No president has lived up to the Project Solarium standard, but U.S. President Donald Trump has set a new one on the opposite side of the scale. The current White House runs a foreign policy with irreconcilable objectives, no internal coherence, and no pretense of gaming out critical decisions before they are taken. Maximalist objectives are set with little thought to what might be required to achieve them. When the real world intrudes, with adversaries, competitors, or allies pursuing their own objectives independent from the United States’, Trump lurches from doubling down on risky bets to quitting the field altogether, as happened recently in Syria, leaving friends bewildered.
Nowhere is this incoherence more apparent than in policy toward Iran. On December 18, 2017, Trump signed his National Security Strategy, followed one month later by the National Defense Strategy. These documents set priorities among competing interests and direct U.S. departments and agencies to follow suit. Those the Trump administration issued emphasized a new “great-power competition” against Russia and China—with Asia now the priority region for U.S. engagement.
Those of us working on the Middle East following the adoption of Trump’s new National Security Strategy understood that we should not expect significant new resources, even for the military campaign against ISIS. In fact, resources would be cut. In early 2018, Trump eliminated long-planned stabilization funding for Syria, allocated military resources only where strictly necessary for defeating ISIS, and declared, “It’s time to come back home.”
And yet, despite these resource constraints and a supposed grand strategic shift toward Asia, the Trump administration expanded American aims across the Middle East—focusing above all on Iran. The administration stipulated that all Iranians must leave Syria, even as Trump himself made clear that he wanted to see all Americans leave Syria. Within months of endorsing the National Security Strategy, Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal, increased sanctions on Iran, and embarked on a policy of economic strangulation—known as “maximum pressure”—with no objective on which his administration could agree.
Trump said that the objective was to ensure that Iran could never produce a nuclear weapon. His national security adviser at the time said that the objective was regime change. His secretary of state articulated 12 demands—among them, that Iran mothball its nuclear and missile programs, end support for proxy groups, and remove all militias from Iraq and Syria—that few Iran experts believed Tehran could meet absent regime change. In announcing these maximalist goals, moreover, nobody in the administration discussed new resource commitments to the Middle East. To the contrary, the acting Secretary of Defense told the Pentagon that the priority was “China, China, China.” The Iran policy was all ends and no means.
The assumption that drove this resource-free policy was that economic pressure through sanctions would force Iran either to return to the negotiating table on its knees or to collapse altogether. A contrary assumption—that Iran would not return to the table but instead fight back asymmetrically and draw the United States deeper into the region—does not seem to have been seriously considered.
This cycle of actions and reactions has drawn nearly 20,000 additional U.S. military personnel back into the Middle East since May of last year. Washington appears to have narrowly avoided a significant conflict mainly because Iran’s ballistic missiles narrowly missed American service members. Trump implausibly claimed that Iran was “standing down” the morning after it had fired over a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. troops, and despite Tehran’s having promised further reprisals.
Trump himself said he intended to end wars and move forces out of the Middle East region altogether. The unforeseen escalatory cycle is evidence of a policy not working as intended.
As for the aims the secretary of state listed two years ago, the maximum pressure policy is failing to achieve any of them. Iran is now behaving more provocatively, not less.
The policy justifications are increasingly circular: when Iran attacks U.S. interests in the Gulf, American officials claim that this shows “panicked aggression” due to economic pressure. When the attacks pause, American officials claim that they’ve “restored deterrence,” at least until the next attack, requiring further economic pressure and a bolstered U.S. military presence in the region. There seems to be no serious effort, either within the administration or in Congress, to measure the policy against the goals declared from its outset.
More sanctions are unlikely to change Iran’s calculus.
Worse, the maximum pressure campaign allows Tehran to externalize the blame for its dysfunction and to justify further crackdowns on Iranians striving for reform and accountability.
The continued application of maximum pressure absent recalibration in either direction, however, is an insolvent policy. Its unlimited ends misalign to limited means, and initiative rests dangerously in the hands of Tehran, which has a greater interest in its own survival than the United States does in forcing its demise.
This strategic muddle is the focus of discussion in regional capitals, as well as in Moscow and Beijing. Foreign leaders see Washington as pursuing maximalist policies under a minimalist president with no clear, let alone achievable, aims. Their shared assessment is that Iran can continue to harass U.S. friends in the Gulf, intrigue against the U.S. presence in Iraq, and consolidate Assad’s grip on Syria. So long as Tehran does not draw Americans into its fire, Trump will do little. If Americans are drawn into its fire, then risks of a major and uncontrollable conflict are extremely high. All with no serious prospect for diplomacy, which most view as a prerequisite for sustained de-escalation.
Such an assessment has drawn Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates toward Russia and China—and even Iran—as hedges against a careening and uncertain Washington. In this respect, not only is the U.S. pressure campaign against Iran failing to achieve its stated aims but it is also benefiting the two great powers that the National Security Strategy is designed to confront.
The United States has increasingly imposed what are known as “secondary sanctions” on Iran. These constrain U.S. allies, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as their private companies, from engaging in trade with Iran that is otherwise legal. Washington is effectively using its economic might to coerce allies into enabling a policy that those allies believe is self-defeating and unacceptably high-risk. This strong-arming may have lasting consequences for American stewardship of the global economy, which has long been based in part on the assumption that Washington would not weaponize the dollar’s dominance in pursuit of purely unilateral aims. China and Russia are seeking to exploit these concerns by developing trading networks, including with India and Turkey, that avoid the net of American sanctions.
At bottom, Washington’s policy today is defined by incoherence: maximalist ends, minimalist means, false assumptions, few allies, all pressure, no diplomacy. The Middle East in turn is stuck on an escalatory ladder, and Iran’s proxy groups may prove even less predictable with Soleimani dead. By Trump’s new standard, any attack that draws American blood may warrant an enormous retaliatory response. Yet with no diplomacy, plus additional sanctions, the risk that such an incident will occur—and the danger to Americans in the region—has only increased. And so the United States must maintain a significant military force forward and ready in the Middle East, even as its fight against ISIS has stalled and its guiding grand strategy calls for shifting resources out of the region altogether.
The administration lacks a process to resolve these contradictions, but Congress can force them into the open. Even after four decades of hostilities, Congress has never authorized the use of military force against Iran. But Trump’s maximum pressure campaign now requires the continuing threat of such force. With economic tools largely exhausted, Iran promising further reprisals, and no prospects for diplomacy, the United States must retain a significant military force in the Middle East region with a credible threat to use it.
There is no reason to avoid this debate until the next inevitable crisis, or to keep it behind closed doors hidden from the American people. If the Trump administration truly believes that the United States must be in a position to finish a war with Iran, then it should make the case to Congress and seek its authorization. Even the administration would gain by being forced to clarify its objectives, the means for achieving them, and the metrics by which it should be held accountable.
The current crisis in the Middle East should be a moment to demand a return to the most basic principles of sound foreign policy, with clarity in objectives and the alignment of resources necessary for achieving them. Objectives that cannot be met absent unacceptable tradeoffs, costs, or risks should not be pursued.
Source: Trump’s Incoherent Iran Policy Undermines U.S. Priorities Everywhere Else