Peace in Korea, War on Iran: Trump's Dystopian Policies
May 7, 2018
John Feffer / AntiWar.com & Peter Van Buren / AntiWar.com
Commentary: Donald Trump is a stern and wrathful leader. He thinks nothing of raining down fire and fury upon the enemies of his "chosen people." Indeed, he even flirts with ending the world if he doesn't receive due respect and the requisite number of burnt offerings. But he can also reward his followers, and those who curry his favor, with positions of power and untold riches. This month, Trump will appear as both of these avatars.
Peace in Korea, World War in the Middle East
Trump believes he can simultaneously capture a
Nobel Peace Prize for North Korea while leaping toward war with Iran
John Feffer / AntiWar.com
(May 7, 2018) -- The president giveth and he taketh away.
Donald Trump is a stern and wrathful leader. He thinks nothing of raining down fire and fury upon the enemies of his "chosen people." Indeed, he even flirts with ending the world if he doesn't receive due respect and the requisite number of burnt offerings. But he can also reward his followers, and those who curry his favor, with positions of power and untold riches.
This month, Trump will appear as both of these avatars. By meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump promises to wave his hand and create peace where before there was nothing but strife and dissension. At the same time, Trump the Destroyer has pledged to take the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and bring the world that much closer to apocalypse.
It's a peculiarly hypocritical position to take, but strangely consistent for a two-faced leader.
The deal with Iran closed off all possibility of the country going nuclear for a decade or more. A rich country, Iran could create quite a nuclear arsenal if it so wanted. Iran has abided by the terms of the current Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and yet Trump has called the deal "horrible." Indeed, the president believes that he can "fix" the JCPOA. That's quite a delusion.
Meanwhile, nuclear North Korea has indicated that it would get rid of its weapons only in exchange for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and a pledge from the United States not to attack.
A pledge from the United States? From the Trump administration?
In light of Trump's attitude toward previous US pledges to Iran and the presence of John Bolton as the new national security advisor, any promises from Washington are worth less than the 140 characters they're tweeted in. It's hard to imagine North Korea falling for such a canard.
So, to recap, Donald Trump will attempt this month to persuade a country to give up the nuclear weapons that serve as the deterrence of last resort while giving a green light to a non-nuclear country to restart its program.
Trump believes that he can simultaneously capture a Nobel Peace Prize for his approach to North Korea and take a giant leap toward war with Iran by deep-sixing the nuclear agreement. That's about as plausible as a duplicitous, managerially inept, barnyard bully of a sexual harasser becoming president of the United… Oh, never mind.
Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." I used to believe that was true. And then along came Trump and his two-faced approach to Iran and North Korea.
War and Peace
The Roman god Janus had two faces. One looked to the past, while the other gazed upon the future. Janus was the deity of transitions, which also meant that he was responsible for war and peace.
Plutarch writes that Janus:
has a temple at Rome with double doors, which they call the gates of war; for the temple always stands open in time of war, but is closed when peace has come. The latter was a difficult matter, and it rarely happened, since the realm was always engaged in some war, as its increasing size brought it into collision with the barbarous nations which encompassed it round about.
Peace is indeed a difficult matter, particularly when it comes to the United States. As former president Jimmy Carter recently told The New York Times: "I don't think that we adhere to a just approach to war, where we are supposed to make armed conflict a last resort and limit our damage to other people to a minimum. I think our country is known around the world as perhaps the most warlike major country there is." The temple doors in the imperial capital -- also known as the Pentagon -- are, alas, always open.
Donald Trump was certainly Janus-faced during the 2016 presidential campaign, denouncing the wars of the past while, at the same time, hurling rhetorical lightening bolts at a variety of enemies: the Islamic State, Iran, North Korea, China, Mexico. His occasional sallies against US adventurism overseas won him plaudits from a few befuddled anti-imperialists and criticism from some disappointed neo-cons. As president, however, Trump has hewed to a more traditional security policy of large military budgets, stepped-up drone warfare, and full-spectrum dominance.
North Korea is the curious exception to Trump's general rule of belligerence. It's not that he didn't initially subscribe to the same approach as his predecessors when he took office. He upped sanctions against Pyongyang, tried to persuade China to twist the arm of its erstwhile ally, and used intemperate language to describe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Then, like the rooster who believes that his crowing has caused the sun to rise, Trump took full credit for North Korea's turnabout at the beginning of 2018. In fact, when he offered to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un was responding not to US actions so much as his own domestic situation (progress in his nuclear program, political consolidation of power) and the overtures coming from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who'd taken office in 2017.
I'm not sure which is more depressing: Trump's self-delusion or the delusion of those who believe that they can influence Trump. Take, for instance, the anti-interventionist Rand Paul (R-KY), who agreed to support Mike Pompeo as secretary of state after Trump made some vague noises about ending the war in Afghanistan. (Actually, Trump has delegated tremendous powers to the Pentagon to prosecute the war in Afghanistan).
Paul is just the latest in a series of "Trump whisperers" who believe that they can make the president roll over and play dead. That includes all those who believe
that Trump should win a Nobel Prize for his efforts -- which so far have consisted of a single, impulsive decision to meet Kim Jong Un -- in the misguided belief that such a prize will buy Trump's everlasting support for Korean reunification.
The only thing that Trump supports without qualification is Trump. Those who believe in appeasing the false god occupying the Oval Office in this way should pay more attention to what's going on with Iran.
Listening to Unreason
The list of those who have tried to persuade Donald Trump of the value of the deal to close off Iran's path to a nuclear weapon is a long one. At the top of the list was Rex Tillerson, the now dearly departed secretary of state. Then there was the letter from 52 leading national security professionals, including former NSA and CIA head Michael Hayden and former Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar.
More recently, French President Emmanuel Macron came to Washington to see whether his legendary charisma could have an effect on Trump. It was part of an ill-advised European appeasement strategy to coax Trump into "fixing" the deal in a way that Russia, China, and Iran might find palatable.
Earlier, Tillerson had pressured France, Germany, and the UK to set up "working groups" to identify "concerns" in the existing treaty and how Iran might address them. Macron, on his visit to Washington, broached the possibility of a "new treaty," a departure from the European script that left some of his colleagues back home scratching their heads.
But then, two days ago, the UK released a statement that Prime Minister Teresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Macron are committed to "working closely" with the US on "those issues that a new deal might cover."
Dream on, Europeans. Haven't you learned anything from Munich, 1938?
Much more congenial to Trump's way of non-thinking is Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been pounding the drums for war with Iran for the better part of his political tenure as Israeli prime minister. This week, Netanyahu took to the airwaves to unveil the revelation that Iran indeed tried to build a nuclear weapons program.
Well, that's headline news…circa 2007. Maybe Netanyahu will host a follow-up program with all the evidence of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. He can call his program "Last Decade Tonight with Benjamin Netanyahu."
The timing of Netanyahu's "revelations" was critical, however. The French and Germans had their turn, and now Israel was following up with the knockout punch that Trump wants to use to get rid of the nuclear deal once and for all.
When will people realize that appeasing Trump is a very bad idea? Jeez, just look at all the administration officials who have been burned to a crisp flying so close to the sun. At the very least, such a flight pattern does bizarre things to one's moral compass.
The Coming Confrontation
The best outcome from the Korea discussions is Trump deciding to let the Koreans work out their problems by themselves. North Korea is far away, and it's hard to find anyone in the Pentagon who likes the odds of a regime-change military strategy. Maybe the vengeful Trump, after a modestly successful meeting with Kim Jong Un, will forget about North Korea when it's no longer in his field of vision.
The same can't be said about Iran. Netanyahu is chafing at the bit to escalate Israeli attacks on Iran, which so far have been confined to Iranian forces in Syria. Pompeo and the new National Security Advisor John Bolton are big fans of regime change in Iran. Trump seems to believe that the only way of fixing the Iran nuclear deal is by "fixing" Iran itself.
"I'm really good at war," Trump the Destroyer said in 2015. "I love war in a certain way. But only when we win."
In fact, a war with Iran would be catastrophic. And it probably wouldn't be confined to Iran itself. Russia and China could come to their ally's aid. Saudi Arabia would side with Israel and the United States. At minimum, the conflict would set the Middle East ablaze. But it could easily spread from there.
Frankly, compared to the prospect of world war, a much better outcome of the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal would be if Iran quickly acquired nuclear weapons. Then it could deter an Israeli and US attack. And then, as with North Korea, Donald Trump might realize the importance of striking a denuclearization treaty with a nuclear Iran.
Does that sound absurd? Of course it's absurd.
Welcome to the impossible world of America's two-faced president.
John Feffer is director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.
US Is Playing With Fire if It
Walks Away From the Iran Nuclear Deal on May 12
Peter Van Buren / AntiWar.com
(May 07, 2018) -- A foreign policy crisis is coming May 12. President Donald Trump's likely decision on that day to not continue waiving sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will significantly increase the chances of war.
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by China, Russia, and most of western Europe requires the American president to certify every three months Iran's nuclear program is in compliance with the deal. In return, the next quarter's economic sanctions are waived against the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Trump warned he was waiving sanctions for the final time, setting a May 12 deadline for significant changes in the agreement to be made. Failing those changes, Trump's non-signature would trigger sanctions to snap into place.
The changes Trump is insisting on – reduce Iran's ballistic missile capability, renegotiate the deal's end date, and allow unrestricted inspections – are designed to force failure.
Iran's ballistic missile program was purposefully never part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; as learned during the Cold War, trying to throw every problem into the same pot assured no agreement could ever be reached. Trump trying to add the missile program in three years after the agreement was signed is wholly outside the norms of diplomacy (and the art of dealmaking.)
Ballistic missile capability lies at the heart of Iran's defense. Sanctions have already kept the country from fielding any significant air force, and memories in Tehran of Iraqi air strikes on its cities in the 1980s when Iran lacked retaliatory capability lie deep. The missile program is the cornerstone of Iranian self-preservation and thus understood to be non-negotiable.
The 2030 agreement end date is to the Trump administration a ticking time bomb; Iran will nefariously lie in wait, springing whole into nuclear status 12 years from now. Leaving aside the original agreement was negotiated with such a deadline, and American policy has generally been for presidents to honor agreements in place as they take office, the worry over an Iran of the future going nuclear is pure drama.
Twelve years is a lifetime in the Middle East. Some 12 years ago Syria was at peace with its neighbors, and the United States happy to outsource torture to Assad as part of the War on Terror. Turkey was a democracy, Russia mostly a non-player in the region, and Iran was timidly facing the American military on two of its borders, open to broad negotiations with Washington.
There is more than enough to focus on in the Middle East of 2018 than what the area might look like strategically in 2030, even assuming Iran could surreptitiously keep its nuclear development going such to pop out of the cake in 12 years with a nuclear surprise. Washington's demand for an indefinite extension of limits on Iran's nuclear activities is political theater.
As for the concern Iran is not compliant with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body charged with monitoring the deal, has presented no such evidence. Iran has in fact shown itself anxious to stay in compliance; in two past minor instances where the Agency noted Iran exceeded its heavy water limits, Tehran immediately disposed of the excessive amount.
Trump has suggested he wants unprecedented access to any and all Iranian sites, including military sites not known to be part of any nuclear program. The United States never allowed carte blanche to the Soviets during the Cold War, no nation with the power to say no would.
Following the inspections ahead of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, where intelligence officers were embedded in the process and the results politicized, American credibility for this ask is low.
So these aren't really negotiating points, they're excuses for the United States itself to step out of compliance with an agreement. "President Trump appears to have presented the [Europeans] with a false choice: either kill the deal with me, or I'll kill it alone,' said Rob Malley, a senior American negotiator of the deal, and now head of the International Crisis Group.
None of this is a surprise. Trump has always wanted out of what he calls the "worst deal ever." His new foreign policy team – Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton – are also ardent opponents. While anything can happen inside a White House fueled by chaos, there is no plausible scenario that says the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will survive May 12. What happens next?
The likely effects of walking away from the agreement are global. Iran may immediately kick start its nuclear program. Tehran's hegemonic efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria would remain untouched if not intensify in retaliation. Iran's current missiles will still be able to reach Jerusalem and Riyadh.
The odds of the North Koreans agreeing to a nuclear deal decrease; imagine being the new State Department envoy sitting across from an experienced North Korean diplomat trying to answer his question "What is to say you won't do this to us in three years?"
European allies will be reluctant to join in future diplomatic heavy lifting in the Middle East or elsewhere, shy to commit only to see the Americans turn up their noses following another election. Relations could easily sink to the level of 2003, when America's bullheaded invasion of Iraq split the alliance.
Russia and China, signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will have a chance at being the "good guys," seizing an opening to expand cooperation with Iran at a time when American diplomacy might instead be looking for ways to drive wedges among them.
Meanwhile, the impact of renewed sanctions may be quite limited strategically. It is unclear if American pique will be followed by all of Europe falling into line with re-imposed sanctions; there is a lot of money in doing business in Iran and absent unambiguous proof Iran violated the agreement it is hard to see them going along in earnest.
It is even less clear Russia and China will follow the new sanctions regime. And even if some signatories agree to reimpose sanctions, there is little to suggest Iran's ambitions have been severely thwarted by decades of sanctions anyway. Had they been fully effective, there'd have been no need for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the first place.
Without the agreement, there is, to misquote Churchill, nothing left to "jaw jaw," leaving Iran free to develop its weapons and America only the option of destroying them. It's perhaps the dangerous scenario Washington, encouraged by an Israel who has sought the destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities for years, wants.
The Israeli air strikes which decimated Saddam's nuclear program and Syria's were small scale, directed against nearby, discrete targets, vulnerable above ground. Not so for Iran, whose nuclear facilities are far away, dispersed, underground, and protected by both a decent air defense system and a credible threat of conventional, terrorist, cyber, and/or chemical retaliation. And that's all before the newly-emboldened Russians weigh in.
The chance of terminating Iran's nuclear program is held against the risk of full-on war in the region. The United States is playing with real fire if it walks away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on May 12.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper's War: A Novel of WWII Japan.
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