President Donald Trump is facing crises and opportunities in a few of the world’s hot spots, yet he’s unable or unwilling to grasp them, and his own current crisis—the House impeachment probe—is just one of the obstacles.
Nuclear talks with North Korea are set to resume this weekend after seven months of stasis. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is also expressing a willingness to return to nuclear talks. Meanwhile, peace talks are near collapse in Afghanistan, fighting in Syria persists, and Venezuela—remember when that was a front-burner issue?—continues to unravel in oppressive misery.
Amid all this, Trump is nowhere to be found, preoccupied with accusing House Democrats of “treason” and openly begging foreign leaders to send him dirt on his possible opponent in the 2020 election, Joe Biden.
It’s only a matter of time before his defenders argue that the “witch hunt,” as Trump calls the impeachment inquiry, is distracting him from important matters of war and peace. (Richard Nixon tried to make the same argument in June 1974, traveling to Moscow for a meaningless summit, then addressing a joint session of Congress hours after returning. He resigned a little more than a month later.) However, the argument holds little water, coming from a president who regularly displays an endless appetite for distraction, spending so much time watching Fox News and playing golf and so little time on statecraft, even before his fateful phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
One wonders how much longer even Trump can remain delusional about the intentions of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. On Wednesday, shortly after announcing the reopening of disarmament talks, the North Koreans conducted yet another missile test—this one a submarine-launched ballistic missile. (They don’t have submarines yet, but they fired the missile from an underwater platform—a technically difficult feat—which John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org says is standard for the early development of such missiles.)
Trump hasn’t minded the spate of North Korea’s short- to medium-range missile tests over the past several months, even though they violate a U.N. Security Council resolution. As long as the missiles aren’t of a long-enough range to hit the United States, Trump is fine (so much for the alliances with South Korea and Japan). But the thing about a submarine-launched ballistic missile is that, if fired from a submarine in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it can hit the United States, even if it’s “just” a medium-range missile.
This doesn’t mean the North Koreans are about to nuke San Francisco. First, it will take a few years—but, possibly, just a few—for them to build a submarine capable of carrying and launching ballistic missiles. Second, small powers usually go nuclear in order to deter other larger powers from attacking them. Still, whatever its motives, North Korea took a big, tangible step this week toward acquiring the ability to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon. Is Trump OK with that?
At their first summit, in Singapore, in 2018, Trump and Kim “fell in love”—at least that’s how Trump described it at a rally shortly after. At their next summit, in Hanoi, Vietnam, eight months later, Trump thought their friendship could induce a “grand bargain,” in which the United States would lift its economic sanctions and North Korea would dismantle its entire nuclear infrastructure all at once. At the same time, Kim thought Trump was so desperate for a deal—any deal—that he would lift all sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s shutting down of just one of its nuclear reactors. Each side rejected the other’s offer. The summit ended before the lunch break, much less a signing ceremony. Trump and Kim remained friendly, but negotiations between the midlevel diplomats, which had never been fruitful, ground to a halt.
Right after the Hanoi debacle, I wrote that maybe the two countries would now snap out of their starry-eyed dreams of instant peace and, instead, take up the drudgery of step-by-step diplomacy (a partial lifting of sanctions here, a partial destruction of nuclear material there), which might at least keep the peace and lower tensions.
That could begin to happen this weekend, except that Trump is even more desperate for a diplomatic triumph now than he was before the Zelensky conversation. In Hanoi, he was also constrained by his national security adviser, John Bolton, who opposed any sort of diplomacy with North Korea. (Before joining Trump, he’d advocated ousting Kim’s regime through military force.) Trump has since fired Bolton, in part because of his hostility to Kim. His new adviser, Robert O’Brien, is an untested commodity, though he’s demonstrated loyalty to Trump, as has Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
More than this, the North Korean negotiators—who keep up with the news, even if their fellow citizens can’t—might also figure Trump is especially keen for an accord. In any case, they must be calculating that they’re entering the talks from a position of strength (a remarkable thing, given their abject weakness by so many measures). Maybe if Kim writes Trump another “beautiful letter,” the deal will be sealed.
The situation with Iran is the exact opposite of the situation with North Korea: There is a genuinely good deal in the offing, but, for political reasons, the Iranians can’t make a move unless Trump seems to want it, and Trump doesn’t want it.
In private sessions at the U.N General Assembly last week, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a four-part plan to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal, which President Barack Obama and five other leaders signed in 2015 but which Trump abrogated last year. The U.S. would lift sanctions (which it had lifted as part of the deal, but which Trump reimposed), and it would also allow the sale of Iranian oil, which secondary sanctions had essentially halted. In return, Iran would go back to abiding by the deal (which it had been doing, until, responding to Trump’s cancellation, it started reprocessing uranium again), and it would also agree to start talks on subjects that the nuclear deal avoided, including Iran’s ballistic missiles and support of terrorists.
According to news accounts, Rouhani agreed to the plan in principle. Trump agreed to meet with Rouhani, but said nothing definite about the plan. Rouhani refused to meet with Trump unless he agreed to lift sanctions first. (The hard-liners back in Tehran were already livid enough that he’d posed for photos laughing it up with Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.) So that was the end. A meeting never happened; the deal was never launched.
Rouhani reiterated on Wednesday that he was still open to resuming talks. It would be a big deal for Trump if he agreed to the plan, but this is unlikely to happen for one reason: It would mean essentially going back to the nuclear deal Obama signed, a deal he has repeatedly called “the worst deal ever.” The embarrassment would be too huge, the backpedaling too obvious, the reaction from his base too livid, and the triumphant chortling from the Obama crowd and the Europeans too irritating. No, Trump just couldn’t live with this brand of triumph.
As for the other hot spots on the map—Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela, the protests in Baghdad and Hong Kong—it couldn’t be any clearer that Trump couldn’t care less.
Meanwhile, as far as foreign and defense policy go, there is no Trump administration. O’Brien, the new national security adviser, is still too green to organize an effective interagency meeting. Pompeo has denuded the State Department of expertise (only one of the 28 assistant secretaries is a career officer) and will do pretty much whatever Trump wants him to do—and he’s becoming enmeshed in the Zelensky scandal too. The secretary of defense, Mark Esper, has been in office for just two months, and his background, as a Raytheon vice president, is more in technology than in policy. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, was sworn in just a few days ago.
The Trump administration is Trump, and when Trump isn’t out to lunch, he’s a wild card.