Bret Stephens: Trump is locked, half-cocked and probably bluffing

Thomas Jefferson warned against entangling alliances. John F. Kennedy was ready to pay any price and bear any burden. Teddy Roosevelt advised us to speak softly and carry a big stick.

And then there’s Donald Trump. Locked, half-cocked, and probably bluffing.

That’s the lesson Iran’s leaders appear to have drawn following a carefully calibrated sequence of escalatory attacks against the U.S. and its allies in recent months.

In May, there were four unclaimed attacks on tankers transiting near the Strait of Hormuz — two Saudi, one Norwegian, and one Emirati. In June, two more tankers were attacked, and U.S. surveillance video caught an Iranian patrol boat in close vicinity to one of the damaged tankers.

Later that month, Iran took credit for shooting down a $130 million U.S. surveillance drone, which the U.S. insists was flying in international airspace. In July, Iran seized a British ship and its crew after Royal Marines stopped an Iranian tanker suspected of trying to bust international sanctions against Syria.

And now we have Saturday’s strikes on the Saudi oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, which temporarily knocked out half the Kingdom’s oil production. There’s a question as to whether the attacks were carried out directly by Iran or by the (Iranian-armed) Houthi rebels in Yemen, and it’s important to carry out the forensic and diplomatic work needed to make a conclusive and persuasive determination.

But it’s not too soon to think through the implications of the likely answer.

The first implication is that weakness was, is, and remains provocative — especially when it’s weakness masked in bluster. Trump may have the rhetorical impulses of Bob Dornan, but the Iranians have noticed that he has the strategic instincts of Dennis Kucinich.

In the months before the attack, Trump recoiled from using the military to send a message to Iran for shooting down the drone. He unsuccessfully sought a one-on-one meeting with Iran’s president. He fired his hawkish national security adviser. He even pondered ways to relieve Iran from the pressure of the very sanctions he imposed.

These are not the actions of a leader spoiling for a fight. Iran’s increasingly bellicose behavior is less of a response to U.S. economic pressure than it is an assessment of U.S. strategic will. Trump’s transparent hankering for a deal gives Tehran an opportunity to aggravate the crisis — all the better to extract favorable terms in a negotiation.

The second implication is that sanctions are a necessary but clearly insufficient condition for changing Tehran’s calculus. Though there’s no question that Iran’s ability to carry out mischief throughout the region has been strained by economic pressure, the regime has survived much worse. It can almost surely afford to wait out Trump.

What would Iran’s leaders really fear? Above all, a revival of the Green Movement that nearly toppled the regime following the stolen presidential election of 2009. As Omid Memarian of the Center for Human Rights in Iran noted recently in Foreign Affairs, “The ferocity with which the authorities have persecuted human rights lawyers, who bring abuses to both domestic and international attention, reflects their fear of exposure and their urgent desire to evade accountability.”

Unfortunately, the task of helping to revive the Green Movement — ideally, by providing the type of public and covert support the Reagan administration once gave Solidarity in Poland — has been made harder by Trump’s general indifference to human-rights issues, to say nothing of his rhetoric and policy toward migrants. Who knew that abandoning American values would have strategic repercussions?

A third implication is that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the American era in the Middle East. Trump has boasted of his willingness to support the House of Saud (not least when it is butchering journalists) and even seemed to be asking for Saudi direction when it came to responding to Saturday’s attacks.

At the same time, Trump has also made plain his desire to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan (to Iran’s advantage in both cases), his reluctance to re-establish deterrence with Tehran through a limited military reprisal, and his general skepticism regarding America’s role in policing the global commons. That ought to be music to the ears of America’s quasi-isolationists, including Trump’s critics on the left.

But it ought to frighten America’s traditional Mideast allies. It’s long been obvious that Saudi Arabia can’t defend itself despite its $68 billion military budget — and that’s probably just as well. If the U.S. won’t defend it, who will? If it’s undefended, what might Iran do next? It’s worth remembering that there is a large and unhappy Shiite minority in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Those who don’t like Saudi Arabia as it is will like it even less when it’s gone.

That’s a thought that ought to be at the top of Robert O’Brien’s mind as he assumes the role of Trump’s national security adviser — with the tremulous optimism of a new bride joining Henry VIII at the altar. How the U.S. responds to an unprovoked attack on one of the central pillars of the global economy is a test of American leadership. The consequences of failure will be felt for years.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.