resident Donald Trump has stepped back from conflict with Iran for the moment. He made a last-minute decision to abort airstrikes, which could have spiraled into a large conflict between America and Iran. Other opponents of the United States, especially small, rogue ones, are closely watching this new development.
Since 2017, the president has significantly raised tensions with at least four such “rogue states”: Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Syria. These crises have played out so similarly that there is practically a Trump crisis playbook. Pattern emergence is risky for a president who values unpredictability; opponents increasingly know what to expect.
A Trump war-crisis has the following emergent elements:
1. A difficult relationship is dramatically elevated into a major international crisis.
In all four cases, there was no imminent threat of war from the U.S. opponent. Relations were chilly, even hostile, but there was no extraordinary threat of these states attacking the United States or its allies. Even in the Iran case, its actions against U.S. allies in the Middle East have been mostly asymmetric and harassment rather than clear military threats.
Trump then inflames the situation with dramatic threats of conflict, sanctions, or even national destruction. Threats of intervention lead to major media coverage and the perception of a crisis or countdown to kinetic action.
2. There are outsized demands on opponents.
Once a crisis begins with round-the-clock news coverage, the president puts forth extraordinary demands that almost guarantee intransigence from the rogue target. For example, the Trump administration expected North Korea to completely, verifiably, and irreversibly denuclearize. It had the same requirements for Iran. As for Venezuela, the administration pressured its leader to flee the country. Such demands naturally inflame a nationalist backlash and make diplomacy much harder—because the United States appears to be requiring abject surrender in return for nothing.