Iran Deal is Peak Trump: Reality Show Engineering, Fake Toughness, and Bone-Deep Ignorance

Spoiler! It won’t be the correct decision.

President Trump is expected to announce Tuesday that he will not continue a waiver of sanctions against Iran, according to current and former U.S. and foreign officials, a major step toward ending the nuclear agreement he has called an “insane” deal that “never, ever should have been made.”

The decision follows the failure of last-ditch efforts by the three European signatories to the agreement to convince Trump that his concerns about “flaws” in the 2015 accord could be addressed without violating its terms or ending it altogether.

In this one decision, a monumental decision, portentous in every way, we have the essence of the Trump administration boiled down.

Manufactured reality show drama. While other Presidents have made it clear when they are going to give a speech, only Trump likes to tease out his decisions, with the weight of a commercial break. He still sees himself as a reality show judge, sitting on the high chair, with supplicants having their fate decided. And in a way, he’s correct. There’s no doubt that he’s brought the language of the genre to our politics, with its phony drama, heightened personal confrontations, and (most importantly), the wholly false idea of Himself being a man to whom people need to listen. That it has become, well, reality, is our nightmare. The tweet tease is small in the grand scope of things, but demonstrates the essential seriousness with which he approaches his job (which is to say: none at all).

Fake tough guy New York style negotiating, you understand? The essence of Trump is that he’s a fake tough guy. His entire persona, which he doesn’t try to hide, is that if you go after him, he’ll sue you. If you insult him, he’ll sue you. It’s maddening, because being able to afford high-priced lawyers is not actually tough! It’s hard-nosed, or whatever, and works really well in the world of New York real estate, I guess, where everyone thinks they’re some kind of street thug. Trump is part of this, Kushner definitely is, as is Rudy, and Cohen, and a ton of other people around him, who are beginning to realize that manipulating tabloids isn’t the same as life-or-death decisions with nowhere to hide.

This is painfully clear in Iran, where Trump brings his one negotiating idea- that you can walk away- to the table. That’s all he knows! It’s his one trick, because it makes him seem tough, but it has backed him into a corner. The other partners, especially Russia and China, aren’t about to back out of the JCPOA. In fact, those two are probably pretty glad America is, because it undermines US leadership even more (and that had little ground beneath its feet anyway), and forces Iran to turn more toward Eurasia.

There are times when this tactic works, even perhaps on the international stage. One could argue that being willing to go nuclear was a from of “walking away” in the Koreas. I personally think that it might have played a part, though once Kim had reliable ICBMs the game was essentially over. But even if you think it worked with North Korea, even if you think it was the only factor that has led to these historic times, you have to recognize that it doesn’t always work.

But these are essentially parochial dummies with one trick. And it isn’t going to work with Iran. Good luck telling Trump that, though, because of Point #3.

Essential bone-deep ignorance. The Iran deal was a masterwork of diplomacy, retroactive justification for Obama’s Nobel Prize. He (and John Kerry, and a host of others, but we have an auteur vision of geopolitics) convinced Russia and China to levy punishing sanctions on Iran, when neither of them particularly wanted to. In exchange, Iran essentially gave up its nuclear program, the one guarantee of non-interference, and agreed to the most invasive inspection regime in human history.

But Trump is clear this was the worst deal ever made, because Iran also got some things out of it.

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Friday Fun! Required Uzbekistan Reading


The late Islam Karimov. The fella looked the part.

With Islam Karimov finally, finally dead, whither Uzbekistan, the hinge of Central Asia? I don’t know, but people smarter than me might. 

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The South China Sea And the World Order: The Chinese Response Will Tell Us A Lot About the 21st Century


I don’t need to explain any of this, do I? Image from Foreign Policy

Here at Shooting Irrelevance, we’re mostly concerned with the growing contours of a post-state world, if not a de jure one, then at least a de facto, as the system is pulled apart by dislocation and globalization. That said, we’re not there yet, and in many ways are still a long way from it. There are a few countries who can still impose their will on the world, for better and for worse, and to varying degrees of efficiency. The US is the main one; Russia, for all its cracks, is another (though I think the impositions are largely just to paper over those fissures).  And then there is China, who is seeking to reshape Asia and global trade to its benefit.

China received an expected blow today from the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which ruled that it did not have the right to shipping lanes in the South China Sea. Based on dubious ownership claims of atolls and sun-bleached lifeless rocks around the Philippines, China has claimed historic right to them for their navy and fishing vessels, blocking Philippine ships and obstructing trade. The decision, which is binding (both countries are signatories to its statute) said that China didn’t really have a historic claim to the Philippines, and should back off.

This is important. In addition to saying that little rocks give them sovereignty and historic claim, China had been building little islands and claiming that they had the right to own territory within a 200-mile radius, as the Law of the Sea dictates. Obviously, that was a clever way to gobble up territory and to control some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. They have done the same in the East China Sea, as part of a very long-standing plan to control the waters around them. In building massive ports throughout the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, China is looking to create a trade-based maritime empire backed by a growing navy.

So now we have an international tribunal saying that China needs to slow down, at least in one crucial area. Needless to say, the official Chinese response is that this is unfair, the court is wrong, they are biased, etc. The question is what their official response will be. It’s neighbors, especially Japan, are worried. The Guardian captures a slightly contradictory response.

The Communist party mouthpiece newspaper the People’s Daily said in an editorial that the tribunal had ignored “basic truths” and “tramped” on international laws and norms. “The Chinese government and the Chinese people firmly oppose [the ruling] and will neither acknowledge it nor accept it,” it added.

Speaking to reporters Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said: “Chinese people will not accept the result and all people around the world who uphold justice will not accept the result.”

“Now the farce is over it is time to get back to the right track,” Wang added, hinting that Beijing would now be willing to enter into negotiations with the Philippines “over the South China Sea issue”.

This strikes me as sort of important. The Court didn’t rule that the Chinese had no right to fish there; just that they had no historic claim of domination. So it appears to be a hinge moment for China’s 21st-century idea of power: do they use their vast economic might to enter into what could be very fruitful negotiations with a country clearly within their sphere of influence? Or do they ignore the ruling, and carry on, confident that the US will not interfere too much, being unwilling to risk war with one of its most important trading partners.

There is a lot to parse out here, and I am not really the man to do it. China, in terms of trade, needs us to a mutually-dependent degree. Their Navy, while growing more powerful, would still be completely outgunned in a war with the US. It’s a situation no one wants. What I’m interested in is how China decides to act in the 21st-century, a century which they seem to believe, understandably, is theirs, and it is not a coincidence that the Phillippines are a flashpoint. If I were China, the statement by John McCain and Dan Sulllivan this morning would be particularly enraging. They are excited and particularly chest-thumpy.

“With today’s award, China faces a choice. China can choose to be guided by international law, institutions, and norms. Or it can choose to reject them and pursue the path of intimidation and coercion. Too often in recent years, China has chosen the latter. The world will be watching to see the choice China makes.

“The United States must continue to be clear and consistent in its policy to oppose unilateral actions by any claimant seeking to change the status quo in the South China Sea through the use of coercion, intimidation, unilateral declarations or military force; prevent any other country from exercising its rights to the resources of the exclusive economic zone; engage in any reclamation activities in the South China Sea; or militarize any reclaimed features.

“In light of the findings of this ruling, we expect that the United States military will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we have done in the Western Pacific for more than a century.

This is rich, of course. How dare China attempt a pseudo-colonization of the Phillippines in disaccord with international law. It’s been ours fair and square for over 100 years, when we took it over and brutalized it after beating the Spanish in a phony war! What right do they have?

Honestly, John McCain talking about how China has to be guided by “international law, institutions, and norms” is rich enough, but especially when talking about the Chinese not using unilateral action in the South China Sea. After all, US colonization of the Phillippines is essentially what made us a global empire, and set the stage for our “winning” of the 20th-century. This supercilious tongue-clucking when someone is trying to do the same thing at the dawn of the 21st must be maddening.

And that’s why I think this is an important moment. Does China continue to seethe under the anti-colonialist lectures of the US, listening to us say that the Phillippines have the only right to control their sea lanes, which are actually controlled by us? Do they use more negotiations to try to make the balance more equitable? Or do they now risk a confrontation, hoping a distracted and divided America might back off?

I don’t have an answer, but I do feel like the time when China is forced to put up with US hypocrisy in the region is coming to an end. I don’t say that this is a good thing; the world won’t be better off with Chinese dominance. I also think outright war is, thankfully, a very very small possibility. It’s just clear to see that the 20th century is clearly and finally coming to a close. What happens next will help to determine how the 21st one goes.