war

The United States (Probably) Won’t Go to War with Iran

For weeks the Trump administration has been issuing warnings about increased attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxies. Recently the administration revealed that it has satellite imagery of what it says are Iranian paramilitary forces loading missiles onto a small boat. In response, the Pentagon recently presented national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s national security team with an updated plan that would send 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces or ramps up its development of nuclear weapons. Though the plans apparently do not include a ground invasion of Iran, what scenarios they might encompass has not yet been revealed. Nor is it entirely clear what sort of Iranian action might trigger a response.

Considering John Bolton’s longstanding calls for a more confrontational approach to Iran and Trump’s desire to squeeze greater concessions from Iran through tougher sanctions and “maximum pressure,” tensions between the United State and Iran are certainly rising. As my colleague John Glaser has pointed out, it would be difficult to design a strategy more likely to lead to “accidental” conflict than the path the Trump administration is pursuing today. Thus, the question on everyone’s mind is: Will there be war? Though the risk is not zero, the smart bet – for now – is that there will not be war.

Though making predictions about complex political outcomes like war is fraught with peril, a reasonable approach is to start by asking two questions. First, how determined is the United States to start, or avoid, a war with Iran? Second, how determined is Iran to start, or avoid, a war with the United States? Though many other factors might be at work, such as what’s at stake for each country, the relative military capabilities of each, and so forth, most of those factors eventually get captured in those two questions. If either country desires war, war is coming. But even if neither seeks war, rising tensions, accidents, and the psychological dispositions of individual leaders could lead to war if both countries don’t take enough steps to avoid it.

So far news reporting suggests that the Trump administration has not yet decided on war, but the signals are certainly mixed. Trump himself has said that “we’re not looking to hurt anybody” and that “I’d like to see them call me” to continue talks. Even Iranian officials don’t think Trump wants war. Speaking on Face the Nation, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said “We don’t believe that President Trump wants confrontation.” More generally, given Trump’s historical opposition to military intervention and nation building, it is hard to imagine Trump’s instincts guiding him to launch a war with Iran. After all, during the 2016 campaign Trump called the war in Iraq a horrible mistake, and a regime-change invasion of Iran would be a far bigger challenge.

Weighing Trump’s Trade Apologists

In the wake of the recent “trade agreement” between President Trump and EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, we have seen a surfeit of commentary heaping praise on the U.S. president for his strategic trade policy vision and tactical brilliance. Much of that praise has come from people who share the president’s flat-earth view that trade is a zero-sum game played by national governments where the objective is to promote exports, block imports, and secure a trade surplus. Trump throwing U.S. weight around to assert the rule of power over the rule of law is music to this crowd’s ears.

But then there are the apologists who know better; the enablers. They are the bigger problem. In their obsequious tones, they explain how our brilliant president is blazing his own path toward free trade and that the evidence of his success is all around us. If we just disregarded Trump’s nationalist rhetoric, ignored his belief that the trade deficit means the United States is getting ripped off, shoveled away his mounting pile of destructive, protectionist actions, and stopped believing our own lying eyes, we too would rejoice in the greatness of a man who is committed—above all else and above all others—to free trade. 

Engaging in such extreme mental contortions is no easy task, but that’s exactly what an op-ed by tax reform luminaries Steve Moore, Art Laffer, and Steve Forbes in the New York Times last week expects readers to do.

Moore, Laffer, and Forbes (MLF) portray Trump’s “gunboat diplomacy” (you open your markets fully or I’ll close ours!) as strategic genius, akin to Reagan’s nuclear arms race, which broke the Soviets’ backs.  They conclude: “Just as no one ever thought Mr. Reagan would stem nuclear proliferation, if Mr. Trump aggressively pursues this policy, he could build a legacy as the president who expanded world commerce and economic freedom by ending trade barriers rather than erecting them.” Well, yeah, maybe he could.  But so far Trump has only increased trade barriers, more are coming, and there are no negotiations underway—with anyone—aimed at lowering tariffs or other barriers to trade.  But just close your eyes and imagine.

Why All Went Quiet on the Western Trade Front

Although many hailed last week’s “trade agreement” between President Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as an important achievement, it included no firm commitments to reduce tariffs, non-tariff barriers, or subsidies—or to do anything for that matter. The only agreement of substance was that new tariffs would not be imposed, while Washington and Brussels negotiated longer-term solutions to problems both real and imagined.

Those hungering for some good trade news might call that progress, but the only new tariffs that were under consideration (outside the exclusive domain of the president’s head) were those related to the Commerce Department’s investigation into the national security implications of automobile and auto parts imports. Of course, that investigation is still proceeding and there’s no reason to think Trump won’t leverage the threat of imposing auto tariffs to bend the outcome of those EU negotiations in his favor.

So what does Trump want? Trump seems committed to prosecuting a trade war with China and he expects the EU to have his back in that fight. Trump’s tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese products are scheduled to expand to $50 billion in early August and potentially to $250 billion in September. In a recent CNBC interview, Trump even threatened to subject all Chinese goods—more than $500 billion worth of imports in 2017—to additional tariffs.

For the first $34 billion, China has retaliated in kind, targeting mostly agricultural, aquaculture, and meat products. Beijing has pledged to go tit-for-tat throughout, even though its retaliation would have to take other forms—such as penalizing U.S. multinationals operating in China—because annual U.S. exports to China are in the neighborhood of only $130 billion.

The only real factor constraining Trump’s trade war is the potential that workers in red states will abandon the cause and turn on him. But so far, even as domestic production and employment are threatened as a consequence of the tariffs and the retaliation, Trump’s base still seems to be supporting his unorthodox, zero-sum approach to trade. Last month, a worker at Wisconsin’s Harley-Davidson facility, which will be downsizing as the company shifts production to Europe as a result of the EU’s retaliatory tariffs, said of Trump: “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman.” That worker and many others agree that the United States should be throwing its weight around to obtain a larger slice of the pie—even if that process ends up reducing the overall size of the pie.

Time for Diplomacy, Not War, in Yemen

On Wednesday June 13 the Saudi-led military coalition launched an assault to seize Hodeidah, the site of Yemen’s main port. The port, currently held by Houthi fighters, is the primary channel through which humanitarian aid reaches millions of at-risk Yemenis, who have suffered from four long years of civil war.

The war has already taken a huge toll on Yemen. If the vital humanitarian aid delivered through Hodeidah is disrupted by a coalition assault, many more civilians could die.

The coalition had sought direct military assistance from the United States, which has provided weapons, intelligence, and logistical support throughout the war. The Trump administration declined, however, and encouraged the coalition to give the United Nations time for diplomacy. This remains the right approach. As tragic as the situation in Yemen is today, continued American support for military intervention is the wrong answer. Not only does the United States lack a compelling national security interest in Yemen, but by supporting the Saudi-led coalition the United States has contributed materially to the one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 21st century. Further military support won’t improve American security, but it risks making things worse for Yemen.

A Trade Armistice in the Works?

President Trump set off another round of Twitter hyperventilation and financial market selling these past 18 hours with his latest threat to assess duties on another $200 billion of Chinese imports. What to make of this?

Steel Yourself as Trump Cuts Off Trade to Spite His Face

Various news outlets are reporting that, at midnight tonight, special U.S. tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico, and the European Union will go into effect. This action stems (incongruously and capriciously) from two nearly yearlong investigations conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which found that imports of steel and aluminum “threaten to impair the national security” of the United States.

Trump’s Trade Policy Is a Disaster, But Postponing the China Trade War Was Smart

Reactions in the United States to the Trump administration’s announcement on Saturday that it would refrain from imposing new tariffs on imports from China for the time being have been decidedly negative. One would expect criticism from the unions, the steel producers, and old economy manufacturing trade associations. After all, many seemed not the least bit concerned about burdening the economy with 25 percent duties on $50-$150 billion of Chinese imports and retaliation of similar scale against U.S. exports, as long as they secured for themselves a small bag of booty in the process. Trump’s “America-First” brand of economic nationalism was everything they had ever hoped for—and now it may be in retreat.

Likewise, one can understand why the administration’s decision to reconsider its approach to Chinese technology companies and Chinese technology transgressions makes the security hawks unhappy. Many of them have been peddling a self-perpetuating narrative that is one part fact to three parts innuendo, hearsay, and speculation that war (and not just the trade kind) between the United States and China is inevitable, and that there is very little scope for further cooperation. Why, they wonder, would Trump squander the leverage to compel real Chinese reform that was afforded by the results of the Section 301 investigation and ZTE’s existential predicament?

But I am most disappointed by those who present themselves as pro-trade, internationalist, cosmopolitan, and informed, but who seem strangely disappointed that the administration stepped back from the abyss. There was a point when these folks warned about the perils of Trump’s protectionist path, and screamed from the hilltops about how Trump’s unilateralism would kill the World Trade Organization. On Twitter, they goad Trump: “Trump blinked.” “Xi schooled Trump.” “U.S. credibility has been squandered” (as if it was somehow squandered THAT moment). For some of these people, disdain for Trump or the desire to be perceived as the most offended by his behavior is more important than supporting one of his rare decisions to do the right thing.

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