Trump Employs His ‘I Am a Madman’ Approach With Iran

Today Trump announced that he will not certify that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As expected, the president punted the ball to Congress on what to do next. But in summary, he made a statement that hadn’t been anticipated.

I am announcing today that we cannot and will not make this certification…In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated. It is under continual review and our participation can be cancelled by me, as president, at any time.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, captured what that means:

In an article he wrote prior to the announcement, Rhodes explained this:

The JCPOA is not an agreement between the U.S. and Iran alone. Its signatories also include Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union. It is enshrined in a United Nations Security Council Resolution. None of the other parties to the deal believe that Iran is out of compliance. None of them want the United States to decertify the agreement. And—here’s the rub—none of them will go along with the “tougher” approaches that Trump and his surrogates advocate.

With that in mind, what options are there for Congress? They can impose changes to the agreement unilaterally, which effectively kills it. Or they can do nothing and Trump terminates it. That is the crisis Trump has provoked.

This brings me back to a theme that has been highlighted over and over again during Trump’s tenure. It is hard to imagine any two human beings that are more diametrically opposite than this president and his predecessor.

What Trump is doing in this instance is to deploy his “I’m a madman” approach. He’s tossed the responsibility to Congress and our allies to do something while he sits back and threatens to pull the plug at any time if they don’t get it right. He assumes that will terrify people into submission. That’s his dominance game.

On the other hand, it is interesting to remember how JCPOA actually came about. For years the United States had imposed sanctions on Iran in relation to their efforts to develop nuclear weapons. They were completely ineffective. What the Obama administration did that changed the equation was that they were able to talk both our allies and adversaries into joining in those sanctions. That not only included the countries in the European Union, but even more importantly, they got Russia and China to sign on. The combined effort had a crippling effect on Iran’s economy—which is why they eventually came the the table to negotiate. In other words, that was Obama’s partnership game.

Looked at from that perspective, do you think Trump’s dominance game is going to work? Both our allies and adversaries are saying that JCPOA is working and they don’t want to change it. Iran will never agree to change it. So if, in the end, Trump pulls the U.S. out of the agreement and reimposes unilateral sanctions, how effective will they be? We don’t have to guess in order to answer that one. All we need to do is look at recent history.

This is a bedrock issue that explains why Donald Trump is effective at being destructive, but completely incapable of being constructive. Whether it involves working with Congress or managing foreign affairs, the dominance game has its limits. Eventually you have to know how to play the partnership game in order to get things done. That is not something Trump is capable of doing.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.