Donald Trump entered office with no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he has no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he was a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. That was the general idea. That was good enough for just enough voters in just the right places – and after all, Barrack Obama had had no foreign policy experience either. Sarah Palin had said she “could see Russia from her house” – not the best counterargument but good enough for some folks. Obama knew nothing, but on January 11, 2007, there was this:
President Bush today signed the Lugar-Obama proliferation and threat reduction initiative into law.
Authored by U.S. Sens. Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Barack Obama (D-IL), the Lugar-Obama initiative expands U.S. cooperation to destroy conventional weapons. It also expands the State Department’s ability to detect and interdict weapons and materials of mass destruction.
That was an extension of this:
The Lugar-Obama initiative is modeled after the Nunn-Lugar program that focuses on weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. Lugar and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) authored the program in 1991. It has provided U.S. funding and expertise to help the former Soviet Union safeguard and dismantle its enormous stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, related materials, and delivery systems. Among many accomplishments, the program has deactivated 7,000 nuclear warheads and reemployed 58,000 scientists in peaceful research. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan are nuclear weapons free as a result of cooperative efforts under the Nunn-Lugar program. They otherwise would be the world’s the third, fourth and eighth largest nuclear weapons powers, respectively.
Lugar and Obama traveled the world together, inspecting the inspectors inspecting this and that – everything from plutonium stockpiles to caches of small arms – but in 2012, Lugar was defeated in a primary challenge by Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock – a Tea Party guy – and his thirty-six years in the Senate were over. Mourdock then lost to the Democratic, Joe Donnelly, in the general election, probably because of Mourdock’s comment that “life is that gift from God that I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen” – but that was too late for Lugar. Obama had won the presidency four years earlier. Lugar got to play with his grandkids. On August 8, 2013, Obama awarded Lugar the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That must have been a bit bittersweet.
None of that is Trump’s world. Obama did enter office knowing a thing or two, even if not one person in Illinois can see Russia from their house. Obama had thought about this stuff. Josh Keating notes that that’s not Trump’s world:
If you’re feeling generous, you could say the one organizing principle of Donald Trump’s foreign policy is that Iranian influence must be contained and rolled back. Though the president doesn’t seem to agree on much with senior members of his national security team, like H. R. McMaster and James Mattis, these days, they’re on the same page when it comes to the threat posed by Tehran’s regional ambitions. But far from being rolled back, Iranian influence appears to be spreading. And far from being united, the international community is deeply divided over how to respond. Some of the Trump administration’s policies may even ultimately bolster the Islamic Republic’s growing clout.
Iran is winning now:
Carlotta Gall of the New York Times reported over the weekend on Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan. Iran “is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.” Afghans also fear that Iran “is working to subvert plans in Afghanistan for upstream dams that could threaten its water supply.”
Iranian influence has grown as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has waned. From that perspective, the current debate within the U.S. administration over troop levels in the country presents something of a win-win for Iran: Washington will either commit more troops and financial resources to a fight it has little hope of winning (whatever “winning” means at this point) or it will draw down further and leave a power vacuum behind.
And then there’s the new Iraq we created:
Just days after the U.S. passed new sanctions on Iran last month, Baghdad signed a deal to boost military cooperation with Tehran. During his campaign, Trump often accused Barack Obama of handing the country over to Iran by withdrawing troops, but that die was probably cast in 2003, when the U.S. toppled the anti-Iranian government of a country that borders Iran and has a majority Shiite population. When the Iraqi military collapsed in the face of ISIS in 2014, Iranian-backed Shiite militias stepped in, doing much of the fighting against the group. Now that ISIS has been mostly ousted from the country after the fall of Mosul, those militias don’t seem to be in a hurry to disband.
And it’s not just Iraq:
As reporter Borzou Daragahi recently reported in a lengthy investigative piece for BuzzFeed, militias, overseen by the secretive Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are an increasingly dominant force throughout the region. This is particularly true in Syria, where, in recent years, Iranian-backed militias have done the bulk of the on-the-ground fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. The Revolutionary Guards have reportedly also found ways to continue to supply covert arms shipments to their Houthi allies in Yemen, despite a U.S.-backed embargo.
President Trump noted these developments in his speech at a regional summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May, arguing that “nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” (The last part was a bit rich for a speech delivered to an audience primarily of monarchs and dictators.) To this end, the administration has supported new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, increased support for the brutal Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen…
On the other hand, there’s this:
The recent reports that the CIA is dropping its support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria is the clearest signal yet that the U.S. plans to leave the Syrian strongman in power, giving Iran an unblocked string of allies through Iran and Syria to the Mediterranean. At one point last spring, the U.S. military was actually firing on Iranian-backed militias to protect a group of rebels being trained by U.S. Special Forces in Southern Syria, but CNN reported recently that those rebels have left the U.S. coalition after they were told they were only to fight ISIS, not Assad. Some have even been recruited by the regime to switch sides. And while American diplomats have reportedly worked to ensure that Iranian-backed foreign fighters won’t be the ones on the ground enforcing the recent U.S.-Russia cease-fire deal, that hasn’t mollified the Israeli government, which opposes the cease-fire on the grounds that it will ensure a long-term Iranian presence in Syria.
Iran has also benefited at times from the confusion and mixed signals coming out of Washington. In June, Saudi Arabia and its allies cut off diplomatic relations with neighboring Qatar and imposed a blockade, demanding – among other things – that it cease its relatively friendly relations with Iran. The Saudis’ maximalist position was no doubt encouraged by Trump’s fighting words in Riyadh, and indeed the president took credit for the situation on Twitter. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a neutral approach to the situation, and the U.S. continued to move forward on an arms deal with Qatar, undermining the Saudi position. Qatar hasn’t backed down, and ironically the blockade’s main impact has been to deepen Qatar’s economic ties to Iran.
Nothing is going right:
China has been investing heavily in Iran’s infrastructure as part of its global “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative. European companies have also been investing in Iran since the lifting of nuclear sanctions: Just Monday, French carmaker Renault signed a $780 million deal to increase vehicle production in Iran. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s attendance over the weekend at President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration for a second term was another sign that European governments aren’t heeding Washington’s calls to isolate Iran.
That’s going to be a problem if Trump follows through on his tweets to blow up the nuclear deal entirely: The U.S. can re-impose its own sanctions, but they won’t have the same bite they did before 2015 if other countries don’t join the push. Trump has made matters worse by signaling that he plans to certify Iran as noncompliant with the deal, whether or not his intelligence agencies conclude that it is. This makes it patently obvious that the U.S. administration wants to kill the deal no matter what and has no serious intention of giving diplomacy a chance. If Trump goes through with it, Iran could end up with something it almost never has: widespread international support.
There’s only one place this leads:
It would be ironic if this deeply anti-Iranian administration ended up increasing Iran’s regional clout and global influence. Of course, this assumes the Trump administration doesn’t follow its current Iran policies to their logical endpoint: armed conflict.
That’s where everything seems to be leading now:
The Trump administration has hailed the latest United Nations sanctions against nuclear-armed North Korea as the most severe yet, and the North’s fury over the penalties suggested they carried some sting.
In a staccato of outraged reactions on Monday to the sanctions imposed over the weekend, North Korea threatened retaliation against the United States “thousands of times” over, vowed to never give up its nuclear arsenal and called the penalties a panicky response by an American bully.
But it is unclear at best – experts on sanctions say – whether the measures will hinder North Korea’s nuclear militarization or even crimp its economy.
This was a diplomatic victory that didn’t matter:
The sanctions are aimed at pressuring North Korea into negotiating, with the goal of renouncing its nuclear weapons. But Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, has repeatedly said that the country’s nuclear capabilities are crucial to its self-defense.
North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, reinforced that point, denouncing the new sanctions on Monday in Manila at a regional ministerial meeting that was also attended by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.
“We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table,” Mr. Ri said in a statement.
“Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated,” Mr. Ri said, using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.
In a more ominous response, North Korea’s official news agency said, “There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean.”
They are not moved, but we still must move:
Like all United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea for more than a decade, the effectiveness of the new round, which American officials say could cost North Korea’s government about $1 billion annually, depends on faithful enforcement by China and to a lesser extent Russia.
Both countries joined in the Security Council’s unanimous vote on Saturday to penalize North Korea. But neither China nor Russia has a strong record of policing sanctions against the North. China, the North’s major benefactor by far, is reluctant to squeeze its economy for fear of causing instability on its borders.
And the pressure isn’t real anyway:
The sanctions adopted by the 15-member Council left important elements of the North Korean economy untouched. For example, the resolution did not sanction oil imports, which are critical to the functioning of the North Korean state.
Further, North Korean laborers who work overseas and send remittances home – money that the United Nations says is used in the weapons program – will be allowed to stay abroad. The new sanctions cap the current number of workers overseas, but stop short of calling for those who already work abroad to return to North Korea.
This is, then, rather pathetic:
By allowing North Korea to continue sending workers abroad, the Security Council missed an easy target for crimping revenue, said Joseph DeThomas, a former State Department official who specialized in sanctions against Iran and North Korea…
Mr. DeThomas offered a mixed view of the latest sanctions.
“I am not saying it was not a good thing to do,” he said. “I am saying it is probably too little, too late. Other cards will have to be played by China, the U.S. and South Korea if something very damaging, bloody and politically catastrophic is to be avoided.”
Josh Keating adds this:
From Beijing’s point of view, encirclement by U.S. military power is a bigger security threat than North Korea’s nukes, and Chinese leaders are unlikely to put enough pressure on North Korea to risk the collapse of a valuable buffer state. Sebastian Gorka’s confidence notwithstanding, Trump’s tweets aren’t “powerful” enough to change that thinking.
The new sanctions are stronger than past measures but are still unlikely to lead Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear program voluntarily. And Trump’s previous notion that China could simply solve this problem for everyone is magical thinking. As before the sanctions, there are still only two probable ways to resolve this crisis: negotiation or war.
Negotiation is a possibility:
There are signs that at least some factions of the Trump administration are open to negotiation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week, “We would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea.” He emphasized, “We’re trying to convey to the North Koreans, we are not your enemy.” Despite tweeting last week that the U.S. was “done talking” about North Korea, Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley also emphasized in her speech Saturday that, “we want only security and prosperity for all nations – including North Korea.”
Negotiation might not be a possibility:
Sen. Lindsey Graham said last week that he believes military action against North Korea is “inevitable” and that “if there’s going to be a war to stop them, it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there, they’re not going to die here and Trump told me that to my face.”
Of course, that assumes that North Korea doesn’t already have the capability of striking the U.S. with nuclear weapons – though some experts argue it does. As frightening and bleak as Graham’s scenario sounds, it may not be frightening and bleak enough.
Dana Milbank isn’t so sure of that:
On North Korea, Trump has long been making threats and ultimatums, promising “severe things” and raising the possibility that South Korea and Japan could build nuclear arsenals. He was harshly (if vaguely) critical of the Obama administration’s handling of North Korea, saying Obama and Hillary Clinton – who were pushing for tougher sanctions – weren’t being strong enough.
And now? Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered soothing words about North Korea: “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel,” he said. “We are trying to convey to the North Koreans: We are not your enemy, we are not your threat.”
Those words cleared the way for China and Russia to support the sanctions resolution at the United Nations on Saturday…
That’s nice, but Kevin Drum argues the other way:
Fifteen years ago, it’s possible that diplomacy could have stopped North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. That’s certainly what I thought. It’s also possible that heavy sanctions could have done it. It’s even possible that military action could have done it, though that would have been very risky for reasons that everyone knows about…
None of this is true anymore. North Korea already has nuclear weapons. They have a productive source of fissile material. They’re very close to developing a reliable ICBM, and probably close to developing a nuclear warhead small enough for their ICBMs. That’s what the DIA thinks, anyway. And North Korea has made it crystal clear that developing a nuclear deterrent capability against the United States is their number one national priority.
That means that we’re stuck:
Liberals like to think that maybe more diplomacy will stop North Korea’s nuclear program. It won’t. Conservatives like to think that tougher sanctions, or possibly military force, will stop their nuclear program. They won’t. Donald Trump likes to pretend that China can stop their nuclear program. They either can’t or won’t. Like it or not, this is where we are.
There are only two options left. Either we accept a nuclear-armed North Korea or we launch a nuclear strike to take out their capabilities. Since a nuclear strike is insane for too many reasons to list – including the fact that it might not even work – this means we really have no options at all. We can, if we want, maintain a hostile attitude toward North Korea as a signal to others about the price of developing nukes, but we basically have to accept the reality that North Korea is a nuclear state.
And that leaves this:
Let’s knock off the fantasy op-eds full of vague talk about China and sanctions and diplomacy. Instead, tell people the bald truth. It would give the hawks some pause, and might even reduce the pressure that could lead someone like Donald Trump to do something stupid. This is, unfortunately, something we all have to think about these days.
That is the worry and everyone knows the story – “In their final conversations during the transition, Barack Obama issued a stark warning to Donald Trump: North Korea presents the most urgent, alarming, and bedeviling threat you will confront as head of the free world.”
Trump blew him off. He was a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and after all, Barrack Obama had had no foreign policy experience either – but Obama had – and Obama knew this was a problem for which there might not be any good solution, or any solution.
That, of course, was not Trump’s world. That, of course, is now Trump’s world. Expect something stupid. Experience doesn’t count, until it does.