the United States in other ways (such as by forcing it out of Iraq). If it does directly attack Americans, Trump might try to wriggle off the hook he has hoisted himself upon.
However, it’s easy to imagine how the situation could easily spiral into a war. There is little doubt that Trump is uniquely ill-suited to be a commander-in-chief during war time. He has no attention span, does not process information normally, is particularly prone to bad advice, and is deeply insecure. He has one of the weakest and least experienced national security teams since the United States became a global power. He will be fighting this war without many allies. Even the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was careful to distance himself from Trump’s drone strike. Given his demonstrated proclivity for war crimes, if he were to decisively win the war, he would very likely do so in a way that would leave a permanent stain on the nation’s honor.
Trump’s Iran crisis fits perfectly within his narrative arc. His administration has had three identifiable phases. The first was the age of constraint, as the so-called Axis of Adults shaped and limited Trump’s options. The second was the age of hubris as Trump got rid of anyone who stood up to him so he could act as he wished — this came in two variants, maximum pressure and deal-making. The third is the reckoning as Trump is forced to face the consequences and contradictions of his own actions. There have been inklings of this third phase for some time. It has now well and truly arrived.