“Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. He’s weak, and he’s ineffective. So the only way he figures that he’s going to get reelected — as sure as you’re sitting there — is to start a war with Iran.”
–Donald Trump in 2011
Developments in the Middle East and North Korea demonstrate the poverty of ideas in the Trump administration when a crisis unfolds. In the former case, the administration has responded to the death in Iraq of one American contractor and large protests outside the US embassy in Baghdad by sending in a marine detachment and warning Iran, which backs the militia that organized the protests. This is just the latest step in the forever proxy war in Iraq, in which Iran’s government responds to US sanctions and ensuing popular protests over the cost of living by making trouble next door, and Washington responds with military deployments, threats of further economic pressure, and now assassinations.* Of course, the upcoming US elections provide added incentives on both sides for mischief making.
In North Korea, meanwhile, the absence of progress in talks since Trump’s last meeting with Kim Jong-un has led to a new round of maneuvering. Kim’s latest message suggests some resignation: The DPRK’s objective of a deal with Trump that would reduce US sanctions has not been achieved, and therefore more sacrifice will be demanded of the people. But, contrary to some expert opinion, Kim did not rule out talks with Washington even as he warned that the North would soon unveil a “new strategic weapon.” He said: “If the U.S. persists in its hostile policy toward the D.P.R.K., there will never be denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. The scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude to the D.P.R.K.” That position echoes many past North Korea statements, and can just as easily be interpreted as a gambit to revive talks as a decision to avoid them.
Today’s New York Times editorial on US-Iran relations puts the matter precisely right: “by withdrawing from the nuclear deal and painting Iran as the premier evildoer in the Middle East, Mr. Trump and his lieutenants have left little room for dialogue. Far more likely is another provocation by Iran and more intractable entanglement for the United States.” With a few word adjustments, the same can be said of US-North Korea relations: By demanding that North Korea first eliminate its nuclear weapons before any discussion of sanctions relief can take place, the Trump administration has “left little room for dialogue. Far more likely is another provocation by [North Korea] and more intractable entanglement for the United States.”
How do we know if a return to dialogue would work with either Iran or North Korea? We don’t, but we do know two other things for sure. First, dialogue worked with Iran, producing a breakthrough nuclear deal with which Iran was in compliance; and it worked with North Korea to produce, among other agreements, acceptance of the principle (in 2005) of “action for action” rather than (as Trump and previous presidents would have it) complete denuclearization first and (maybe) rewards to follow. Second, we know that the Trump administration has no interest in serious dialogue with Iran and North Korea, by which I mean discussions undertaken with mutual respect, incentives to fulfill commitments, and sensitivity to history, and with the aim of reaching substantive, verifiable agreements that satisfy each party’s security concerns. Surely that approach is worth trying in preference to constant tension, “maximum pressure,” and potential war.
“Sanctions Man” still has a year to go. 2020 promises to be a repeat of threats over diplomacy.
*Just after completing this blog, I watched reports that a US air attack in Baghdad had killed the most senior Iranian military leader, General Qasem Soleimani.