Remember far back in the before-times there was the “pivot,” way back into 2015 and 2016. It’s so far back and so confounded by everything that has come since that it is genuinely hard to remember. But we need to.
The idea was that Donald Trump was acting like a clown — and, what’s worse, a fairly racist and even fascistic clown. But he was also becoming a more credible presidential candidate. Because he had jumped to the head of the GOP primary pack and, contrary to the expectations of many, he wasn’t collapsing. Indeed, he was gaining strength. At the time it was considered obvious and essential that you can’t actually become president that way, not behaving like an erratic and dangerous buffoon. So at some point he had to “pivot” to acting normal. He even got in on explaining that the “pivot” was coming.
Of course, it never came. He won the primaries, which should have been entirely expected. He also won the election, which — well — many of us didn’t see coming. He continued being the same unstable, erratic and predatory person. The pivot never happened.
But something is different now.
Beyond the the pyrotechnics of John Bolton’s dismissal something pretty basic seems to be changing in the President’s foreign policy. He’s trying to move from being confrontation to deal-making. That is the core driver beyond Bolton’s dismissal. It centered on Iran but also covered Afghanistan, North Korea and other relationships around the globe. Yesterday The Atlantic published this piece from Thomas Wright explaining Trump’s pivot “away from conflict toward diplomacy,” how it relates to specific relationships and why it required Bolton’s dismissal. It’s good at explaining the foreign policy shifts on their own terms.
Then last night The Daily Beast published this article about Trump’s apparent interest in a French plan to float Iran a $15 billion line of credit to weather its economic woes (created by our sanctions) to bring the country back to the nuclear bargaining table (which we crushed and lit on fire).
Yes, it’s not U.S. money. In fact, the line of credit would be secured by Iranian oil. But it is hard to capture how bonkers this is from the viewpoint of U.S. policy. We are talking about backing a bailout for Iran necessitated by the economic crisis we created by imposing crippling sanctions. And this is to get them back into compliance with the nuclear deal they were already complying with before we tore it up. (I can’t help but be reminded of the subsidies Trump is paying to midwestern farmers getting crushed by his flailing trade war with China.) There have been hints of this. And in recent weeks Trump has let it be known that he’s sidling up to the idea of a meeting with Iranian President Rouhani.
That sounds unthinkable. But how can it be unthinkable? He’s besties now with Kim Jong-un. He even listed Kim’s displeasure as a reason for sacking Bolton. It’s entirely thinkable.
There’s no romanticizing John Bolton. As crazy and dangerous as Trump is, we are definitely better off because Trump fired him. No question. But I think we miss the plot if we see this pivot — which looks real — in primarily foreign policy terms.
This latest crisis first came into view when Trump abruptly tweeted that he’d canceled Camp David peace talks with the Taliban. This drew a wave of criticism, much of it, I think, misguided. But if you delved into the reporting a particularly Trumpian story emerges. Longtime Afghanistan negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad had been working on a framework arrangement with the Taliban. It wasn’t “peace.” It was something more limited and preparatory. Trump found out about it and got it in his head that it was a “deal” to solve Afghanistan. He saw it in personal, political and television terms. Bush couldn’t solve it. Obama couldn’t solve it. But he could solve it — strike a deal for peace in Afghanistan and bring our soldiers home. It is even had the same stage-setting and branding as the Camp David Accords.
As a momentary digression from this, we should be talking to the Taliban. They will clearly be part of Afghanistan’s future, which can’t include the U.S. permanently there. We need to end our permanent engagement. So broadly speaking we need to resist the idea that it’s bad to talk to the Taliban or that we need to stay there forever. But Trump was clearly looking for a “win.” For all his tough-guy militarism he intuitively knows that most Americans don’t like the carnage (at least carnage of Americans) or expense of these wars. He has actually resisted most military engagements.
But why the sudden desire for a win?
Here is where I think the picture comes together. This isn’t 12-dimensional chess. It’s not Trump becoming a peacenik. The real story is at home on the political front. We are all collectively paranoid about the possibility that Trump will be reelected given the catastrophic consequences of such an event and the fact that he managed to get elected — seemingly against all the odds — in 2016. But even for Trump the emerging reality of the situation can’t be glossed over. He is stuck down at about 40–42% approval after almost three years in office. The Democratic frontrunner consistently beats him by double digits in every head-to-head poll. Just in the last month or so now all the other major contenders are beating him too, often by upwards of a ten point margin. The economy seems to be slackening. Whether we’re moving into an election-year recession isn’t clear. But it seems very clear that the economy won’t be better in a year than it is now. There is a very high likelihood that it will be weaker, whether or not it goes into actual recession.
Trump is, in a word for all his puffery and bragging, starting to feel desperate. Unpopular wars don’t win elections. His political desperation has sent him headlong in search for “deals” that he can play as “wins” for a domestic audience. You can see it with Iran. You can see it with the Taliban. We have long seen it with North Korea and it’s clear that messing up his chances for a deal was a main irritant that drove his displeasure with Bolton. We may even end up seeing it with China, though there he may feel that his manhood and brand are too invested in the fight.
If this desire for wins leads him to sideline his most warmongering aides, that is at least a tentative good thing. But the important through-line is desperation, which is almost certain to increase as the country marches toward reelection. His desperation may be on balance a good thing if it drives reduced tensions overseas. But the through-line remains desperation, and a desperate Trump is a dangerous Trump.