President Donald Trump was sure that this foreign policy thing was going to be both easy and obvious. For him, it was obvious that Barack Obama did not have what it takes to push back Iran and North Korea, and Trump would show everyone how it’s done.
He told the North Koreans that if the U.S. was forced to defend itself and its allies from a missile attack, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” And regarding Iran, he tweeted, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”
Wow — the official end of Iran! What does that even mean? Are we going to drop a nuclear weapon on Iran, a country of 80 million people? Are we going to make North Korea glow in the dark from radiation without harming South Korea or Japan or China?
What we are seeing in the case of Iran and North Korea are all the weaknesses of having a president who on some foreign-policy issues has the right instincts — as in the need to confront China on trade or a desire to improve the Iran deal — but who embarks on initiatives without a thought-through plan or clear-cut end goals, without a strong national security team to implement what he wants, without a broad coalition of allies needed to sustain any long confrontation, and without even the remotest understanding of one of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ cardinal rules of warfare: “The enemy gets a vote.”
In the case of Iran, Trump and his team have been all over the place. After Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal — even though Iran was abiding by its terms — his ambitious, sycophantic secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, gave a speech listing the 12 ways Iran had to change at home and abroad — demands that were tantamount to regime change.
Obama, by contrast, made no bones about the nature of his deal with Iran in 2015. It was purely transactional, limited almost entirely to securing a 15-year ban on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon.
So Trump tried to one-up Obama with Pompeo’s 12-step program. But it has not worked.
We need allies to confront this Iranian strategy successfully. But Trump has alienated our allies by his incessant lying, his tariffs on their products and his rejection of their willingness to try to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal in a limited way.
Now that this has produced a crisis, Pompeo and Trump have been backtracking, telling the world that they are not after regime change and want to use diplomacy and even talk with Iran’s supreme leader. For the moment at least, though, the Iranians, who are hurting economically, have chosen to call Trump’s bluff. They’ve announced plans to resume higher uranium enrichment heading for weapons-grade levels. It’s a dangerous escalation.
Meanwhile, on North Korea, as Robert Litwak, the Wilson Center’s expert on rogue nations notes, the Trump administration has adopted its own version of precisely what it criticized the Obama administration for: “strategic patience.” Trump is turning a blind eye to mounting evidence that the Kim regime continues to develop missile capabilities that can hit us.
As with Iran, Litwak says, the way out of the North Korea impasse is to pivot from the transformational goal — complete denuclearization up front — to the transactional — a verified freeze of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and missile program to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
When asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News about North Korea’s reported recent violations of his understandings with Trump, Trump said: “I don’t know. I hope not. He promised me he wouldn’t.”
This is what you get, folks, when you have a president who acts from the gut, not with well-thought-out plans, who is enamored with strongmen dictators more than our democratic allies, who is backed by a party and a TV network that simply parrot everything he says and never call him out, who thinks the enemy has no vote and who doesn’t understand the first rule of Middle East politics.
Had Trump limited himself to a good little fix of the Iran deal that would have kept Iran’s nuclear program on ice for 25 years, had he not set out to transform Iran to prove that he could radically outdo Obama, we’d be in a lot better place than we are now.
“Iran and North Korea don’t respond to pressure, but without pressure they don’t respond,” concludes Litwak. So let’s get real. Neither regime will be forced into committing suicide, and we’re not going to war to “officially end” either of them, if we can at all avoid it.
So memo to Trump: If you want to one-up Obama, the only way you’re going to do it is at the negotiating table, where, to succeed, you’ll have to strike the same kind of transactional deal that Obama did. If you can get better terms, God bless you. But don’t think you’ll get away without giving up something in return to the Mullahs and the Mad Man — and be prepared for hawks on Fox TV to call you a “wimp.”