Return to the Axis of Evil: The Legend of Curly’s Gold
Does the administration know what it is doing?
Being aware that if one has to explain a joke, especially one based on references, that one has failed to make much of joke, I will explain the title of this post. Currently, the Trump administration is involved in a number of fairly significant (arguably the two most significant of the administration to date) foreign policy actions. One was the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA), the other has been active engagement with the North Koreans, including a pending summit (apparently to be held on June 12th in Singapore).
Now, these two countries were part of a rhetorical trifecta used by George W. Bush presidency: the “Axis of Evil” (Iraq was the third). To summarize the history of these countries: Iraq, which ultimately did not have an active nuclear program, was invaded and regime-change instituted by force (with US troops still being present, and instability still a threat). Iran, which did have an active nuclear development program, eventually had a deal negotiated (which was abrogated by the Trump administration). North Korea, which has nuclear weapons, and has engaged in threatening behavior linked to their possible usage, is getting a head of state level summit, and promises of potential economic aid:
BREAKING: Pompeo: US to assist North Korea with its economy if it gets rid of nuclear weapons.
— The Associated Press (@AP) May 11, 2018
Also, the Axis of Evil adjacent country of Libya voluntarily gave up its nuclear program, and it ended up experiencing internal upheaval, NATO airstrikes, and the violent death of its multi-decade dictator.
A couple of weeks ago, I proposed a threefold scheme for talking about the Trump administration. I noted the notion of real policy difference, policy ignorance, and norm-violations. To be clear: both the Iran and North Korea policies are not norm-violations as presidents have wide latitude in this arena. Indeed, the JCPOA was negotiated as an executive agreement, and any president who followed Obama had every legal right to withdraw from the agreement. Likewise, Trump has every right to negotiate with North Korea.
The problem here is not that he is stepping outside the lines of his office. The problem is not even policy goals–the goals here are to decrease both North Korean and Iranian belligerence to the degree to which it inferences with US foreign policy interests. One can disagree with the approach (which I do), but the basic policy notions are within normal parameters. There does, however, appear to be a great deal of policy ignorance involved in the whole situation.
And so we find ourselves in a place where over 16 years after the Axis of Evil speech, our foreign policy is focused on the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. The problem is, to return to the reference in the title, that the sequel is not very good and may entail a ludicrous quest undertaken by a bunch of bumblers who may not know what they are doing. Indeed, like many sequels, parts of the old plot are repeated because the writers really didn’t have enough good ideas for two movies.
So, beyond the fact that the major players are the same as they were a decade and half ago, part of what makes this all feel like a bad sequel is that Trump’s approach reminds me a lot of the tough talk that Bush deployed right after 9/11. In those chaotic days and weeks after the attacks on the Twin Towers (and in the context of anthrax attacks and a prevailing anxiety about terrorism in general), Bush deployed direct, black-and-white rhetoric about how the US was going to get the bad guys–whether it was his bull-horn speech on the rubble pile in NYC, of declarations to the press that the US would get Bin Laden “dead or alive” it was a constant drumbeat. It was rhetoric that helped propel us into Afghanistan, and soon thereafter into Iraq. At the foundation of this rhetoric were two elements, one I have noted: it was good guys versus bad guys; the second was: US power can do anything if properly deployed, and its application, and the threat of additional force, will cow all those who threaten the US.
The reality is: the world is a complicated place and US power is finite. That which sounds good in a sound bite rarely makes for good foreign policy.
As such, it is easy for the president to say the following:
America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail. We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction. And we will not allow a regime that chants “Death to America” to gain access to the most deadly weapons on Earth.
Today’s action sends a critical message. The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them.
In the meantime, powerful sanction also go into full effect. If the regime continues its its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.
A lot of supporters will celebrate what they will see as directness as a virtue and will believe that this time we have a president who knows how to tell the world how to behave (but, again, we have seen the movie before and it never works out as promised). This is where the policy ignorance category comes into play.
A example of this faith made manifest is Eli Lake’s column from Bloomberg: Trump Is Now Free to Fight for Iranian Freedom. The piece is difficult to excerpt, but it will sound familiar to anyone who remembers the pre-Iraq era. The column claims, without any basis, that ending the nuclear deal increases the chances of democratization in Iran, and it uses quotes from an Iranian dissident as evidence. That is the scope of the piece. But, somehow, ending the deal equals a chance for democracy, so yay!
In regards to Iran, there is a more than fair case to be made that Iran’s behavior in the region is counter to US interests as are its ballistic missile tests. And sure, it would be peachy if Iranian moderates and liberal could be in charge and steer the country towards democracy. The problem is that withdrawal of the JCPOA in and of itself furthers none of those goals, and worse, as Dan Drezner notes, There is no Plan B on Iran.
Plan B begins to bear more than a passing resemblance to the Underpants Gnomes Theory of Profit. Step 1 is terminating the Iran deal. Step 3 is Iran complying with all U.S. demands. Step 2? Step 2 is a wee bit hazy.
For those of you keeping score at home, Step 2 is kinda important. The notion that that powerful sanctions will bring Iran to the negotiating table to eliminate nukes, curtail ballistic missile development, and halt funding for Hezbollah, etc. is a fantasy. Part of this fantasy assumes that the conditions prior to the JCPOA can be replicated and strengthened, without any reason to think this possible (and, indeed, evidence to suggest the direct opposite). In other words, the whole reason that the JCPOA was made possible in the first place is that coordinated sanctions created a context for negotiation. Trump seems to think that he can generate stronger sanctions and more concessions from Iran, but in an international context that has less chances of coordinated action, let alone stronger sanctions.
A president and an administration that had some semblance of understanding of foreign policy might have used US concerns over Iranian behavior to leverage the JCPOA success to further communication. Instead, as Drezner concludes his piece:
Five years ago, powerful multilateral sanctions were able to push Iran into signing the JCPOA. There is no reason to believe that less powerful sanctions from a narrower coalition is going to yield greater concessions from Iran.
Some Iran hawks have already expressed the hope that renewed sanctions will lead to regime change in Tehran. I hope that they prove to be right. But hope is not a viable Plan B. It is far more naive than anything contained in the JCPOA.
Is the Iran deal a flawed agreement? Absolutely. There is no such thing as a pristine international agreement. All deals like the JCPOA are, by their very nature, compromises. But that’s not what matters. What matters is whether the alternative has fewer flaws. The Trump administration has a lot of lofty, utopian goals on Iran. But its hawks sound like the most naive foreign policymakers on the planet.
There is no Plan B. And that is a far worse outcome than staying in the Iran deal.
The emphasized section (by me) is key to why the whole notions that a more direct president can get better results is flawed: because any deal (to use the term the president loves so much) requires compromise. The president promises naive followers that he can get a better deal. Great! (better is always better!). The question of what better looks like, or how it can be achieved is another matter, however. So while the administration has stuck to Obama and to Iran, it is unclear how the US is now better off than it was.
To add another Daniel (Larsison) to the mix (The Stupidity of Reneging on the Nuclear Deal):
Reneging on the nuclear deal doesn’t serve any American interests and does significant harm to several of them. Other states will be less willing to trust the U.S. to honor its obligations. That will raise the costs of every negotiation the U.S. conducts with other governments during the current administration. Every government that cooperated with the U.S. to secure the deal will remember how Trump simply threw away a major diplomatic achievement for the sake of spite and ideology, and they will be less inclined to cooperate with Washington the next time their help is needed.
Withdrawing from the JCPOA is a huge unforced error and self-inflicted wound whose full costs we won’t realize until later, and it represents a serious setback to the cause of nonproliferation. Trump is walking away from a deal that got the U.S. almost everything it wanted at virtually no cost, and he is doing it mainly because it allows him to repudiate his predecessor’s work. It is a perfect example of putting petty self-interest and pique ahead of the interests of the United States, and it has absolutely nothing to do with putting America first.
All of this feeds into the North Korea negotiations, because it raises the following question: how is unilaterally withdrawing from a major agreement with Iran roughly a month before a negotiation with North Korea a good idea? I ask because we, as a country, just demonstrated our willingness to pull out of a deal even when the parties to the deal are complying. Further, if the argument about the JCPOA is that executive agreements are flimsy and can be overturned by a subsequent administration (which is fair), guess what any Trump-Kim deal will consist of?
Also: one of the weird aspects of this moment in time, the administration is willing to hold direct talks with North Korea but not with Iran. This is relevant because while Iran deserves a great deal of criticism on its regime and its human rights record, North Korean is far, far worse in both arenas.
To go deeper into my reference bucket, one member of the Axis of Evil got the gold mine, the other the shaft (I won’t explain that one, feel free to identify in the comments). The problem is: the country that behaved (in a relative sense) is the one getting the shaft, and the one that used overt belligerence (remember when we thought an attack on Guam might be a real possibility) is poised to get a deed for the gold mine, which I suppose, to tie the references together, contains Curly’s gold (which Billy Crystal’s character never did get in the movie, even if it ended with the map proving to be real).
As I have noted before, I support direct talks with North Korea (and, for that matter, with Iran). I do, however, question a Trump-Kim summit at this point in time because, despite all the happy talk, it is unclear that any concrete agreements are near completion. Further, it has to be continually stressed: North Korea has already got what it wanted: treatment like a peer with the US. When the Trump administration states that the US is getting concessions from NK without giving anything up, they reveal their ignorance: 1) the North Koreans have not made any real concessions as yet (it has all been rhetoric, save the prisoner release this week, which is a good thing, so credit where credit is due), and 2) the US has made a huge concessions: as the President of the United States of America is going to sit down and treat Kim Jong Un as a peer.
To conclude and recap with the Axis of Evil:
- Iraq, no nuclear weapons (or even much of a program): invaded, and regime changed.
- Iran, active nuclear program: negotiated agreement, later abrogated by the United States.
- North Korea, actual nuclear weapons, to include ballistic missile technology that might could reach the US mainland, as well as threats on US territory, at least rhetorically, in this calendar year: sit-down talks with the President of the United States, and public statement from the Secretary of State about possible economic aid.
(And throw in the Libya situation for good measure: voluntary cessation of nuclear program, dead dictator).
So, the good news in all of this is that the Trump administration is not acting in a norm-violating fashion in these arenas, nor are they really functioning outside what might be deemed relatively normal policy parameters, but they sure are demonstrating a lack of learning, if not some serious ignorance.
A lot of supporters will say, “wait and see, this time will be different because Trump has the will to accomplish what past presidents have not,” and while the future may be different this time I can’t help but think that Trump is no better a Green Lantern than many previous presidents have been (short version of that reference: there is no reason to assume that will is enough now than was the case in the case, and that is without getting into the question of whether Trump even had more willpower than previous presidents–indeed his diet and his lack of marital fidelity suggests he lacks much in the way of willpower).