I hope the relevance of this more than two-year-old video is clear enough a day or two after President Trump threatened nuclear war against North Korea and went ballistic over the comments of a former White House adviser whom he fired. We needn’t mention his constant threats against the media, Hillary Clinton and her staff, and the Justice Department, the FBI, and even his own Attorney General. The man loses his cool faster, less appropriately, and more publicly than any president I can recall (that’s back to Truman).
Does it matter? I am told that President Obama, smooth and calm to a fault in public, in fact lost his temper and frothed at aides in private. I witnessed Vice President George H. W. Bush lose his temper over trivia on a visit to Brasilia, while I was waiting to brief him on the far more important issue of Brazil’s nuclear program. Nixon was acerbic, anti-Semitic, and vengeful in private and not much better in public. Truman wrote a scathing letter to a critic who savaged his daughter’s singing. I’m pretty sure Bill Clinton and George W. had their moments too.
Trump is different. He is angry much of the time and likes the effect his volatility has on others, so he flaunts it. He figures it helps him get his way. He thinks his berating of Iran for its crackdown on demonstrations will help the protesters. He has attributed North Korea’s willingness to talk with South Korea to his angry outbursts against Kim Jong-un. He imagines his criticism of China for failing to do more to restrain Kim will get Beijing to do more.
This tactical use of anger may work with Trump’s underlings, but it won’t with his international peers. “Insane,” the word foreigners are using to describe the President, is not a compliment in diplomacy. Nor does it necessarily mean he is crazy. What it is meant to convey is that he is not logical, rational, or reliable. His conclusions don’t follow from the premises, he reacts emotionally, and what he will do is unpredictable. On top of that, he is vain, conceited, and egotistical. He treasures compliments, overestimates his own influence, and resents slights.
One day Trump calls Pakistan his good friend, a few weeks later he is proposing to cut off hundreds of millions in assistance to Islamabad. Never mind that the US needs Pakistan’s cooperation to supply American forces in Afghanistan. He avoids any greater involvement in Syria than Obama but one day decides to react to Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons with a massive cruise missile attack. Months later the chemical weapons are still being used without any US response. Where are all those critics who though Obama did not follow through sufficiently?
Trump may well stumble into war. Bullies have an inclination to escalate. But he has done zilch to prepare the United States for war with North Korea or Iran: no PR or Congressional campaign, no removal of US civilians from harm’s way, no argument in the National Security Strategy for the use of force, no nothing really. If he were to initiate hostilities with Iran or North Korea, I imagine he would have a hard time with both the public and the Congress, which simply are not ready for it, and of course much of the country would see the move as an effort to distract from the Russia investigation.
That of course is well understood in Tehran, Pyongyang, Beijing, and elsewhere. Trump’s intemperate threats are by now so empty of serious content that no one takes him seriously. He has few friends around the world. With the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s allies wouldn’t support a military move against either Iran or North Korea at this point. Neither the ayatollahs nor Kim Jong-un seem much concerned, though both enjoy using a hostile Trump to encourage anti-American patriotism. China is meanwhile enjoying the fruits of Trump’s mistakes: the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his quiescence in the South China Sea.
Temperament matters. Like his America, this President’s is not great.
Ed Joseph, having asked some questions Tuesday, answers today:
So now the true cause of the Iran protests emerges: an unprecedented release, possibly by President Rouhani himself and possibly due to new regulations, of secret parts of the Iranian budget revealing expenditures for pet hard-line projects like the country’s religious institutes. This much more plausibly explains the intense anger of the protesters than vague, ‘disappointed expectations.’ Here’s how one protester recorded his reaction to the budget: “It made me angry,” said Mehdi, 33, from Izeh, a town in Iran’s poor Khuzestan Province, who asked that his family name not be used out of fear of retaliation. “There were all these religious organs that received high budgets, while we struggle with constant unemployment.”
Unfortunately for Rouhani, public anger appears equally distributed at him and the hard-liners. A popular chant making the rounds is, ‘Reformers, Hardliners, the game is now over!’ So, even if the protests eventually fizzle out, some damage is likely permanent: the end of the dominant paradigm of an Iran caught in a struggle between ‘reformers’ (Rouhani, Zarif and their associates) and ‘hardliners’ (Khamenei, the religious establishment, the IRGC and their associates and henchmen.) It certainly appears as if Iranians from across the country, even from rural areas thought to be bastions of support for the regime, discern little difference between the two erstwhile factions — indeed, see them as co-conspirators in a corrupt governing enterprise that impoverishes the people.
This means that it’s now Rouhani’s moment of truth: either stand up and distinguish himself from the hardliners, or die a death of irrelevance. Yes, Rouhani would risk the wrath of those hard-liners, but now is the time to incur that risk, gambling that he can get the public on his side at this dramatic moment.
Here’s an imperfect historical precedent. In 1968, widespread student protests rocked Communist, dictatorial Yugoslavia. The usual police response failed to subdue the protesters. Tito, rather than intensify the crack down on the students, watched for a bit and then sided with them. “The students are right,” he famously said. This took the wind out of the protests. Some time later, Tito jailed the instigators or otherwise banned them from the Communist party, a course of action that Rouhani need not follow. True, Tito was ‘supreme leader’ and Rouhani is not. But given the stakes for Rouhani — and for his country — perhaps this could be inspiration. What does he have to lose except his tattered reputation?
If Rouhani fails to find his patriotic mettle, then what replaces our guiding paradigm for understanding Iran? After all, it was the hope for evolutionary change guided by reformers like Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif that undergirds the ten-year time limitation on enrichment technology development in the Iran nuclear deal. The idea was that the lifting of sanctions and improvement of the economy under the deal would create space for Rouhani, Zarif and others to wean Iran away from isolation and regional destablization, and ultimately, from the need to pursue nuclear weapons. Up to now, the need to ‘support the reformers’ has restrained US policy on Iran.
This month is the deadline for Congress to act on President Trump’s October decision not to certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA) How will the protests influence how Republicans approach the issue? Predictably, Trump and Pence are already seizing the opportunity to impugn the Obama Administration, which stayed quiet, out of caution, during the widespread 2009 protests. Will Republicans take their anti-Obama obsession to the next level, and imperil the JCPOA itself? Another question is how the protests will color the views of Democrats and Europeans who don’t want to kill the nuclear deal, but now have a weaker basis to sustain belief in it. Without the Rouhani moderate vs. Khamenei paradigm, the core arguments left are tactical and tentative: ‘if we kill the deal, then we make the protests about us’ and ‘the deal still beats the alternative.’ That could embolden the JCPOA’s opponents and wreck Rouhani’s most important achievement.