Trump Administration and the Washington Post: Picking Fights Together

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

For the past several months, the Trump administration has been picking fights—using cold war rhetoric regarding China and applying a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.  The editorial writers of the Washington Post for the past few weeks have written a series of pieces that support a hard line against China, and on May 24th the Post’s lead article was a chauvinist attack on Iran that had the rare attribute of being both counterfactual and counter-instinctive.

For the past several years, both Iran and Venezuela have faced hard line sanctions from the United States, which have significantly hurt both of their economies. Venezuela and Iran have had a series of economic and financial deals over the past twenty years, and recently Iranian oil tankers have been carrying gasoline to Venezuela.  Venezuela may have the world’s largest oil reserves, but mismanagement of the industry and U.S. sanctions have crippled its petroleum industry and its gas refineries. Since Russia and China have become increasingly reluctant to assist Venezuela, Iran has stepped in to relieve fuel shortages that have contributed to a crisis in the public health and agricultural sectors. There is nothing in this arrangement that is threatening to the interests of the United States, but you wouldn’t know this from reading the Post.

Sunday’s front-page article read like a war game scenario concocted by the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.  The article stated that Iran and Venezuela were “forging a closer strategic partnership,” with five Iranian oil tankers “steaming” across the Atlantic Ocean in the “most public display of the deepening relationship.”  As a result, according to the Post, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was being given a “vital lifeline,” and Iran was being offered the “prospect of a new center of influence just across the Caribbean Sea from Florida.” .

The Post approvingly referred to the Trump administration’s invocation of the Monroe Doctrine, which was particularly laughable.  The 19th-century Monroe Doctrine was promulgated to declare that the United States would no longer tolerate European colonialism or puppet monarchs in the Western Hemisphere.  Iran hardly qualifies as a challenge, let alone a threat, on any level, but the Post relied on comments from hard liners such as Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative to Venezuela, and Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American studies from the U.S. Army War College.  The professor argued that Iran is using its tankers to “play a game of chicken” with the United States.  The Post agrees that the tankers are “testing how far the Trump administration is willing to go to shut down a budding relationship between two nations it considers enemies.”

The Post contributes to the science fiction scenario by citing comments from opposition leaders in Venezuela who claim that Iran is actually using the tankers to introduce materials for the construction of a “listening post” in Venezuela to “intercept aerial and maritime communications.”  The security commissioner for Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, explains that “for Iran, an enemy of the United States, this means they are almost touching America’s tail.”  Citing the Monroe Doctrine wasn’t sufficient for the Post, so they had to introduce language reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This imaginary scenario is particularly ludicrous because it comes at a time when Iran is moderating its approach to the West, particularly avoiding any confrontation with the United States.  Iran recently endorsed Iraq’s selection of an American-approved prime minister, who actually has ties to U.S. intelligence forces in Iraq.  Iran has stopped pro-Iranian militias in Iraq from attacking U.S. forces, and has significantly reduced attacks on merchant ships and tankers in the Persian Gulf.  Last month, Iran initiated negotiations with the United States to swap a U.S. Navy veteran held in Iran for an Iranian-American doctor detained by the United States.  Presumably, Iran is overwhelmed with the coronavirus pandemic, a disastrous economy, and increased public unrest.  It can no longer afford to confront U.S. interests.

At the very least, Iran has made a tactical shift in its dealings with the United States, which makes it particularly risible for the United States and the Washington Post to “raise alarms” over what is estimated to be 60 million gallons of  Iranian gasoline.  Moreover, any interruption in the increased tensions between Washington and Tehran could provide an opening for improved relations between the two states.

Even Donald Trump could decide that, like Tehran, Washington is also preoccupied with a pandemic, large-scale unemployment, and a shrinking economy, which would benefit by reduced tensions in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.  Trump already has Secretary of State Mike Pompeo trying to pick fights with China and Iran, so he doesn’t need the Post’s journalists and oped writers to offer jingoist support for aggressive actions.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for