A very wise and kind friend of mine recently challenged me to write a blog post that was no more than 400 words—less than a tenth of my usual length. So I am tackling that challenge this week, and look, I’ve already wasted 51 words just telling you about it.
That short version of this essay can be found here. For those eager for the usual Russian novel-style treatment, read on….
THE TEMPER TANTRUM THAT SHOOK THE WORLD
As usual, this week offered any number of Trumpian horrors to behold, but the one that was surely most consequential was the Very Stable Genius’s moronic decision to pull out of the JCPOA.
There’s no need for me to rehash the particulars, as they have been thoroughly covered, and by more expert analysts than me. What I would like to do instead is pull back a bit and take a broader look at the nightmarish majesty of what we have just witnessed, and the hostage situation in which the United States finds itself in terms of our commander-in-chief.
I have already written at length on the foolishness of thinking we can bully—or worse, physically force—aspiring nuclear powers into abandoning their quest for the Bomb. (See “An End to Nuclear Fairytales.”) When it comes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, I can’t say it any better than Suzanne Maloney (Deputy Director of Foreign Policy and Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy, Energy Security and Climate Initiative), writing for the Brookings Institution:
The premeditated American dismantling of an agreement that was the product of more than a decade of intense diplomacy and economic pressure marks a staggeringly counterproductive step. That it was undertaken over the vocal objections of Washington’s closest allies and without a clear strategy of mitigating the newly heightened risks of Iranian proliferation and conventional retaliation represents an abdication of American leadership on the international stage that is unparalleled in recent history.
Such is the consensus not just of diplomats and policy wonks like John Kerry and Susan Rice and Wendy Sherman, and respected non-proliferation organizations like the Nuclear Threat Initiative, but hardnosed military and intelligence professionals like John Brennan and General (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, who are hardly doves by anyone’s measure. Even those—like McCaffrey—who are critical of the specifics of the deal itself believe that for the US to withdraw now would be a colossal strategic mistake.
So we can have an informed debate about the JCPOA. We can talk about how pulling out of it will actually hasten, not hinder, Iran’s capability to acquire nuclear weapons. We can point out how it drives a wedge between us and our allies, destroys American credibility, diminishes American influence, and heightens the risk of war. We can argue over Iran’s ballistic missile program or its sponsorship of Hezbollah or the war in Syria, even though the plan deliberately didn’t address those issues. (It was hard enough to find a workable agreement on nukes, let alone a Persian Gulf panacea.)
So yes, we can have a substantive debate over the merits of the JCPOA.
But the decision to pull out of the deal was not driven by a substantive debate.
It was driven by the juvenile impulses of a willfully ignorant, wildly unqualified fourth-rate game show host…..a pathological liar with borderline dementia and a set of values and temperament that could not be more ill-suited to the presidency if they had been deliberately designed that way…..a vindictive, petty manchild who is by all accounts consumed with rage 24/7 and on a permanent hair trigger to lash out at anyone who displeases him (Gold Star parents, civil rights icons, war heroes, the Pope) and anxious to behave like a human wrecking ball just for the sheer nihilistic pleasure of breaking shit.
It was driven by an irrational, all-consuming hatred and envy of Barack Obama, and a damn-the-torpedoes desire to undo anything and everything he did simply because he did it. (See also Trump’s efforts to undo the TPP, the Paris climate accord, and Obamacare—the last of which at least failed.)
It was driven by a man who surely hasn’t read the agreement and doesn’t begin to understand even its broad strokes let alone its minute details. Remember Trump’s comment (made to AIPAC, not coincidentally) that “I’ve studied this issue in great detail—I would say actually greater by far than anybody else.” Even the audience at AIPAC guffawed. It’s beyond laughable in a man who is well known to lack both the literacy and attention span to read even a one-page briefing paper. But it’s also tragic. It’s a kind of sixth grade boyish boastfulness that suggests that the boaster is terrifyingly detached from reality in thinking that anyone would ever believe that (Donny: please at least learn to lie better), but even more terrifying because millions of Trump-loving Americans do believe it.
That we as a people saw fit to make this man our leader (to the extent that we did, notwithstanding Russian troll farms and the anti-democratic mechanism of the Electoral College) will never cease to amaze me. It will be left to future historians to parse how that came to be, and whatever you might think of Hillary Clinton or the extent of Trump’s mysterious fealty to the Kremlin, there is no version in which the American people come off looking good.
And now, with his petulant withdrawal from this landmark deal with Iran, we are seeing yet another result of that epically terrible decision—arguably the most destructive one so far. When I see headlines like “Trump Weighs Whether to Pull US Out of Iran Accord,” I sometime have a bolt-from-the blue hallucinatory moment in which I have to slap myself and reckon with the fact that that is not a joke on “The Simpsons” or something out of a “Twilight Zone” reboot, but actual reality. (Or is it? “There is no spoon.”)
In what sick joke of a world is DONALD J. TRUMP entrusted with a decision like that?
I am well aware that with this essay I am fully engaging in what my friend Matt Bardin calls “DTBM journalism”—that is, reportage that boils down to nothing more than a primal scream of “Donald Trump Bad Man.”
Fair enough; I’ll cop to that. But every once in a while it’s cathartic and necessary. (And by “every once in a while,” I mean once a week.)
In case it’s not clear, I do not like Donald Trump. I do not like him, Sam I am.
It was the columnist Michelle Goldberg (then writing for Slate, now with the New York Times) who introduced me to the term “kakistorcracy:” government by the very worst. Until recently, it was a word not necessary in the lexicon of most American citizens. We are now seeing it in all its appalling glory.
On the campaign trail Trump promised that he would hire “the best people.” (He also promised Mexico would pay for the wall, everyone would have fantastic health insurance, and that he would release his tax returns when the magic pixies were done with the mythical audit.) Of course, as it turned out, the political hires working in the Trump administration—I’m not talking about the permanent, professional bureaucratic staff—are arguably the worst, most incompetent, venal, corrupt, and morally bankrupt people ever gathered in one administration. Should we be surprised? With hindsight, it’s obvious that only those people would be attracted to work for Trump. And the latest revelations about Michael Cohen—the week’s other big story—suggest that the depths of the corruption go even deeper than we have yet discovered. Like, Marianas Trench-deep.
In less than eighteen months, the parade of Trump appointees and hires who have been forced out in disgrace is comically long (maybe not so comically), to include his Secretary of State, two National Security Advisors, a Chief of Staff (with another on deck), a senior strategist, and countless lower ranking staffers.
Of those who remain, it’s a pretty serious horserace over who is the most despicable member of Team Trump. (I’m exempting the boss himself, in the interest of a fair fight.) I have a special vomit reflex for Stephen Miller, but that is based on a rather singular objection: his odious, smirking sonderkommando-like nativism. When it comes to sheer, old school Spiro Agnew-style graft, I think Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, Wilbur Ross, Mick Mulvaney, and Steve Mnuchin are in a pretty tight five-way race. (Not to take away from their terribleness of Betsy DeVos, but her incompetence seems to dwarf her greed. She was already an heiress so maybe that frees her up to concentrate on substituting communion wafers for textbooks.)
And daily we see just how much damage a kakistocracy like this can inflict, with the JCPOA debacle being merely the latest and worst example.
Hillary-haters who during the campaign bleated that “both choices are equally bad,” please take note.
The day after the 2016 election, David Remnick published a piece in The New Yorker titled “An American Tragedy.” I was very struck by that. I totally agreed, of course. But I also found it startling that a major American periodical of the stature of The New Yorker would take such an unapologetically partisan stance, and within hours of the winner being declared no less. I could not have imagined a similar headline after a victory by Jeb or Rubio or even Cruz. Even if one had legitimate problems with those very flawed candidates, they would never have prompted such an immediate and sweeping denunciation. Even a reprehensible weasel like Cruz was still more or less within the realm of political normalcy.
But Trump is well outside it. And his presidency has been precisely as we imagined it would be.
Speaking recently on Alec Baldwin’s podcast “Here’s the Thing,” Jeffrey Toobin opined that, far from “pivoting” to become presidential (as we were repeatedly assured he would do, any minute now, going back to 2015) Trump has proven to be just as bad a president as his harshest critics predicted. (I would say even worse, in some respects.)
Since taking office in January 2017—after giving that appallingly small and mean-spirited speech in front of an appropriately paltry crowd that he insisted was the largest gathering in human history—Trump has succeeded in wreaking untold havoc on this country and the world. Some of that harm is abstract and long term, such as the damage to American credibility and influence in the wider world. Some of it is immediate and very personal, such as the suffering inflicted on innocent people by his immigration policies, his indefensible Dickensian slashing of relief programs aimed at feeding hungry children, or his poisoning of our communal air and water and the wanton rape of our land.
But it is his actions in the realm of nuclear proliferation and global security policy that have the most potential for sheer destruction…to include possibility of ending life on this planet as we know it.
We gave that power to the guy who hosted “Celebrity Apprentice,” ran the Ponzi scheme that was Trump University, sold mail order steaks, and owned the New Jersey Generals.
Is America great again yet?
INTO THE WEEDS, FOR A MOMENT
When it comes to foreign policy, Trump is no doubt flush with what he prematurely sees as his epoch-shattering “triumph “in North Korea. As many have written—me among them—it’s a bit to early for the White House to be booking his flight to Oslo. (See “Only Nixon Could Go to China….But Nixon Was, Like, Smart.”) But there can be little question that the DPRK situation emboldened him on Iran—as if he needed emboldening.
The two are certainly connected, but not in the way he imagines. How Trump thinks that reneging on a landmark non-proliferation deal with one country is going to help him negotiate an even more complicated one with another is beyond me. On the contrary, it is sure to have quite the opposite effect. As John Cassidy of The New Yorker wrote, Trump has in essence told Tehran: “Finish up your nukes, and then I’ll sit down and talk with you.”
The fact that the JCPOA was a “deal” was always a danger area, given that Trump prides himself on his dealmaking perhaps above all else. It’s a cruel joke of course. As a president, he’s proven to be perhaps the worst and most ineffective negotiator ever to occupy the Oval Office….unable even to get his party’s signature goal of the past decade done—the repeal of Obamacare—despite controlling the White House and both houses of Congress. (As a sidenote, I think the best solution there would have simply been to rename the ACA “Trumpcare” without changing even a comma, thus ensuring that Trump would immediately embrace it.)
In his business career, his allegedly “legendary” dealmaking acumen consisted only of stiffing partners, employees, vendors, contractors, and anyone else foolish enough to get in bed with him. That’s not “the art of the deal”—it’s the art of the con.
So in approaching the JCPOA Trump was sure to fan out his tailfeathers in an effort to show that is the cock of the walk. (Well, he’s half right.) Suzanne Maloney again:
For Trump, the decision is all ego; dismembering the Iran deal satisfies a multiplicity of petty personal interests—in undoing his predecessor’s legacy, making good on his own campaign promises, and stroking his inflated sense of his own negotiating prowess as manifestly superior to Obama, who he charged with conceding “maximum leverage” in exchange for a “giant fiction.”
What kind of “better deal” does Trump think he’s going to extract from Tehran? Presumably, he thinks he’s going to wave the flag of American military might, threaten “fire and fury,” and the Iranians will give away the store. Again, it is a measure of his willful dementia. We have even less military leverage in the Persian Gulf than we do on the Korean peninsula, and we are certainly not going to get a broader deal that also addresses Iran’s ballistic missiles and international adventurism in addition to its nuclear ambitions in exchange for less than we are offering in the JCPOA.
The Iran deal has legitimate flaws—most deals of this complexity and stakes do—but they can be addressed. Instead Trump has gone full on baby with-the-bathwater. And he not only threw the baby out, he threw it out into a molten pool of lava full of lava-resistant sharks with laser beams on their heads.
The truth is that those flaws have been wildly overstated by the hysterical right wing in this country, with its usual combination of self-deluding jingoism twinned with disinformation cynically deployed for partisan purposes. The great military affairs website War on the Rocks offered one of the most thorough and clear-eyed views of just what we are stupidly giving up. Aaron Stein of WOTR and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East writes:
The Islamic Republic of Iran made a political decision to forego work on nuclear weapons and agreed to extraordinary and unprecedented inspections to verify the non-diversion of fissile material for military use. In return, the United States eased sanctions on Iran and recognized its right to enrichment, but within the strict and verifiable limits the JCPOA imposes for 25 years on the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle. This simple concession allowed the United States to realize its national security interests, without the use of force, and with the consent of its allies and major competitors alike. And it did so in a way that achieved its main objective: placing verifiable restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Or, at least until shortly before 2 pm yesterday.
The United States, not Iran, is now in breach of the JCPOA. We have ceded the moral high ground and made the medieval mullahs of Tehran the good guys in the eyes of the world. They will now be justified in breaking the agreement and pursuing the Bomb, and in refusing outside weapons inspectors access to their facilities. That in turn may precipitate military conflict (which, of course, is precisely what John Bolton and his ilk want, and for which they will blame Tehran even though we’re the ones who didn’t keep our word.) We have also further alienated ourselves from our allies and partners, who were already rightly skittish about the reliability of the United States, and who—sorry to tell you, isolationists—actually are important. Iran has signaled that it might stay in the pact even as the US has withdrawn, which would allow it to trade with Europe, Russia, and China, and isolate the US and neuter the power of American sanctions in which Bolton and his ilk put so much stock…..but really only as a prelude to actual war.
The reckless nihilism behind Trump’s decision is almost unfathomable, as are the lies in which he couched it….again, a thin veneer over his true motive. As the Los Angeles Times editorialized:
But as alarming as the action itself was the deceitful and demagogic speech in which he attempted to justify it. It was virtually indistinguishable from the sort of rant Trump delivered on the campaign trail—utterly uninformed by the sort of appreciation for complexity that experience confers on most occupants of the Oval Office. And much as we would like to think the president was motivated by a belief, however wrongheaded, that tearing up this agreement would lead to a better one, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that he was more influenced by a compulsion to besmirch the legacy of his predecessor.
TRUST BUT VERIFY (AS SOMEONE ONCE SAID)
The crux of the hawks’ argument for pulling out of the JCPOA is that it doesn’t permanently prevent Iran from ever getting the Bomb. (What would, by the by, short of the right wing fantasy of making Iran a de facto American colony, as it once was?) With great rending of garments and gnashing of teeth they howl that Iran might still get the Bomb in fifteen or twenty years. But ironically, pulling out means Iran is more likely to get the Bomb right now.
Chief among the problems of breaking the agreement is that it removes the very mechanism that gives us the best insurance against Iranian nuclear ambitions: inspections and monitoring. I know that the denizens of Fox Nation like to act as if this is fairy dust naiveté, but in so doing they only betray their ignorance.
I refer you to a memoir titled The Bomb in My Garden by the Iraqi nuclear scientist Dr. Mahdi Obeidi and the American journalist Kurt Pitzer, which thoroughly details Iraq’s quest for the Bomb. Specifically, it addresses Iraq’s clandestine effort to enrich uranium to weapons grade, a program overseen by Dr. Obeidi using precisely the same centrifuge technology that Iran is now using. Obeidi describes in great detail how IAEA and UN weapons inspectors—much-derided by neo-cons and other hawks—actually had a crushing effect on Iraq’s ability restart its nuclear weapons program after the 1991 war. In fact, as a result of that inspection regimen, Saddam was never able to restart that program: the great lie at the heart of Bush’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Former UN weapons inspector David Albright—who assisted Pitzer in brokering Dr. Obeidi’s nailbiting escape from Iraq—called Iraq’s covert enrichment program the most sophisticated he had ever seen. Yet under the scrutiny of the weapons inspectors, even that could not carry on as it had before March 1991.
In fact, there is some reason to believe that some of Obeidi’s underlings—forced to flee Iraq because of the US invasion in 2003—sought refuge and employment in Iran, and are now working in their former foe’s nuclear weapons program…..another example of how hamhanded US military interventionism hastened the exact outcome it promised to forestall.
BOMB BOMB BOMB BOMB BOMB IRAN
To the extent that the hawks have a coherent position on Iran beyond the Strangeloveian fantasy that we can bomb it into submission, theirs was naturally the one that had the greatest appeal to Spanky, as he is congenitally attracted to the most idiotically macho, simplistic, arrogant stance on any given topic. Was there ever any chance that he was going to lean toward the more informed, nuanced, thoughtful approach, one that took into account realistic assessments of US ability to project power and influence international events, the complexities of internal Iranian politics, and the long term implications of our actions in a region as complicated as the Persian Gulf?
There was not even a million-to-one, Jim Carrey-style “you’re telling me there’s a chance” chance of that.
The notion that the Saudis are our great ally in confronting Tehran is another terrible hoax. Lest we forget, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is from whence fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers sprang: a deeply fundamentalist Islamic country openly hostile to modernism and Western democracy that incubates some of the worst anti-American insurgency around the world. Yes, Iran sponsors terrorism and makes trouble in the region, but so do our alleged friends in the House of Saud. We are their suckers in dismantling the JCPOA, largely to help them gain advantage over their greatest regional rival, a form of brinksmanship that serves them much more than us.
The hawkish Israeli government, too, has very very partisan reasons for trying to undermine the JCPOA, even though one could credibly argue that those reasons are wildly misguided and actually counterproductive to Israel’s security, just as they are to American security. But Bibi is very adept at manipulating the Donald, in case you didn’t get that from the PowerPoint presentation he transparently gave for Trump’s benefit last week.
Tel Aviv of course already has the Bomb and Riyadh would like an excuse to get one too. We are now a giant step closer to that possibility. As Roger Cohen writes in the Times:
Nothing in Trump’s speech was more scurrilous than this very Orwellian inversion of the truth: “If I allowed this deal to stand, there would soon be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Everyone would want their weapons ready by the time Iran had theirs.” In fact, Trump has single-handedly fast-forwarded that race by removing the constraints the deal imposed on Iran.
The hardliners in both Saudi and Israel would love to draw the US into a war with Iran; . indeed, Iran and Israel are already at war, and even as I write this are exchanging rocket fire and airstrikes in Syria and the Golan Heights. Such a thing might be appealing to Trump too, wag the dog-wise, as a welcome distraction from the domestic scandals engulfing him and the ever-tightening vise of the Mueller probe.
I know that people like Bret Stephens and John Bolton—neither of whom, ahem, ever spent a day in uniform fighting for this country—think it would actually be a great idea to go to war in Iran, that it’s preferable to diplomacy and an agreement with which Iran was complying, and that was keeping it from getting a nuclear weapon. (If it ain’t broke, by all means, fire a Tomahawk missile at it.)
But the complaints of these armchair field marshals ring hollow, and their ostensible solutions—which boil down to overthrowing the Iranian regime, either covertly or via invasion—ought to send a chill down the spine of every American. With the quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan not even in our rear view mirror but still ongoing, are we really so stupid as to buy that same old argument that the best path forward for us is to launch another hard-slogging ground war in the Middle East, because, hey, it worked so well in last time. What could go wrong?
Then again, just six years after the denouement of Watergate the American people saw fit to put another hardline Republican—one of Nixon’s staunchest defenders—in the White House. So America’s collective memory, and wisdom, are very much in question.
ATOMKRIEG? NEIN, DANKE
Which brings us back to the stupidity of our fearless leader, and our stupidity in putting him in power.
Suzanne Maloney once again:
Notably, (the abrogation of the JCPOA) was precipitated by a president who could not even respond to a single, simple question, shouted by a reporter as Trump signed the order to re-impose sanctions with a flourish of his pen, about how his decision might make the country safer. That is the only question that matters: How is America safer now that the United States is unraveling its end of a bargain that curbed Iran’s nuclear activities?
Gee, who could have foreseen that putting a demented, boastfully uninformed, narcissistic cretin in charge of US nuclear policy would take us down this deadly road?