President Donald Trump enters the new year—his year of reelection or rejection—with two of the world’s most perilous hot spots about to catch fire and with no strategy on how to douse the flames.
Iran and North Korea are once again inspiring banner headlines, and not in the ways that Trump had hoped for in 2019. He believed that “maximum pressure” would prod the mullahs of Tehran to come crawling back to the bargaining table—or, better still, to be ousted from power—and that his putative friendship with Kim Jong-un would unleash a new era of peace and disarmament in northeast Asia. But if anything, the opposite has occurred, either in spite or because of Trump’s actions.
North Korea poses Trump’s most intractable problem—and highlights his most mortifying folly. For a year and a half, ever since first meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump has been singing the praises of the world’s cruelest dictator, heralding him as a “great leader” and a “man of his word” and fully expecting him to “denuclearize” without so much as defining the term.
But Kim ushered in 2020 with a seven-hour stemwinder to fellow members of the ruling Workers’ Party, outlining a new course of “arduous and protracted struggle” with the West and announcing, most dramatically, an end to his self-imposed moratorium—in effect for the past two years—on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Trump has waved away North Korea’s recent tests of several short-range missiles, despite the fact that they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and unnerved our allies in South Korea and Japan. To Trump, as long as Kim held to his pledge not to test-fire long-range missiles (i.e., missiles that could hit the United States), all was well.
So what happens now if Kim tests precisely such a missile and maybe resumes testing nuclear weapons too? Will Trump realize what everyone else has known for 18 months—that the man with whom he “fell in love” after Singapore has, all along, been taking him for a ride? He’s played to Trump’s ego, writing him “beautiful letters” while continuing to expand his nuclear arsenal and sow divisions between the United States and its allies in the region. If Trump experiences this epiphany, how will he react to the betrayal and humiliation? Kim probably thinks Trump won’t react at all: He hasn’t responded with much force to any other provocation in the world; moreover, Kim might think, Trump is unlikely to start a war in Asia amid his impeachment trial and election campaign. Kim might be right, but wars have been sparked by less drastic miscalculations.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, thousands of Iranian-backed militiamen spent New Year’s Eve smashing into the U.S. Embassy while chanting “Death to America.” The demonstrators pulled back two days later, after the Iraqi government—which initially let them cross into the Green Zone surrounding the embassy—pressured the leaders of Kataib Hezbollah, the main militia. Trump, who responded to the incident by ordering 4,000 more U.S. troops into Iraq, took the end of the siege as a triumph—“the Anti-Benghazi,” as he proclaimed.
Trump seems to think that the end of the siege marked an eclipse of Iranian strength, tweeting, “To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!” This is naïve. Iranian influence in Iraq’s politics is immovably strong; it has been since the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003; and the incident that precipitated this week’s siege probably strengthened its hold.
The spurring incident was a series of U.S. airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah targets, killing 24 people and injuring dozens more. The strikes were meant as retaliation to a militia missile attack that killed an American contractor. But the commander of Iraq’s armed forces, who apparently wasn’t consulted about the airstrikes, condemned them afterward as a “stab in the back.” For the previous three months, protesters held massive demonstrations in the streets of Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq against, among other things, Iran’s excessive influence on its government. But the U.S. airstrikes—which killed Iraqis on Iraqi territory—allowed pro-Iran forces to stage their own protests and to show that they can be rallied to do so anytime, on a moment’s notice.
In his dealings with both Iran and North Korea, Trump has displayed a cluelessness about the causes of the crises. Iran’s recent eruptions probably would have been avoided if Trump hadn’t withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, reimposed economic sanctions against Iran, and—to compound the aggravation—imposed further sanctions on any country that did business with Iran. The nuclear deal, signed in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama and the leaders of five other nations, required Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure—in exchange for which those nations would lift sanctions. International inspectors attested several times that Iran was obeying the terms of the deal, dismantling its nuclear program; as a result, the other nations started lifting sanctions—until Trump intervened, against the advice of all his top officials, mainly because he couldn’t bear to continue abiding by Obama’s signal diplomatic achievement.
For a while, the Iranians tried to persuade the other signatories—France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China—to keep their side of the bargain and to continue trade, but U.S. sanctions were too stiff for them to bypass. So Tehran stepped up pressure in the politico-military sphere, hoping to bring Trump back to the bargaining table. Some top Iranian officials hoped to drive a wedge between Trump and some of his advisers, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then–national security adviser John Bolton, who were clearly pressing for “regime change” in Iran. But if Trump differed from his advisers on this point, he put forth no other ideas on how to resume relations—so the crisis festered and intensified.
Similarly, the crisis in eastern Asia is aggravated by Trump’s refusal to recognize that North Korea is a nuclear power—which, like other nuclear powers, can be deterred and contained—and that Kim has no intention of changing that fact. Trump seems to believe that Kim signed “a contract” in Singapore to “denuclearize” North Korea. But in fact, he pledged in that summit’s joint statement merely to “work toward” denuclearizing “the Korean Peninsula”—which, as some North Korean officials subsequently explained, involves removing all military units capable of carrying nuclear weapons from all areas within firing range of Korea. This would mean dismantling almost all American nuclear weapons, and that isn’t going to happen, not in exchange for eliminating North Korea’s relatively puny arsenal.
North Korea and Iran are among the most intractable regimes on earth, but there are ways of conducting diplomacy with both. President Bill Clinton managed to negotiate the Agreed Framework, a pact that froze North Korea’s nuclear program for eight years. Obama and his partners negotiated the seemingly less likely Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the formal name for the Iran nuclear deal).
One problem is that no one in the Trump administration has any experience in negotiating with those countries. Another problem is that Trump doesn’t care. He has said several times that he knows more about making deals than any of his diplomats, and he might even believe it’s true. Many of our ablest career civilians, in the diplomatic corps and in the Pentagon, have been fired or have simply fled, and few with any talent have taken their place.
North Korea, Iran, and many other hot spots are hard problems for the most expert and dedicated public servants to solve. Without such public servants, they’re impossible.
Update, Jan. 2, 2020: This article was updated to note that nuclear powers like North Korea can be deterred and contained.