In the past couple days, the vice president and the secretary of state have threatened to go to war against Iran and North Korea if those countries’ leaders don’t bend to President Donald Trump’s will.
The nation’s top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, said in a speech on Monday that the United States would “crush” Iran, through economic and military pressure, if it did not change its behavior in the Middle East. Trump’s right-hand man, Mike Pence, told Fox News, on the same day, that North Korea would wind up like Libya “if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal” to get rid of his nuclear weapons. Asked if this could be interpreted as a threat, he said, “Well, I think it’s more of a fact.”
Pence brought up Libya to clarify the recent remarks by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who likened an acceptable deal with North Korea to the one struck in the early 2000s with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who gave up his nascent nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. A few years later, Qaddafi was overthrown in a Western-backed revolt, then killed. North Koreans’ leaders were not amused by the comparison.
Pompeo and Pence issued these threats without the slightest backing of a single foreign ally or international institution. Their statements—along with Trump’s recent abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the uncontested fact that Iran has abided by its terms—have, in fact, alienated the European leaders who co-signed the deal.
An actual attack on either country would likely have catastrophic consequences. A tangible buildup to war with North Korea would arouse opposition from South Korea and Japan—and, possibly, resistance from China. Sunni Arabs and Israel’s political leadership might welcome an attack on Iran, but it would embroil the United States in an even deeper, deadlier conflict than the war in Iraq. For one thing, Iran is much larger than Iraq; for another, though most of its people despise their regime, history suggests that they detest foreign invaders even more.
Trump is letting the overheated rhetoric flow. And yet, when it comes to North Korea, it’s clear that he doesn’t know what he wants or how to get it. In a press conference Tuesday, preceding his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump sent mixed messages, at best, to any friend or foe who might be watching.
Moon came to Washington to shore up the prospects of a summit, scheduled for June 12, between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Kim’s top negotiator issued a statement last week, threatening to call off the summit if Trump didn’t back down from Bolton’s demand that North Korea surrender all of its nuclear weapons right away, in exchange for vague promises of U.S. economic assistance later.
The statement upset Trump, who had been assuming that his vaunted deal-making skills would win Kim over and that the resulting treaty would win him the Nobel Peace Prize. Trump’s remarks at Tuesday’s news conference revealed a man in confusion.
He said he was surprised by Kim’s change in attitude and noted that the shift occurred shortly after the North Korean leader’s second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, making Trump wonder whether Xi had shifted his own stance on peace and sanctions. In fact, Kim’s views haven’t changed at all—he has long declared, as his goal, the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (not just of North Korea) through “phased and synchronous measures” (not all at once).
Asked about Kim’s conditions, Trump said he would prefer to have North Korea get rid of its nukes right away, but phasing them out over time might be fine as well. One could envision Bolton’s face turning the color of his mustache. If the all-at-once demand—which has been endorsed by Bolton and Pompeo—was ever a bargaining position, it isn’t any longer. If, as is more likely, it was meant as a demand that Kim couldn’t accept and, therefore, as a prelude to U.S. military action, it no longer carries much weight on that level either. Trump, after all, has now said he could go for gradual disarmament if Kim preferred.
Nor did Trump try to eke any leverage from the summit date. He would still like to have it happen on June 12, but if it’s delayed a bit, well, that’s all right. In any case, Trump said, in his most baffling remark, “In the end, it will work out. I can’t tell you how or why, but it always does.” This isn’t diplomacy or strategy or pressure or a stab at détente or anything else that might shore up a nation’s credibility or even express its intentions. It’s simply piffle from someone who watches too much bad television.
In every contest to date, Trump has acceded to Kim, who is very much in control of this process and of the whole complex of U.S.–South Korean–North Korean–Chinese relations. This is what happens when one negotiator knows what he wants and the other negotiator is in it simply for the pageantry. Meanwhile, Pence, Pompeo, and Bolton are taking it all seriously but rejecting the diplomatic possibilities outright, waiting only for the summit to collapse and then pushing for war as the logical sequel.
Through all the commotion, Secretary of Defense James Mattis—the last remaining “grown-up in the room”—has stayed fairly quiet. A retired Marine four-star general who lost many of his troops to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, he has long scorned and distrusted Tehran, though he spoke up for the nuclear deal—especially its verification procedures, which have kept Iran in compliance—just before Trump pulled out. And he has always opposed attacking North Korea, even resisting White House requests for attack options, knowing that retaliation by Pyongyang would kill hundreds of thousands of people in the region, with no benefit to U.S. or allied security.
I wonder what books Mattis is pulling down from his vast personal library’s shelves for solace and strategic guidance. One can only hope that they’re helping him outmaneuver the hawks who have never seen war across the river.