Iran, North Korea pull in op­po­site di­rec­tions

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

For the world, it has been a tale of two Trumps. In East Asia, the pres­i­dent is push­ing for a fast-paced break­through on North Korean nukes, a whirl­wind of diplo­macy that has spurred talk of a No­bel Peace Prize.

Yet in the Mid­dle East, where his moves on Is­rael, Syria and Iran have ad­ver­saries and some key al­lies fum­ing, many blame the ad­min­is­tra­tion for dis­dain­ing diplo­macy and dan­ger­ously rais­ing ten­sions.

By pulling out of the Iran nu­clear deal, Mr. Trump de­liv­ered on a ma­jor cam­paign prom­ise and trig­gered a wave of praise from sup­port­ers and some re­gional an­a­lysts. They are thrilled that the White House is fi­nally headed by some­one who does what says he will with­out fear of buck­ing al­lies and lead­ing on the world stage.

But the out­rage over Iran stands in sharp con­trast with the thaw Mr. Trump ap­pears bent on quickly achiev­ing with North Korea.

Killing the Iran deal — cou­pled with re­lo­cat­ing the U.S. Em­bassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and call­ing for a quick with­drawal of U.S. forces from Syria — has set nerves on edge in the for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment over the risk of mov­ing too hard and too fast with an “Amer­ica first” doc­trine that chafes some of Washington’s long­time in­ter­na­tional part­ners.

In both the­aters, Mr. Trump in his 15 months in of­fice has swiftly dis­man­tled key as­pects of Pres­i­dent Obama’s for­eign pol­icy legacy. He has walked away from the mas­sive Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade deal and pulled out of the Paris cli­mate agree­ment. He also has levied tough tar­iffs on lead­ing trad­ing part­ners, called out China for its boom­ing sur­pluses and re­stric­tive trade poli­cies, and vowed to tear up the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment if Mex­ico and Canada don’t agree to ma­jor changes, though the dead­line for rene­go­ti­a­tion passed.

Crit­ics say the dif­fer­ing ap­proaches in East Asia and the Mid­dle East re­flect a for­eign pol­icy based on an in­ex­pe­ri­enced pres­i­dent’s im­pulses and short-term fo­cus that have left the U.S. iso­lated, but some say the es­tab­lish­ment has it back­ward.

“Trump is not iso­lat­ing the U.S. in­ter­na­tion­ally; he’s ac­tu­ally re­assert­ing the U.S. as a power bro­ker again,” said Michael Pre­gent, a se­nior fel­low and Mid­dle East an­a­lyst with the Hud­son In­sti­tute think tank in Washington.

“Ev­ery­thing the pres­i­dent has done so far has been ac­com­pa­nied by dire warn­ings of catas­tro­phe by the group­think in Washington, D.C., when ac­tu­ally the op­po­site has hap­pened,” Mr. Pre­gent said in an in­ter­view.

“North Korea is mak­ing over­tures, China and Russia are help­ing us with North Korea. We pulled out of the Iran deal, and Europe is go­ing to pick work­ing with us, the $20 tril­lion econ­omy, over stick­ing with Iran, the $400 bil­lion econ­omy.”

Mr. Pre­gent did ex­press con­cern that Mr. Trump has yet to for­mu­late a long-term strat­egy for Iraq and Syria — and cau­tioned that the ad­min­is­tra­tion should be wary of mak­ing “bumper sticker” claims of for­eign pol­icy suc­cesses — but he said it’s ab­surd to see “the con­sen­sus among the es­tab­lish­ment is that the pres­i­dent has no strat­egy on any­thing.”

“He may not have a strat­egy the way Washington would want him to have one,” said Mr. Pre­gent. “But he has goals and, in that, strat­egy is de­vel­oped by the peo­ple who work with him.”

Crit­ics see at­tempts to pa­per over the re­al­ity that Mr. Trump has burned through a sec­re­tary of state, two na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers, a chief of staff, a chief White House strate­gist and a top eco­nomic ad­viser with well more than half his term to go.

“We have for­eign pol­icy by im­pulse, not by con­scious thought. Trump is a rogue ele­phant, crash­ing into the struc­ture of the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem and break­ing things with­out a plan,” said Gor­don Adams, a long­time for­eign pol­icy pro­fes­sor at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Mr. Trump’s stun­ning de­ci­sion to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un face to face to dis­cuss a peace deal faces a cloudy fu­ture, Mr. Adams said, while his dis­rup­tive moves in the Mid­dle East have pro­duced a back­lash.

“There is no way of know­ing whether the North Korea talks will lead to some­thing or not, and Trump threw away his pre­ma­ture No­bel Peace Prize when he stepped away from the [Iran deal], leav­ing fur­ther tur­moil in the Mid­dle East, alien­at­ing our al­lies and in­creas­ing the risk of war,” Mr. Adams said. “Trump’s im­pulses are for show, not for strate­gic pur­pose. There is no sign of a strat­egy here at all. By walk­ing away from TPP, the Paris cli­mate agree­ment and [the Iran deal], what he has done is sac­ri­fice U.S. global lead­er­ship.”

With the world re­bal­anc­ing at a rapid pace amid the rise of China, Mr. Adams said, the “ero­sion of U.S. power and the U.S. role is per­ma­nent, not tem­po­rary.”

Risk and re­ward

Given the sharp swerve since Mr. Trump took power, the for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment has strug­gled to ex­plain Mr. Trump’s moves, a task made harder by the bit­ing po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in Washington.

“As with a lot of things in this pres­i­dency, there is the strate­gic ex­pla­na­tion for ac­tions be­ing taken and then prob­a­bly the cor­rect ex­pla­na­tion,” said Hal Brands, a for­mer high-level Pen­tagon strate­gist who teaches global af­fairs at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity’s School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

“You can tell a story where get­ting out of the Iran deal is part of a larger strat­egy premised on the idea that we’re go­ing to bring the Ira­nian regime to its knees us­ing harder sanc­tions,” said Mr. Brands. “But you can also tell a story where the pres­i­dent just doesn’t like the Iran deal be­cause it was ne­go­ti­ated by Obama.

“My view is that the lat­ter is prob­a­bly true, and if that’s the case, it may be a mis­take to search for co­her­ence across Pres­i­dent Trump’s for­eign pol­icy across dif­fer­ent re­gions,” he said.

But some ar­gue that the pres­i­dent is free to charge ahead with his “Amer­ica first” doc­trine now that sev­eral early, more cau­tious ad­vis­ers are no longer on the team.

Rex W. Tiller­son, who as sec­re­tary of state fa­vored stay­ing in the Paris cli­mate ac­cord and the Iran deal, was fired. Gary Cohn quit his post as chief eco­nom­ics ad­viser af­ter bat­tling with the pres­i­dent on whether to im­pose tar­iffs on China.

H.R. McMaster re­signed as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser in March and was re­placed by the far more hawk­ish John R. Bolton. As a pri­vate an­a­lyst, Mr. Bolton ar­gued that Amer­ica needed a more ro­bust pos­ture glob­ally in­clud­ing, where nec­es­sary, the use of mil­i­tary force and the will­ing­ness to change regimes that are hos­tile to vi­tal U.S. in­ter­ests.

A se­nior White House na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cial said it’s ridicu­lous to say the churn­ing of aides ex­plains Mr. Trump’s in­creas­ingly as­sertive stances and will­ing­ness to chal­lenge the Washington for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment.

“The pres­i­dent does what he says he’s go­ing to do,” said the of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity with The Times. “The fact that this con­tin­u­ally shocks peo­ple says more about the state of our pol­i­tics than the state of the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Amer­ica first doesn’t mean Amer­ica alone,” the of­fi­cial added, call­ing that ar­gu­ment “one of the knee-jerk crit­i­cisms out there.”

“What ‘Amer­ica first’ means is: ‘How are we serv­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple, and is our for­eign pol­icy serv­ing the Amer­i­can peo­ple?’”

Some long­time for­eign pol­icy op­er­a­tives say Mr. Trump’s im­pacts on world crises will take a long time to eval­u­ate, par­tic­u­larly given the dra­matic changes he seeks to im­pose. And some deep forces are mov­ing for­ward no mat­ter who oc­cu­pies the Oval Of­fice.

“For all the at­ten­tion drawn to this pres­i­dent’s daily ac­tions, the met­rics of Amer­i­can strength are fi­nan­cial sol­vency, pub­lic ethics, a vi­brant mid­dle class, shared civic re­spon­si­bil­ity and a sense of higher pur­pose in the world,” said Lin­coln Bloom­field, a chair­man emer­i­tus of the Stim­son Cen­ter in Washington.

Mr. Bloom­field, who served in se­cu­rity posts in the Rea­gan and both Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions, said in an in­ter­view that “the in­ter­na­tional goal posts are geopo­lit­i­cal.”

Among them: “Re­spond­ing ef­fec­tively to Russia’s and China’s il­le­gal ter­ri­to­rial ex­pan­sion; ad­dress­ing nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile threats from North Korea and Iran; … elim­i­nat­ing sources of sup­port for ter­ror­ism, extremism and vi­o­lent non-state ac­tors; and re­vers­ing the dan­ger­ous anti-demo­cratic tide in the world.”

“As sports fans know, the play-by-play and rhetor­i­cal joust­ing are en­ter­tain­ing,” Mr. Bloom­field said. “But in the end, all that counts are the points on the board. For that we have to stay tuned.”


In the Mid­dle East and in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion, Pres­i­dent Trump in his 15 months in of­fice has swiftly dis­man­tled key as­pects of Pres­i­dent Obama’s for­eign pol­icy legacy.

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