The Iran Deal: But Trump Really Means It

By | May 10, 2018 | 2 Comments



Trump 45


Colt .45

Donald J. Trump is our 45th President. But have you noticed the resemblance between him and the Colt .45 pistol, also known as the Government Model? They are both prototypically American, old-fashioned, noisy, rough around the edges, intimidating, the cause of strong positive and negative emotions, heavy to carry, attention getting, dangerous to enemies, protective to friends, called upon only in emergencies – and most of all, impossible to ignore when speaking.

During the election campaign, Trump promised to push through a tax cut that would stimulate the economy. He did, and it did. He predicted that unemployment rates, especially for minorities, would fall to record lows. They did. He promised to strengthen our military and secure our borders. He is in the process of doing both. He promised to destroy ISIS, not merely “degrade” it as Obama had promised. Trump did that, too.

And he promised to scrap the Iran deal, which he said gave Iran $140 billion, in return for which Iran agreed to a flawed and inadequate inspection program that would not assure it had ceased to develop nuclear weapons. He just did. Many were surprised, assuming he meant this threat as a bargaining tool to induce the Iranians to modify the agreement and allow more adequate inspections.

But Trump really meant it.

President Obama said some of the things that now cause consternation when President Trump says them. Why the different reaction? On the key questions, they both agreed that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. They both agreed that ISIS must be stopped. They both agreed that potential terrorists must not be allowed to enter the country.

But one thing Obama said that Trump would never say: Obama claimed he would “lead from behind.” Trump would greet that oxymoron with the disbelief and derision it deserves.

A clue may be found in Obama’s “red line” – that if Syrian dictator Assad used chemical weapons, it would not be tolerated. Assad did just that. Yet the “red line” was drawn in disappearing ink. Obama did nothing, thus announcing to friend and foe alike that his threats were empty. Obama should have studied the presidency of Harry Truman.

Vice President Truman became president when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, near the end of World War II. Roosevelt was an impossible act to follow. Roosevelt was eloquent and charismatic, while Truman was plain-spoken. But then 1948 came, and Truman had to run for election on his own.

At this critical time, Southern Senators Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell left the Democratic Party, angry with Truman because of his push for civil rights. They took many segregationist Southerners with them, reducing Truman’s chances for election. A reporter asked Thurmond why he objected so strongly now, despite the fact that he had supported Roosevelt, whose civil-rights position was quite similar to Truman’s. The reply was revealing:

But Truman really means it. Strom Thurmond, 1948

The eloquent Roosevelt talked a good game when it came to civil rights, but blunt-spoken Truman meant what he said. In the end, Truman won the election regardless, and went on to desegregate the armed services ‒ and in general accelerate the civil-rights movement.

But the lesson goes deeper. People may tolerate opinions with which they disagree, so long as they believe that the one expressing those opinions doesn’t really mean what he says. But if he speaks frankly and intends to carry out his program, then the trouble starts.

In 1998, President Clinton declared that regime change in Iraq was necessary, because Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who had produced and used poison gas, had produced biological weapons, and had attempted to produce nuclear weapons. The call for regime change in Iraq passed the Senate unanimously, and passed the House 360-38. It was supported by leading Democrats and was signed by Clinton. The noble-sounding title was the “Iraq Liberation Act.” Yet nothing happened, and no one was liberated. To call Clinton’s words baloney would be an insult to baloney ‒ it may be unhealthful, but it actually exists.

But then came 9/11 and our war to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2002, President Bush went to Congress for approval to use military force to overthrow Saddam’s brutal regime. Majorities of both parties voted approval, including leading Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid.

But as the war dragged on, many Democrats turned against the war and condemned President Bush in the harshest terms. So what explains this stark difference? Clinton said the same things regarding Iraq that Bush said. But Bush really meant it.

In part, this is just politics. Politicians love to posture. Like actors, their success depends in good measure in how well they pretend to be doing something. In many cases, they can get away with the pretense, and never accomplish what they claimed to favor. Like skillful poker players, they sometimes can win by bluffing.

But what happens when another player “calls”? Then they have to put up or shut up. It can be embarrassing to reveal that you bet on a hand containing no good cards. Even worse, if you become known as a bluffer, it makes it harder to get away with bluffing in the future. Being revealed as a bluffer isn’t good for your political career. In the case of a leader, it isn’t good for your country, either. Remember the “red line”? You can bet that our enemies remember it well.

Those who were surprised when Trump scrapped the Iran deal should not have been. If they had been listening carefully when Trump spoke during the election campaign, they would have noticed that he used exaggeration and hyperbole for less important details. They would have understood that he used them against his political opponents, but not regarding foreign leaders who were potential enemies.

Truman grew up in a humble home in Missouri. Trump grew up in affluence in New York City. Truman never went to college, our last President who did not have this advantage. Trump graduated from Wharton School of Business. Truman spoke in a measured, almost clipped, manner. Trump speaks grandly and expansively. Truman’s gestures were cramped and unnatural. Trump’s gestures are broad and instinctive.

But in one crucial detail they are the same: Trump really means what he says. And both friends and enemies will do well to understand this.

In his speech announcing America’s withdrawal from the flawed Iran agreement, President Trump declared, “The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them.” The Colt .45 was the old Government Model. Trump 45 is the new one. But you can see the similarities.


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