Every day of every week has too much news in it, so newspapers consider it their job to try to pull it all together into something coherent. This involves two assumptions, neither of which is necessarily sound: that the news is basically coherent, and that the newspaper can identify the underlying pattern.
On Sunday, the New York Times ran a front-page “News Analysis” story that sought to turn three major foreign-policy stories into a single account of America’s relationship with the rest of the world:
WASHINGTON — Three nations that have long defined themselves as bitter adversaries of the United States — North Korea, Iran and Venezuela — decided this week they could take on President Trump.
Each one is betting that Mr. Trump is neither as savvy a negotiator nor as ready to use military force as he claims. Each also poses a drastically different challenge to a president who has little experience in handling international crises, has struggled to find the right balance of diplomacy and coercion and has not always been consistent in defining his foreign policy.
Right away, the piece was getting away from itself: why were the “drastically different” countries treated as the subjects of the sentences, unified and interchangeable? The real constant, tucked away at the end of that introduction, was the president being inexperienced, incompetent, and inconsistent. Eleven paragraphs later, the Times got around to describing Trump administration foreign policy as a matter of “taking an aggressive, maximalist position without a clear plan to carry it through, followed by a fundamental lack of consensus in the administration about whether the United States should be more interventionist or less.”
Yet the framework remained not what the administration was doing, but what the three countries had supposedly done. It was hard—but evidently not hard enough—to miss the fact that two out of the three had not “decided” much of anything, as far as visible actions to challenge the United States went. The first piece of evidence for Iran’s betting on defiance was this:
On Friday, the Pentagon said it was sending another naval ship and Patriot missile interceptor battery to the Middle East, in addition to an earlier dispatch of a carrier group and bombers, because of potential threats from Iran or allied Arab militias.
Iran was challenging the Trump administration by being escalated at, by the United States military. And the “potential threats” were not threats in the sense of Iran announcing it would do something to United States, but in the sense of the United States announcing that Iran—or not even Iran, necessarily, but “allied Arab militias”—might do something to it, according to “secret analysis” by our “military and intelligence officials.” Iran was also, the Times wrote, “threatening to resume nuclear fuel production unless Europe acts to undercut American sanctions that have devastated Iran’s oil revenue,” which was a response to the Trump administration’s choice to terminate the existing Iranian nuclear agreement.
Venezuela’s provocation, meanwhile, was that “President Nicolás Maduro remains in power, despite American efforts to lure military officers to the opposition.” To maintain its current government, rather than going along with our government’s announced desire for a coup, was an act of defiance. And, on the playground, “Stop hitting yourself!” is a humanitarian intervention.
North Korea, at least, did shoot off some missiles—although that, by the Times’ account, was not being publicly treated as provocative by Donald Trump himself:
Mr. Trump appears so invested in making his signature diplomacy a success that he told Politico that he did not “consider that a breach of trust at all” — even though he had said the previous day that “nobody’s happy” about the tests.
That left the Times’ tally of “pushback from the three nations” at two non-provocations, to be treated as provocations, and one provocation, to be treated as a non-provocation. One might conclude that international relations consists of different interactions with different sovereign actors who have different strengths and motives. But that would have lacked the necessary narrative structure to wrap up the week’s foreign news.
Thus the three bitter adversaries, acting as one. North Korea’s nuclear-armed hereditary totalitarian state, Venezuela’s elected authoritarian and the U.S.-backed partial revolt of the elites there, Iran’s response to our own sabotage its arms-control agreement—these were all one problem, and the problem is Our Enemies, and the problem about the problem is whether Our Enemies properly fear and respect our Commander in Chief. The Axis of Evil was always a false and dangerous idea, but at least last time around, it was the work of a Bush administration speechwriter. Now that speechwriter has become a journalist, but also evidently Bush administration speechwriting has become journalism.