Why, you might ask?
When there seems so little to gain, when allies are angry, when sanctions are surely not to be as strong as they were in the prelude to the Iran nuclear deal, would Trump do such a thing?
The arguments against pulling from the deal were legion, and quite frankly convincing. Allies would not back America as they had in the past, and would find ways to bust or squirm past the sanctions, rendering them less effective. Iran’s hardliners would be able to say, “I told you so,” to the comparative moderates who argued for engagement with the world and with the United States, and their saber-rattling stock would rise with the all-important Supreme Leader. America’s word would mean a bit less, while Iran would be able to play the victim, perhaps restart its nuclear program, perhaps get the bomb, or perhaps force another painful, uncertain war.
All convincing, all reasonable. All arguments that overlooked, that even perhaps deliberately ignored, why the United States under this presidency was destined for a moment like this, in which reason and caution were thrown to the wind.
First, the widest possible view
The United States can make strategic mistakes in a way that other powers cannot; its size, isolation, and geographic position means it has always been hard for its rivals to take advantage of its mistakes.
Moreover, unlike the British Empire, which at its height was dominated by roughly the same cloistered group of same-thinking imperialists to guide policy for decades, the U.S. switches out its top elites rather routinely – and nowhere more dramatically than in the White House. Thus the United States finds its hard to develop the historical sinews that can guide policy across administrations and generations.
There are exceptions, of course. World War II, and to an extent 9/11, were sufficiently traumatic to guide American president after president. But the Iran nuclear deal was guided not by trauma, but by technocratic strategy. It was wise, but it was not politically or culturally enduring.
Trump as a cultural phenomenon
And it represented yet another bone to pick for the revanchist culturalism represented by President Trump. So many political analysts and thinkers have wondered why Trump voters would elect a president who did not particularly represent their economic interests. The answer is simple: Trump’s base is not the business wing of the Republican Party, but its cultural one. This is a movement without a clear leader, or even a clean ideology, but it is broadly represented by the America, Yeah! culture of the Reagan 80s, which produced the action movies of Red Dawn and Delta Force, paeans to Americanism represented with a take-no-prisoners attitude and a belief in force in the ability to solve intractable problems.
Force, of course, is relative. For Trump, it means to bring the opposition to their knees through establishing the ultimate leverage. This, to an extent, is what may well happen in North Korea, or at least may be the way history remembers it. Now, Trump is hoping to write a new, tougher, take-fewer-prisoners deal with Iran, that will enshrine him as a a grand deal maker.
Yet beyond the desires of Trump himself, Trumpism also lumps all Islamism into a broad, largely indecipherable category. Iran held the hostages; it is, as far as a large swath of Americans are concerned, the terrorists par excellence, and the fact that Iran had nothing to do with 9/11 did little to dissuade a judge from recently fining the country for it, nor to keep Americans from thinking that al-Qaeda and Iran are in cahoots. To them, the nuclear deal was a handout to terrorists: that they were Shi’a, and not Sunni, is a minor detail, if it is brought up at all.
This culture has produced a unique politics of the moment that is driving American policy where it can. It is deeply unlikely it will bring America into a ground invasion of the Islamic Republic; even in its most gung-ho moments, it does not rally around slogans of fighting new wars very well. (And some of it, especially the Alt-Right, slam Trump whenever he bombs Syria or feels the need to turn the heat up on Russia, fearing a global war).
Yet it will tempt conflict without a strategy or an endgame, if only because in its worldview, conflict favors the strong, and the United States is the strongest. It is the pointless escalatory nature of American culture that can cause Americans to shoot one another over parking spots.
To overlook this phenomenon – self-destructive as it can appear – is to misread the American body politic and the leaders it produces. The United States can learn lessons and pass them down from generation to generation, but these lessons must be dramatic and enduring. The Iran nuclear deal was not one of them. It could not be expected to become part of America’s permanent diplomatic fabric. When Senator Tom Cotton warned Iran’s leaders that this deal might not survive the Obama years, he was expressing as much.
But at the end, this is not doomsday; some might see it as the death knell of American power, but if anything it, like the withdrawal from the Transpacific Trade Partnership, may well be more of a setback than a disaster. Only repeated mistakes, across administrations and even generations, can undo the slow, century-long work of America’s superpower status. Perhaps this is just one of them in a story not yet to be written. Or perhaps the technocrats and professional strategists return in 2021. That will remain to be seen.
Want to know more of the dirty deets of what happens next? Take a look right here over at Stratfor!