This weekend’s attacks on Saudi oil production were a warning sign that the always-dangerous Persian Gulf is sliding toward a set of dangers that Donald Trump is entirely unequipped to handle. The drone attacks that knocked 5 percent of global oil production offline illustrate both the emerging texture of modern warfare and the externalities that test every American president.
Worst of all for both American and global security, the attack exposes Trump’s shit-tier leadership for what it has always been: weak, strategically unmoored, and capricious.
Donald Trump’s dick-swinging tough-guy act has always had a demonstrable falsity to it, a gimcrack exterior of bluster and martial swagger that sells only to his credulous base of reality-TV-addicted cultists. International crises are measured in the most stark and painful terms; in blood and treasure. There’s no next-day Kellyanne Conway spin or safe-space-crying pillow on Fox & Friends when the stakes are global stability and order—particularly when the dancers at this hoedown will soon have nukes and human lives are at stake.
Trump’s Oval Office statement Monday was his typical word salad, including this gem, “The United States is the most prepared in the history of—in any history” and “We’re very high on ammunition right now…” He said he doesn’t want a war with Iran, but that’s not how these things work.
Wars don’t always come from a plan, a moment, and an intention. Sometimes they come from those Guns of August moments where the machines go into motion based on accidents or opportunities. Monday’s talk was a window into what could go wrong, regardless of what he wants; into Trump’s disordered thinking and ignorance of the military capabilities of the United States, and his lack of a strategic objective beyond his usual goal of winning the news cycle.
The members of the international fraternity of bad-boy authoritarians, despots, religious extremists, and kleptocratic strongmen long ago learned to spot a bluffer, and they know Trump is nothing more.
What do the mullahs in Tehran see when they ponder Donald Trump as a strategic adversary? How do they read the weekend’s tweets and today’s discursive presser?
First, and I would argue most importantly, Iran sees an American defense and intelligence apparatus run by toadies and temporary/acting/provisional/until-the-next-tweet nonentities whose tenures depend not on strategic insight or depth of knowledge, but on their ability to abase themselves before the Dear Leader. They know Trump distrusts and dislikes American intelligence agencies, and they’ll play that to the hilt. They know he’s vastly more likely to believe a Fox News segment than the CIA.
They see an American president with an insatiable ego who laps up even the most crudely obvious blandishments from the other members of the world’s club of bad actors and shits on longtime allies. If you think they haven’t noticed how Trump gushes over Kim Jong Un, no matter how many times the wee dictator of the DPRK be-clowns and humiliates him, you’re watching too much OANN.
The degree to which Kim’s “beautiful letters” leave Trump misty-eyed and sporting a mild erection must make the Iranian theocracy and IRGC hardliners laugh their asses off.
I’m waiting for Iran to copy Kim’s playbook: “Well, I was worried about Iran until Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sent me the most beautiful letter telling me I am the tallest, smartest, most handsome, and well-hung president in history. So the nukes are OK. We have a good relationship.”
Iran sees an American president who has overtly chosen to relinquish America’s role in global leadership at every turn. The Iranians clearly translated “America First” as its isolationist architects meant it: America Alone. They’re salivating at the prospect of Pax Americana ending at the edge of U.S. territorial waters.
They see a man whose faculties, to put it mildly, are waning and inconsistent. Like the rest of the world, they see a president who governs by pique and paranoia, a human comments-section from a conspiracy website holding the highest office in the land.
They see a president who cowers like a whipped cur when Vladimir Putin even glances toward him.
They see a man so egregiously corrupt they’re probably considering buying Mar-A-Lago memberships just to troll him. “The Islamic Republic of Iran swears eternal enmity and fiery death to the dogs and servants of the Great Satan, but this omelet bar is magnificent.”
They see how Team Trump botched an easy layup regime change in Venezuela, so their fear of Trump pulling one off in hard-target Iran is low on their list of fears.
They see a man who promised an easy-to-win trade war being overmatched by China and willing to crater his own economy based on a quite obviously fallacious belief in his own skill as a negotiator. The terms of the now-shredded JCPOA will be tough to renegotiate, and without a powerful and respected American president to help assemble a global coalition, the Iranians lack either fear or motivation to give much ground.
Finally, they see a president in the pocket of their mortal enemies in the region. Jared bestie and Saudi rising star Mohammed bin Salman are now apparently in the constitutional chain of command, based on Trump’s Sunday tweet:
Having butted up against every American presidential administration since Carter, Iran is not inexperienced in the kind of political and intelligence warfare even a competent and determined American president would need to face in a competition like this. As our long, long engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven, asymmetric warfare is tough on modern-era great powers. Iran is deeply skilled at the art, and in using terror, third-party actors and transitory alliances to offset the power deployed against it by the West.
The JCPOA Iran nuclear deal had its flaws, but one thing it did accomplish was to push back the risks of kinetic conflict in the Gulf. The U.S. withdrawal from the agreement and the subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign was a perverse incentive of the highest order: Iran sees the withdrawal as a chance to exercise its power for disruptive, asymmetric warfare in the region. If the withdrawal didn’t give the Iranians a reason, it at least gave them an excuse.
Like so many degenerate gamblers before him, Trump decided he could bluff his way past the canny and determined adversary.
The world economy will pay a brutal price if the Greatest Negotiator In History™ bumbles into a shooting war in the Gulf. The costs to American influence and power are incalculable. The human cost could be nightmarish.
Given his failure in every other international contest to date, expect a lot of sleepless nights ahead in the Persian Gulf, and around the world.