Neatly defining President Trump’s foreign policy has never been easy, characterized as it is by contradictory impulses, fragmentary ideas, and strains of paradox. However, on the two most arresting national security issues at the top of Trump’s agenda—Iran and North Korea—his approach is plain: aggressive confrontation is good; diplomacy is bad.
The problem is that, even if Trump himself is not determined to go to war with either of these countries, he is making it far more likely.
Last month, Trump once again waived nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, consistent with our obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 agreement that provided economic sanctions relief in exchange for Iran significantly rolling back its nuclear program and subjecting it to an intrusive international inspections regime. However, Trump vowed it would be the last time he acts to uphold the deal.
The president’s antipathy toward the JCPOA is not rational. Indeed, there is a virtual consensus—including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), our European allies, China, Russia, and the U.S. military and intelligence community—that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal and that it is working as designed. If Trump’s effort to upend the JCPOA leads to its collapse, it would unburden Iran from the deal’s restrictions and rob the international community of unprecedented visibility into Iran’s program.
In a New York Times op-ed marking 15 years since Colin Powell’s United Nations speech making the case for war with Iraq, retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who helped draft the speech as Powell’s chief of staff, warns, “the Trump administration is using much the same playbook [as the Bush administration did with Iraq] to create a false choice that war is the only way to address the challenges presented by Iran.”
Though Wilkerson uses the phrase “Trump administration,” it is important to note that most of the president’s own cabinet is not with him on this. Indeed, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, and Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten, among others, all believe that staying in the deal is in the U.S. national interest, while undermining it presents unnecessary risks. Indeed, these voices have successfully dissuaded Trump from withdrawing from the deal thus far.
Still, the president has other allies, including UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and CIA Director Mike Pompeo—and Wilkerson is right that they are employing familiar tactics. The Guardian reported in August that “U.S. intelligence officials are under pressure from the White House to produce a justification to declare Iran in violation of a 2015 nuclear agreement, in an echo of the politicization of intelligence that led up to the Iraq invasion.” In November, Pompeo selectively released documents from the Bin Laden raid meant to suggest an operational connection between Iran and al-Qaeda, not unlike the efforts of some Bush administration officials in the lead up to Iraq. Haley’s theatrical speech in December, complete with a Hollywood-worthy backdrop of Iranian missiles, was short on evidence, didn’t stand up to scrutiny, and was reminiscent of Powell’s dramatic UN presentation, with vials of anthrax as visual aids.
To a certain extent, the real value of the JCPOA is not the technical limitations it imposes on Iran’s nuclear program. Rather, the real value of the deal is that it erects a psychological barrier to the United States going to war with Iran for utterly deficient reasons. This barrier seems to frustrate Trump, who despises limitations on his authority.
Whether the president has such designs or not, there should be no doubt that he is making war more likely—a war that Wilkerson rightly points out, “would be 10 to 15 times worse than the Iraq war in terms of casualties and costs.”
The approach to North Korea is perhaps even more troubling. Last week, President Trump decided to revoke his planned nomination of Victor Cha as Ambassador to South Korea. Why? Because Cha voiced concerns about the prospect of a limited U.S. military strike against Pyongyang on the grounds that it would escalate uncontrollably to full-scale war in Northeast Asia, likely featuring tit-for-tat nuclear strikes, killing millions in short order.
These objections, which Cha later spelled out in a Washington Post op-ed, were enough to banish him from the Trump administration. Until this incident, most observers assessed the administration’s loose talk of war with North Korea was merely a bluff intended to frighten Pyongyang into capitulation or pressure China to do more to rein in its churlish client. But the dismissal of Cha suggested otherwise.
Adding to the concern, “the White House has grown frustrated,” the New York Times reported Thursday, over “the Pentagon’s reluctance to provide President Trump with options for a military strike against North Korea.” The Pentagon "is worried that the White House is moving too hastily toward military action on the Korean Peninsula that could escalate catastrophically,” the Times added. “Giving the president too many options, the officials said, could increase the odds that he will act.”
Congress, too, is beginning to try to check the president on this: a group of Democratic senators sent a letter to Trump reminding him that he lacks legal authority to attack North Korea (though this hasn’t deterred the president in the past).
It is deeply worrisome that both Congress and the executive branch feel the need to actively contain Trump’s aggressive inclinations on these fronts. Unfortunately, the president is as much a product as he is a driver of America’s political and media zeitgeist, which has inflated the threat from Iran and North Korea to pathological proportions. In reality, neither regime poses a clear and present danger to the security of the United States, certainly not one requiring military action. The fever pitch surrounding each is more of our own making than anything else and Trump’s hawkish approach is by no means imposed on him by circumstances.
The question is whether the president can be convinced of this before his bombast begets a war nobody wants to fight.