Donald Trump has perfected the fine art of diplomatic ratcheting up, but the result of his efforts may be a letdown.
In most people’s historical imagination, the instrument of torture known as the rack stands as the icon of European medieval barbarity. By progressively ratcheting it up, torturers increased the victim’s pain until they confessed. Times have changed and, as anyone who has followed the progress of modern warfare knows, waterboarding has replaced the rack as the torture of reference.
The Trump administration may feel a certain nostalgia for the methods of the past as the president’s stated position on torture shows that he would like to “make torture great again.” In particular, with his America First policy of tariffs and sanctions, Donald Trump appears to be applying the principle of ratcheting up the pain not just to leaders, but to entire populations.
The New York Times reports, “The United States said Monday it was reimposing economic sanctions against Iran that were lifted under a 2015 nuclear accord, ratcheting up pressure on Tehran but also worsening relations with European allies.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In the political realm, use a means of pressure with ultimately painful physical effects to force capitulation, while deriving narcissistic pleasure from the idea that the victim has no choice but to succumb to the superior power of the torturer
Once the victim is immobilized and all forms of resistance eliminated, the unique cost of ratcheting up the rack is the energy expended in doing so. President Trump appears to take inspiration from this model. He begins with the premise that even nations such as Iran — with a rich history, a strong culture, a great intellectual tradition and economic resources (though primarily oil) — are prisoners of an economic system dominated, since World War II, by the United States and the dollar.
In Trump’s mind, the global economy and the military framework the US created and has spread across the globe define an enclosed space in which all other countries are allowed to function. In his imagination, that space has become alternatively a private meeting room at the top of Trump Tower or a torture chamber in which other nations can be compelled to admit heresy and convert to Trump’s religion.
As many in the media have noticed, Trump doesn’t only “ratchet up.” He also “ramps up.” Chicago Tonight reports: “President Donald Trump is ramping up his rhetoric against so-called fake news. Beyond calling the media ‘very dishonest,’ the president has accused the press of ‘distorting democracy.’” And sometimes he “dials up” as in this Foreign Policy headline: “Trump Dials Up the Trade War to 11.”
Ratcheting is a gesture, not a strategy as some observers have noticed: “Trump and Pompeo claim to have a strategy for how to do all of this and more. What is that strategy? Pompeo says the United States ‘will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime. The leaders in Tehran will have no doubt about our seriousness.’”
Seriousness is one thing, efficacy is another. The Wall Street Journal cites an expert who explained that “when sanctions hit hard, it often means ordinary people become ‘totally dependent’ on their government and so sanctions do not tend to topple regimes.” Steve Hanke, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, agrees: “Sanctions tend to entrench whatever the target regime is, and that’s what is going to happen in Iran.” What Trump doesn’t realize is that the victim is not necessarily locked inside the torture chamber. The US definitively lost its key to the Middle East with George W. Bush’s wars, and Iran hasn’t been part of its sphere of influence since the fall of the shah nearly 40 years ago.
Trump’s commitment to the principle of “torture them till they confess” represents a break from the traditional tactic, dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, of deploying US power to intimidate other nations, while avoiding the appearance of bullying. Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Previous presidents applied an approach to foreign policy closer to this idea: We are very powerful and rich; we can share some of the fruits of our power and riches with you; so, let’s find a way of getting the most benefit out of a good relationship. Even Bush followed this tactic while waging multiple wars in the Muslim world.
Now that the sanctions have been activated, we are beginning to see reactions from around the globe. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif correctly complained that the world is “sick & tired of US unilateralism … Just ask EU, Russia, China & dozens of our other trading partners.” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, declared: “We are doing our best to keep Iran in the deal … because we believe this is in the security interests of not only our region, but also of the world.” Even the UK’s Foreign Office Minister Alastair Burt offered (with predictable understatement): “Americans have really not got this right.”
Only Israel and Saudi Arabia have cheered. That may be Trump’s version of the “coalition of the willing,” reduced to a trio playing (torture) chamber music.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.