The Skeptics

Trump Should Shun the Iran Hawks

There is only one path for Donald Trump to have a successful presidency. It is the course of staying true to the principal themes of his campaign and to the interests of the middle- and working-class voters he wrested away from Hillary Clinton. This is not a conventionally Republican path, though it ought to make ample accommodation for the concerns of social conservatives. It is a nationalist path, where he uses the levers of power against the community destroying consequences of global free trade and high rates of immigration. It emphasizes the revitalization of the American economy with an emphasis on infrastructure building and working-class job expansion. A rough blueprint of its contours is found in White House advisor Steve Bannon’s interview with Michael Wolff: “We’re going to build an entirely new political movement. It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. . . . With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. . . . It will be exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution—conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

Reihan Salam, coauthor of the highly touted reform-conservative work Grand New Party, elaborates by arguing that Trump must expand on his campaign’s key early insight, that there was a vast chasm between his voters interests and the GOP donor, media and congressional establishments. A “Trumpist nationalist party” should, according to Salam, work to ameliorate domestic inequality, tighten labor markets, encourage domestic investment, create new pathways to upward mobility for those without college educations, and thus expand the middle class.

Salam is already skeptical that Trump will manage this because of the number of conventional GOP cabinet appointments he has made. But the prospects for a Trump agenda face a greater danger than being swallowed up by conventional Beltway Republicanism. There is one sure way Trump could defeat himself, lose the respect of his working class base, and bring his presidency, and potentially much else, to an ignominious end. That is through the familiar course taken by the last Republican president, George W, Bush, who after 9/11 could rely on a far larger reservoir of voter approval than Donald Trump has ever possessed.             

Trump could foreclose his “economic nationalist” option by allowing the country to slide into an unnecessary war. During the campaign, he showed every indication of being conscious that this was a danger. He disavowed emphatically the Iraq war, in hawkish South Carolina no less, and explicitly disparaged the doctrine of regime change. Trump’s position on Iran and Obama’s Iran deal was comparatively moderate: under Trump, the “stupid” Iran deal would not be, as several of his GOP rivals were promising, “torn up on Day One.” Instead, in what could be interpreted simply as requisite political concession to the GOP voter disdain for all of Obama’s works, it would be “renegotiated.”

This makes it all the more puzzling why he has chosen as a key foreign-policy advisor a figure who seems to have a regime-change war against Iran at the top his agenda. Critical deputy and assistant secretary posts in the State and Defense departments have not been announced, and neither James Mattis nor Rex Tillerson seem eager for a new war. But for his national security advisor, the post previously held by McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Trump has chosen Michael Flynn, a former three-star general and regular Fox News contributor. The selection makes Flynn potentially the first and last person Trump will consult in any foreign-policy crisis. Based on his record and writing, Flynn is every bit as primed for a war to take down Iran as key members of Bush’s foreign-policy team were to start a war with Iraq.

This past year, Flynn published a book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies, that can best be described as fringe. His coauthor was Michael Ledeen, a Karl Rove whisperer after 9/11 and veteran fabricator of neoconservative tales, whose stock in trade during the Bush era was to urge “faster” an attack on Tehran after Baghdad was occupied. In his book, Flynn concludes that the United States is threatened by “an international alliance of evil countries” which “extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.” “Iran” he concludes, “is the linchpin of this alliance, its centerpiece.” The New York Times reported how Flynn, while serving as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, insisted, after the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012, that analysts find a connection to Iran. Analysts could find no evidence of Iran’s hand in the Salafist terrorism. But Flynn’s request mirrored exactly those of Bush era neoconservatives, who, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, demanded that links be found between Saddam Hussein’s regime and a terror strike it had nothing to do with.