On Sunday night at half past 11 o'clock, President Trump sent a public message to Hassan Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart. It was the sort of communication you might expect these days to issue forth from the leader of the free world in the middle of the night, which is to say that it was a tweet, mostly all caps and ending with an exclamation point:
To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 23, 2018
"You know what this means," a friend and fellow night-owl wrote to me after the tweet appeared. "We're about three months out from the most successful diplomatic relations with Iran in decades of U.S. policy." This made me laugh not least because, like all good jokes, it is at least plausibly true.
By now Trumpian foreign policy should be, at least in its broad contours, familiar to every serious-minded observer, a category that excludes most of his critics in both parties. The president has half-absorbed the wisdom of Teddy Roosevelt's famous dictum that a good leader should "speak softly and carry a big stick." For him this more or less means, "Say one thing, do another," which sometimes involves speaking very loudly indeed while clutching nothing above the size of a twig.
Last summer in a fit of spontaneous quasi-eloquence — one that he decided to echo on Sunday — the president threatened North Korea with "with fire and fury like the world has never seen" only to end up arranging an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. He said some conciliatory (albeit also self-exculpating and lib-triggering) things to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last week despite the fact that his administration has reversed a 70-year trend of gradually de-escalating tensions with Russia.
So, yes, Trump might very well be making threats here in the hope of scaring Rouhani into, say, signing on to a tougher replacement for the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by his administration in May, or at least convincing the Iranian president to dial down his rhetoric. (The tweet was ostensibly a response to a televised speech delivered in Tehran on Sunday afternoon in which Rouhani threatened that "peace with Iran would be the mother of all peace and war with Iran would be the mother of all wars": Is that a literal translation, one wonders?) There is at least some merit in the idea of pushing Rouhani to back down. I think it is fair to say that Iran's leaders felt safe assuming that war, much less a conflict with "CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE," was not on the table if they did not accept the deal brokered by John Kerry and Earnest Moniz in Switzerland.
Could it actually work for Trump, though? It is still too early to say what if anything of substance will emerge from his summit with Kim. There has been less bizarre noise from that corner of the world lately, but North Korean aggression has waxed and waned more or less at random for half a century. Nor is it clear exactly what Trump would want out of a revised Iranian nuclear deal. One obvious shortcoming of the previous arrangement was the fact that it did not permit the United States to inspect Iranian military bases — you know, the kinds of places where one would expect things like nuclear weapons programs to be developed. But does Trump even know this?
Of course, it is entirely possible that the president's midnight Twitter salvo will prove totally insignificant. It might have been nothing more than a cynical attempt to placate hawkish elements within his party, who, though obliged to defend his conduct in Helsinki, are not used to having to argue for the virtues of mollifying foreign leaders with whom the United States is at odds. Think Trump is soft on dictators? Take that, libs. The reason this seems to me even more likely than the possibility of loopy tweets serving as a prelude to some kind of extraordinary diplomatic breakthrough is that I do not believe National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are especially keen on the latter. Neoconservatives have more or less openly argued that it is in America's best interests to go to war with Iran since at least the beginning of George W. Bush's presidency. Trump is exceptionally obtuse at times, but even he understands that such a conflict would enjoy almost zero support among the American people.
Getting credit for being tough without having to do anything more taxing than figure out how to enable caps lock on the Twitter app for iPhone in the meantime, though? This is the kind of policy making that has defined the Trump White House.