Donald Trump and the Foreign Policy of Abuse

On the domestic front, Donald Trump’s bullying and abuse have unfolded on the nightly news like a soap opera. When acting attorney general Sally Yates did her job by telling Trump that his suspension of visas to seven Muslim nations was possibly unlawful, he fired her. When she told him that "At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities, nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful," she was slipped a note saying, "the president has removed you from the office of Deputy Attorney General of the United States." As if firing her for doing her job by opposing him was not bullying enough, the White House continued the bullying with the public attack that she was "an Obama administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration."

At about the same time, White House press secretary Sean Spicer pressed the bullying, saying that State Department officials "should either get with the program or they can go." Government officials are not supposed to advise Trump, they are supposed to be bullied by him or be fired.

When Washington State federal judge James Robart issued a nationwide injunction on Trump’s visa ban, on the grounds that it was causing "immediate an irreparable injury" and that there was a "substantial likelihood of success in challenging the constitutionality of the travel ban," Trump took to social media to bully him, calling him "this so-called judge."

But perhaps more consequentially, Trump has also been conducting his foreign policy by bullying. At the end of January, U.S. tanks and armored vehicles that were part of a 3,500 troop contingent fired salvos into the skies of Poland. General Ben Hodges, the commander of the US Army in Europe, said, "this is not just a training exercise. It’s to demonstrate a strategic message that you cannot violate the sovereignty of members of NATO … Moscow will get the message – I’m confident of it.” You don’t need diplomacy when you can bully your enemy by a display of brute force.

Bullying was even more on display with the pubic humiliation of Mexico. When Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto refused to pay for Trump’s border wall over Trump’s insistence that he would force Mexico to pay, Trump said that "Unless Mexico is going to treat the United States fairly, with respect," the planned meeting between the two "would be fruitless. . . ." According to Pew research, however, the number of illegal Mexican immigrants has been declining since 2009. Treating the United States with respect, then, means allowing Trump to wall the Mexicans while submitting to paying for their own humiliation and punishment: quintessential bullying. The Mexican president informed Trump that he would not be at the meeting.

Iran has also been the victim of Trump’s bullying. They have to accept punishment for something they never did, and then be grateful and say thank you.

After Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn announced that the Trump administration was "officially putting Iran on notice." Flynn added, "President Trump has severely criticized the various agreements reached between Iran and the Obama Administration, as well as the United Nations, as being weak and ineffective. Instead of being thankful to the United States for these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened." Trump repeated those words, tweeting that "Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the US made with them!"

The White House cited three reasons for putting Iran on notice: testing a ballistic missile in violation of the nuclear agreement, attacking a Saudi naval vessel off the coast of Yemen, and giving Iran a "life-line" gift of $150 billion.

But Iran’s testing of a ballistic missile is not a violation of the P5+1 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran made agreements about their nuclear program but, though America wished it, they never agreed to abandon their conventional weapons program, insisting, like every other nation, on maintaining the right to defend themselves.

Resolution 2231, approved in support of the JCPOA, "calls upon" Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons" for a defined period of time. Iran insists they are in compliance with this requirement because they say the missiles are defensive and are designed to carry a conventional payload and deny that the missiles are capable of being nuclear armed. The missile was only medium range and exploded in only about half the distance required to reach Israel and no where near the distance to reach America. Iran expert Gareth Porter has argued that the inclusion of the ballistic missile clause was a victory for Iran in the first place precisely because "the provision ended what had been a meaningless ban, because its ballistic missiles were not designed for nuclear weapons." Besides, since Iran verifiably does not have a nuclear weapons program, that the missile cannot carry a nuclear weapon becomes tautological. Similar earlier American claims about Iranian nuclear missiles have all been embarrassingly discredited.

Similarly, Iran did not attack a Saudi vessel in Yemen, the Houthis did. The distinction is blurred by Washington’s constantly repeated claim that Iran arms and backs the Houthis. But that’s not true either. The US built its case that Iran was supplying weapons to the Houthis of Yemen on an "assessment" that Iran was using fishing boats to smuggle weapons into Yemen. However, according to Gareth Porter, the US was never able to produce any evidence for the link between Iran and the Houthis because the boats were stateless, and their destination was Somalia, not Yemen. An earlier ship was, indeed, Iranian but was not really carrying any weapons.

In fact, Porter reports, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from power, he and his son, the former commander of the Republican Guard, maintained control over the army through their allies in the upper ranks. Saleh then found himself in an ironic alliance with the Houthis. The Saleh-Houthi alliance is ironic because, as Jeremy Scahill reports in his book Dirty Wars, Saleh was frequently at war with the Houthis, and, "to justify their wars against the Houthis to the United States, Saleh and the Saudis constantly used allegations of Iran’s support for the Houthis. . . ." That is, Saleh used the same deceptive claims then to the Americans as the Americans are using now. However, even then, the States knew the Houthi-Iran link was weak, and, as Scahill says, though "Saleh accused Iran of . . . backing the Houthis," "In a subsequent classified cable, US officials . . . raised serious questions about the extent of Iranian involvement."

Because of the alliance with Saleh the Houthis could get all the weapons they wanted from local arms markets and from corrupt Yemeni military commanders. The Houth-Saleh-army alliance also strengthened the Houthis, making it possible for them to advance and take over military facilities from which they acquired American supplied weapons.

Iran has little control or influence over the Houthi. It is also hard to see how the Houthi attacking a Saudi vessel is a crime, since the Saudis have been bombing and starving Yemen for nearly two years now.

And as for the third accusation, the US did not give Iran $150 billion: they freed about $100 billion of Iranian money that was frozen because of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. With the nuclear agreement, the funds had to be unfrozen. It was not an American gift, it was Iranian money.

So, all three reasons cited by the states for putting Iran on notice are false. Nonetheless, Iran should be thankful. This again is quintessential bullying: the States brutally punishes Iran for maintaining a civilian nuclear program that it has every legal right to have, then the US makes Iran thank them for agreeing to stop.

Iran’s enrichment of uranium for energy and other peaceful purposes was always guaranteed to it by Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s promise that "Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty". And since no one – not America’s sixteen intelligence agencies nor the International Atomic Energy Agency – believes Iran was enriching beyond the level required for peaceful, civilian purposes, Iran was not in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Iran only began enriching uranium to 19.5% – still far below “weapons grade” levels of 90% U-235 – when the USand its allies made it impossible for them to legally acquire it elsewhere. In 1988, Iran acquired 23 kilograms of enriched uranium for medical isotopes used in the imaging and treating of cancer. When those 23 kilograms were nearly used up, Iran went to the International Atomic Energy Agency to request help in purchasing a new batch of 19.5% enriched uranium so she could keep her hospitals functioning, which, as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, she had every legal right to do. But the US and its allies prevented Iran from making the legal purchase. With that avenue blocked, Iran then, on a number of occasions, agreed to a nuclear swap in which she would send her 3.5% enriched uranium out of the country to be enriched into fuel rods for the medical reactor and sent back to Iran. America blocked those avenues too. Only then, after Iran had tried every other legal means of acquiring 19.5% enriched uranium for its hospitals, did it turn to legally enriching its own.

So, America was punishing Iran for a civilian nuclear program that it had every right to have. It first punished Iran, not for breaking the rules, but for not doing what America told it to do. Then Trump, again the archetypal bully, insisted Iran humiliatingly thank them when they stopped.

So, just as Trump bullied Russia by a threatening display of force by firing salvos into the air in Poland, and just as he acted as a paradigm of a bully by making the Mexican president pay for his own humiliation and punishment, so he has acted as the quintessential bully by demanding that Iran thank the States when they finally (partially) stopped bullying them.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.