Trump, Iran, and the Dangers of Presidential Bluffing

Trump, Iran, and the Dangers of Presidential Bluffing

Courtesy : The Atlantic25/07/2018 08:14

URI FRIEDMAN is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers global affairs.


What should we expect to happen next now that Donald Trump, who likes to “capitalize certain words … for emphasis,” sends an all-caps tweet in the middle of the night instructing Iran to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE”?

There’s no way to know for sure, but Trump himself has actually provided a helpful case study. Nearly a year ago, the U.S. president deployed almost identical language against Kim Jong Un. “North Korea,” he warned, “best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

 The world never saw that fire and fury, even though North Korea made more threats and then some: announcing a (never executed) plan to strike the waters off Guam a day after Trump’s statement, testing ever longer-range missiles and its most powerful nuclear weapon yet, and suggesting that it might detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean. Trump drew a red line that, taken literally, was virtually impossible for Kim not to cross; threatening the United States is in the North Korean government’s DNA, just as it’s in the Iranian government’s DNA. And when Kim inevitably stepped over, with neither fire nor fury forthcoming, Trump’s tough talk came across as mere bluster—an indication that this American president said things he didn’t really mean, and at a far higher rate and much louder volume than his predecessors.

The North Korean case cannot predict what will happen in the Iranian case. But in a narrow sense it does prove that Trump is perfectly willing to issue harsh threats without following through. And, given the trajectory of the U.S.-North Korea relationship over the past year, that he’s perfectly willing to change course entirely. A year from now, Trump could be holding a summit with Ayatollah Khamenei, chuckling about that time he threatened him on Twitter with unprecedented destruction. Stranger things have happened in the Trump presidency. Yet there’s also the possibility that the Iranians, believing Trump to be a bluffer, misinterpret which moves will actually prompt a U.S. military response from an American president surrounded by Iran hawks, raising the chances of war. Or perhaps this new round of taunts simply serves to further drain the American presidency of credibility, and the gravity of the consequences won’t be clear for years to come.

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