Trump’s Iran problem

He’s blown America’s credibility

By Samantha Vinograd

mistrust has consequences. President Donald Trump has sown mistrust by
questioning his own intelligence community, withdrawing from critical
international coalitions and spreading disdain for the media. And now, as
questions about US intelligence regarding Iran abound, Trump is seeing the
fruits of his labor. After all, if Trump doesn’t trust his own intelligence
community or the media, why should we? Trump’s made his bed

As tensions
with Iran escalate, doubts over whether to trust the intelligence community are
percolating. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Last month, the State Department
withdrew personnel from Iraq, citing an increased threat from Iran. Shortly
after the announcement, there were questions, including from members of
Congress, about whether the intelligence cited held water.

Now, fresh
debate has ensued regarding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s rapid assessment
that Iran was responsible for recent attacks on commercial vessels in the Gulf
of Oman. The United Kingdom has supported the US assessment, while other
allies, like Germany, have taken a more cautious approach.

But the truth
is, much of this doubt existed even before Trump became President. Ever since
the Iraq War, when the United States launched a military invasion and roped our
allies into it based on faulty intelligence, the trust deficit over US
intelligence has been high when it comes to the Middle East.

Of course,
Trump has not helped matters. He has openly questioned the intelligence
community’s assessments on numerous occasions. And his doubts make convincing
our allies to trust us that much harder.

Here’s just
a few examples. He sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and called his own intelligence
community “extremely passive and naive” when they assessed that Iran
was not taking steps toward a nuclear bomb and that North Korea will not

And in his
recent ABC interview, Trump even threw his FBI director under the bus, saying
that Christopher Wray was wrong when he said candidates should call the FBI if
foreign governments contact them. Because he questions the intelligence
community’s analysis on everything that doesn’t align with his personal agenda,
he may be leading by example on Iran.

In fact,
Trump has called previous assessments on Iran “naive,” but this time
around, when their assessments match his personal views — and desire to take
decisive action against Iran — he now trusts the intelligence community and
expects everyone else to do so, too. When it comes to sowing mistrust in the
intelligence community, Trump’s made his bed. But lying in it may be more
uncomfortable than he anticipated.

The morning after

hasn’t just sown mistrust of the intelligence community — he’s also sown
mistrust of American reliability. If the administration can overcome the
challenges that Trump has created, the difficult job of figuring out how to
hold Iran accountable for what the administration says they did — without
escalating the situation further — will be the immediate task at hand. Here
too, however, Trump’s own record of sowing mistrust will make his team’s jobs
more difficult.

Once an
intelligence assessment is agreed upon, policy experts typically try to punish
bad behavior and deter more of it going forward. Any US efforts are bolstered
if we can get other countries to work with us. We often try to build coalitions
of countries to do things like issue sanctions or even move more of their own
military resources.

We do this
because multilateral efforts send a stronger symbol of resolve, and benefit
from greater resources. In this case, for example, we could try to encourage
other countries to mirror US sanctions which prohibit things like purchasing
Iranian oil and also target Iran’s export revenues from metals and
petrochemical exports. But because of Trump’s own track record of wielding big sticks
when it personally suits him, and then putting them down based on his mood that
day, we are no longer viewed as a trustworthy partner.

assuming office, Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, the
Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty —
just to name a few. In other words, the cost-benefit analysis of supporting US
foreign policy initiatives is far more complex.

may question whether working with the United States is a lot of pain and no gain.
And consider this: we asked our allies to work with us on the Iran deal. They
did, and then we withdrew from it — so getting them on board with more
coordinated action on Iran will be more difficult.

Words matter

One of
Trump’s favorite hobbies is urging distrust of the mainstream media. Just this
weekend, Trump accused the New York Times of crimes that are punishable by
death, tweeting that the New York Times engaged in “virtual treason”
when it published a story on our cyber operations against Russia.

Saying that
the news is “fake” when it doesn’t parrot his personal talking points
means he’s encouraging others not to believe what they’re seeing or reading in
the media. But that creates problems for his team. When there is an actual
policy they are trying to push out, or an intelligence assessment the
administration wants people to believe, they have a harder time convincing
Americans that what the media is reporting is something they should believe.

To mitigate
the unintended consequences of Trump’s mistrust mission, our intelligence
community, our diplomats and our journalists are going to have to work harder
behind the scenes. They’ll have to make an even stronger intelligence case
regarding what we know Iran has done — and is planning to do — while somehow
trying to convince our usual partners that Trump can be trusted this time.

Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on Barack Obama’s, NSC
from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W.
Bush. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

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