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.
Much of the book is folksy first-person recounting of Flynn’s colorful background as a child of a large working-class family, and the valuable lessons he learned. Presumably much of the foreign-policy analysis comes from Ledeen, and indeed some sections on Machiavelli and Hitler and the Kremlin and whatnot are taken verbatim from previous Ledeen blog posts. But it would be obtuse for those hoping for great things from a Trump presidency to not recognize the abysmal intellectual quality of the work, with its vague yet sweeping assertions of how unconnected countries, directed by Iran, are conspiring for America’s destruction. The book contains no sign of any genuine analysis of the capabilities, attitudes, ambitions or core interests of foreign states. In Flynn’s world, a great danger to America comes from leaders like Colin Powell who urge caution about sending American troops to war. To Powell, Flynn retorts, “If we win, our leaders will be hailed.”
To be blunt, Michael Flynn gives no evidence of possessing the analytical level of sophistication the national security advisor post requires; to have him as a principal foreign-policy advisor to the president is like asking an EMS technician to perform open-heart surgery. Flynn has succeeded in playing a foreign-policy analyst on TV, but if the counsel he gives the president reflects his tenure at the DIA or the book he has just published, he will incline to send the United States off on the same self-destructive course that destroyed the Bush presidency. Or worse.
Now that the campaign is over, one would hope that Trump and his team are willing to take a fresh and unvarnished look at the Iran deal, and more broadly at the country that has assumed such exemplary satanic status for Flynn, Ledeen and other neoconservatives. The main points in favor of the Iran deal hardly differ from those made by the Obama administration. The JCPOA essentially pushes the Iranian nuclear-weapons problem down the road for fifteen years, with provisions that severely limit (but do not eliminate) Iran’s nuclear processing capacity, in exchange for a reduction of sanctions that have cut Iran from the world economy. While it can be said that the deal peacefully shut down Iran’s march to the bomb, it can also be said that it doesn’t do this permanently—though Iran’s leaders have long forsworn any intent to acquire nuclear weapons and declared their immorality. Because of permanent intensified monitoring by the IAEA—a provision of the deal—the world will know immediately if Iran’s nuclear program ever becomes military. A realist would say that what will happen in fifteen years will depend on the situation then: whether Iran’s leaders conclude that best way they can deter an attack upon Iran by a nuclear-armed state is by attempt to develop a bomb themselves, or whether their diplomatic and security situation has become more secure. In the shorter term, Iran hopes to recover economically and modernize, and many in the West hope it can become a stabilizing force in a very chaotic region.
Before the JCPOA was achieved, no one who seriously studied the issue thought economic sanctions by themselves would stop Iran from developing a bomb if it chose to do so. War presumably could, either through invasion and occupation of the country, or the mounting of repeated, serial bombing campaigns against it, as some neoconservatives urged. Perhaps Israel would start the war, and the United States would then intervene in favor of its ally—neoconservatives urged the Bush administration to use Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006 as an excuse to start a war against Iran.
Today, Trump faces the same tripartite choice as Obama, though from a different starting point: Either the deal, now the status quo, which monitors and limits Iran’s uranium enrichment; undermining the deal with the real possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon, developed at the time of Tehran’s choosing; or war. Of course, American abrogation of the deal, or efforts to render it nonoperative by imposing parallel additional sanctions on Iran, would be ineffective simply because the sanctions would not be multilateral. Europe, Russia and China want to trade with Iran. So the question—as it was in the years prior to 2014—boils down to whether or not a war with Iran is desirable.