For Donald Trump, politics is personal. Hence his G7 invitation to Vladimir Putin; his meeting with Kim Jong Un; even his take on Boris Johnson, which was as follows: “They’re saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump. People are saying that’s a good thing. They like me over there, that’s what they wanted. That’s what they need.”
Which is not to say that he has no consistent policies at all. He does: or rather, perhaps, he has attitudes, prejudices, reflexes. One of these is to keep the United States out of wars abroad, or at least conflicts in which ground troops are committed: America First has succeeded neo-conservatism.
This isn’t to say that Trump won’t take military action abroad – he will. But it tends to be undertaken either through proxies, as against ISIS, or via ordnance: consider his deployment of a Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb in Afghanistan two years ago. Theodore Roosevelt summed up his foreign policy as: “Speak softly but carry a big stick”. Trump’s is: “Do diplomacy via Twitter, and carry the mother of all bombs”.
Iran is being hit hard by sanctions, and will be watching Trump closely. On the one hand, it has seen him tear up Barack Obama’s nuclear deal and turn the sanctions screw. On the other, it will have watched him declare that he has “good feelings” about a possible successor deal of his own, and there has been talk of a Jong-On type summit with Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President. After all, Trump sees himself as master of the Art of the Deal.
Furthermore, he has recently sacked John Bolton, a veteran of the neo-con years, who the President brought back as his National Security Adviser. Trump came to distrust Bolton’s martial approach to Iran (and elsewhere). In June, he backed off an airstrike against Iran as “not proportionate”, having been told that it would leave 150 dead, after declaring that America was “cocked and loaded for action”.
Iran’s asymetric drone attack against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia should be viewed against the context of this background. Power in the country is peculiarly distributed: it is very for outsiders to work out exactly how much power is held by Rouhani; by Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader; by the Majlis, military, clergy or the Revolutionary Guard at any one time.
The consensus at present is that the last is in the driving seat. The attack may have been intended to help head off an American-Iranian rapprochment, complete with Trump-Rouhani summit; or it may actually have been crafted to help achieve the opposite, by reminding America of the consequences of war in the Gulf – including a destabilising rise in the oil price. Or the truth may lie in between; there is no way of knowing.
All we can be sure of is that those sanctions are indeed hurting, that America has been turning the screw, and that Iran is striking out – whether through detaining western citizens or seizing British ships. Trump is stepping back and letting the Saudis decide the scale of response to this latest Iranian ploy, or so it seems.
The President will be damned for whatever he does. If America intervenes directly, he will be denounced as a warmonger; if he makes diplomatic overtures to Tehran, he will be condemned as an appeaser. If he pursues his present course, he will be damned as a hands-off President who is prepared to let the region burn.
You may be alarmed by Trump running foreign policy by Twitter, deplore the frequency of his Apprentice-style firings, and worry about the intertwining of personal and political. But there has been a queer core of prudence, even restraint, in the President’s foreign policy to date. When it comes to his next steps on Iran, almost anything could happen. And whatever it is, it will be infinitely more important than yesterday’s piffling little flurry in Luxembourg.