Trump Channels John Adams in Confrontation With Iran
President Trump’s recent skirmish with Iran provides a stunning contrast to the feckless policy of his predecessor, and confirms once again that Trump is pursuing a foreign policy that dates back to the very founding of our country.
In updated terms, it could be stated as this: “Trillions for defense, not one cent for appeasement.”
You probably know the concept better as it was expressed in 1798 by Robert Goodloe Harper, a congressman from South Carolina, in response to an extortion attempt by belligerent France against the nascent United States of America: “Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute.”
At that time, France had been engaged in attacks on U.S. merchant ships in order to finance its ongoing wars in Europe. The Marquis de Talleyrand, the equivalent of an ayatollah in the revolutionary government of France, told U.S. envoys that the attacks could end, but at a price.
Talleyrand demanded of the United States that it provide a sweetheart loan to France, assume liability for damages done to merchant ships, and pay a substantial bribe to Talleyrand himself. (Speaker Pelosi, please note that this is what bribery as envisioned by the Constitution means.) If America did not bow to these outrageous demands, Talleyrand even threatened to invade the United States.
While that offer may have seemed appealing to elements in the U.S. government, and certainly to shipping interests, it was unacceptable to President John Adams, who prepared for war with France even while continuing to pursue diplomatic channels.
You don’t have to look hard to find certain parallels between the U.S. relationship with Iran over the last 10 years and the situation that existed between the United States and France in the late 1790s. In both cases, our enemies were countries with corrupt governments that were driven by revolutionary ideology. In both cases, our enemies used deadly force against our countrymen. In both cases, they thought they could leverage that violence into either a monetary or a political reward. And, in both cases, a hard-nosed president used American force to convince the enemy to stand down.
As the Office of the Historian at the State Department notes in its Internet article about the XYZ Affair (as the French extortion scheme came to be known) and the Quasi-War with France:
“Adams continued preparations for war, but did not venture to openly declare war. Talleyrand, realizing his blunder, attempted to restore relations. … In the meantime, the U.S. Navy began to fight the French in the Caribbean. … However, President Adams ultimately wanted to avoid a major war, confident that had France wanted war it would have responded to American attacks on French ships.”
This is an exact parallel to the situation that unrolled last week in Iraq, albeit on a greatly compressed time scale. Iran’s proxies provoked America with an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq as well as their rocket attack on Dec. 27 that killed a U.S. contractor stationed at Kirkuk. President Trump then responded by ordering a drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s deadly Quds Force, as well as the commander of the Iraqi militia that had carried out the attack that killed our military contractor.
When Iran retaliated by launching between 16 and 24 missiles at two Iraqi military bases that housed U.S. troops, it looked like the conflict would inevitably escalate with large loss of life. However, the missiles didn’t kill anyone, even though all the experts agree that Iran had the capacity to kill many Americans with its strikes had it chosen to do so. That allowed President Trump — like Adams before him — to show that he wanted to avoid a major war by essentially ignoring the provocation and seeking a negotiated end to what might again be called a quasi-war.
It’s no accident that President Trump brags about revitalizing the American military by infusing more than $2 trillion into the Pentagon budget over the last three years. He is taking a page out of the John Adams playbook: Peace through strength. Millions — or trillions — for defense.
It is worth noting, by the way, for the meddling ninnies on Capitol Hill that a president is not prevented from exercising his power as commander-in-chief by the congressional role in declaring war. Adams did not have a declaration of war against France during the 1790s conflict, nor did President Jefferson a few years later when he had Marines lay siege to the Barbary pirates on the shores of Tripoli. Significantly, Jefferson and his supporters again picked up the rallying cry of “Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute.”
Yes, both Jefferson and Adams had congressional authorization to use force, but so too does President Trump, at least in Iraq. And if Congress wants to neuter the president in the face of naked aggression, it should pass a resolution that says so. Let’s see how that flies with the voting public.
As for the last half of Harper’s famous dictum, you know damn well that President Trump will not pay tribute to Iranians or anyone else to appease them into supposedly respecting our sovereignty. That’s why he abrogated the disastrous Iran nuclear deal put together by President Obama that included a huge payout to Iran.
As Trump explained at a press conference Thursday, “If I didn’t terminate it [the deal], it expires in a very short time. One of the problems … $150 billion [paid to Iran], $1.8 billion in cash … and then that money was used for terror, because if you look at Iran, it wasn’t so bad until they got all that money. They used that money for terror. … It was no good for our country.”
Significantly, when President Trump announced to the world that he would not retaliate in kind against the Iranian missile attack, the first words out of his mouth were a warning that might have seemed off-topic to the casual observer:
“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”
In the wake of the death of Gen. Soleimani, that’s as clear a message as was ever uttered. Ayatollah Khamenei would be wise to heed the warning. It’s not just from President Trump; it’s from American history, and it’s embedded deep in our national DNA. Trillions for defense, but not one cent for tribute. Don’t tread on us.