WASHINGTON — President Trump’s speech on Wednesday about Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes on two U.S. bases could be read in any number of ways. The mainstream papers will run with the raw news it contained: no American or Iraqi casualties from the attack, more economic sanctions on Iran, and that Iran “appears to be standing down.”
But Trump’s 15-minute speech was also a glimpse into the addled mind of a commander-in-chief with no set of guiding principles and no clear idea where he wants to take the country and why. His speech was contradictory and discordant, a mish-mash of chest-beating, dodgy history, Pentagon-humping, and empty calls for peace.
He seemed to crib from that famous Vietnam War-era maxim — we must destroy the village in order to save it — when he brought up Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the nonproliferation deal reached by the Obama administration and the Iranian government in 2015. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, the deal lifted some economic sanctions on Iran if the country agreed to limit its development of nuclear weapons material.
In his speech, Trump savaged the Iran nuclear deal as “very defective” while saying that it
“expires shortly anyway and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” But in the same breath, he called on the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China — all signatories to the deal — work together to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. “They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal,” he said. “We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
Which is, well, exactly what the Iran deal was intended to do — and by many indications, was succeeding at.
Next, Trump touted the $2.5 trillion his administration had spent to rebuild the American military adding, “Our missiles are big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast.” Comments like these should sting the ears of any supporter of Trump’s who took him at his word when, as a candidate, he pledged to spend less, not more, on the military and held up excessive defense spending for political purposes as a prime example of Washington’s swampiness. Now, with an ex-lobbyist for weapons contractor Raytheon as his secretary of defense, Trump is all too eager to pour bottomless sums of money into defense spending and brag about the size of the U.S.’s missiles.
He used his speech to announce additional “punishing” economic sanctions on Iran, but gave no details about what those sanctions would look like. And how many times has Trump rolled out a new policy only for that policy to never see the light of day?
Of course, the speech could have gone much worse. Trump could have indulged his basest impulses and announced new strikes on Iran, or a massive influx of American troops, Iraq war style, leading to all out war. He didn’t do that. He doesn’t deserve credit for not dangerously escalating a conflict he provoked, but it can’t be ignored in his remarks.
If you had to find a through-line in his speech, it might’ve been Trump’s insistence — as he does in any public appearance — of throwing some red meat to his diehard supporters. The bomb-’em-all hawks got their tough talk about eliminating one of the world’s most notorious terrorists in Qasem Soleimani (even though there’s scant evidence that removing Soleimani, whose replacement was named within hours of his death, makes the world a safer place).
The isolationists and America Firsters heard the president crow about why we don’t need Middle East oil because we produce enough more than oil here in the States. And the reflexive Obama haters listened to Trump trash one of the signature policy achievements of the last administration, a deal that many experts believe would’ve made the world a safer place.
From the perspective of Iran, or that of anyone who doesn’t enjoy violent death, it’s all baffling. Trump’s speech called on Iran’s leaders to embrace the international community and collaborate on mutual interests. This is a laudable end goal, and one that Trump can further pursue by not engaging in further violence after Iran’s overnight missile strike. But so many of Trump’s actions — tearing up the nuclear deal, assassinating a top official, perpetual militarism — cleave in the exact opposite direction. If the end result was the stick of sanctions and the carrot of cooperation, couldn’t we have gotten there without first taking two powerful countries to the precipice of an all-out war?
But when ego dictates foreign policy, this is what you get. A president who has no worldview faces no constraints on what he can and can’t say. Except that it’s hard to say that any of us are safer because of it.