Daniel Larison

Setting the North Korea Summit Up to Fail

The Trump administration’s support for diplomatic engagement is as shallow as ever:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday that the United States would leave negotiations with North Korea if the upcoming meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un over the North’s nuclear program goes in the wrong direction.

“A bad deal is not an option. The American people are counting on us to get this right. If the right deal is not on the table, we will respectfully walk away,” Pompeo said in his opening remarks for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Put another way, Trump will abandon negotiations at the first opportunity when it becomes clear that North Korea won’t give away everything in exchange for little or nothing. Bear in mind that this administration thinks the most rigorous nonproliferation agreement to date was the “worst” deal ever made, so their ability to assess the quality of such agreements is severely impaired or lacking all together. Between their unrealistic expectations of what North Korea is willing to concede and their maximalist demands for what North Korea must give up, they have already set the bar so high that any compromise that might be struck in Singapore won’t be good enough. That has been consistent with both Trump and Pompeo’s views of diplomatic engagement: compromise amounts to appeasement or surrender, and the only deal worth having is the one that cannot possibly be reached.

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Trump’s Unreasonable Maximalism

Suzanne Maloney expands on her criticism of Pompeo’s preposterous Iran speech:

Insisting on an unequivocal end to the full inventory of Iranian misdeeds is not a starting point for a serious negotiation. It’s magical thinking to suggest that after 40 years and at the apex of its regional reach, the Islamic Republic will proffer a blanket capitulation in exchange for the promise of a future treaty with a government that has just jettisoned an existing agreement.

The Trump administration’s approaches to Iran and North Korea share many of the same flaws, and this expectation of total capitulation by the other side in exchange for reversible, unreliable promises is one of them. It is indeed magical or wishful thinking to expect that either of these governments will offer the huge concessions that the administration is demanding, but perhaps the administration’s reason for making maximalist demands is to ensure that no agreement can ever be reached.

Pompeo’s speech was obnoxious, but it was useful in clarifying how absurd and dishonest hawkish objections to the nuclear deal have been from the start. The administration has inadvertently demonstrated why the all-inclusive “better” deal that Iran hawks claimed was possible in 2015 was always out of reach. Iran hawks predictably want to curtail all Iranian activities in the region, but there has never been the slightest chance that Iran would agree to what they wanted.

No self-respecting government would agree to forego both their foreign policy and their nuclear program even if the U.S. could be trusted to honor its side of the bargain. It is peculiar how self-described nationalists here in the U.S. are consistently the last to understand that other nations value their independence and sovereignty and resent being dictated to by our government. If some other major power were making such a demand of a much weaker country, we would recognize this as the bullying and aggressive behavior that it is. The U.S. has no right or authority to tell another state how it should conduct its foreign policy, and it is the height of American arrogance to think that the rest of the world should fall in line to support our government’s unreasonable demands.

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The Cult of Mohammed bin Salman

Crown Prine Mohammed bin Salman. (U.S. Department of State)

Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi responds to the news of the latest crackdown on activists:

Religious fanaticism that had tarnished Saudi Arabia’s image for decades has given way to a new and perhaps more pernicious fanaticism, a cult of blind loyalty to our leader.

Mohammed bin Salman’s Western cheerleaders have unfortunately helped to promote that cult because of their misplaced confidence in the crown prince’s judgment. The crown prince has done very little to earn the praise he has received from his fans in the West, and most of what he has done has been reckless and destructive. MbS’ approach to domestic “reform” has proven to be very similar to his handling of foreign affairs: the crown prince overreaches, sets unrealistic goals, acts impulsively, makes lots of enemies, and he manages to antagonize and attack even those that are ostensibly on his “side.”

I suspect for many of his admirers consider his record to be irrelevant as long as he persists in his hostility to Iran, but it is possible that some his fans will start to lose confidence if he keeps behaving this way. The latest crackdown should serve as a wake-up call for all of them that MbS is not the ruler they thought made him out to be. The same recklessness that has led Saudi Arabia into waging disastrous and atrocious war on Yemen mars everything the crown prince does, and it is more likely than not going to lead to greater instability and upheaval in the years to come.

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Don’t Mention the (Libyan) War

Pence repeated Trump’s reckless threat against North Korea yesterday:

US Vice President Mike Pence warned North Korea that it could end up like Libya if it fails to make a nuclear deal with Washington.

“There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and you know, as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Pence said Monday.
When it was noted that the comparison could be interpreted as a threat, Pence told Fox News: “Well, I think it’s more of a fact.”

It was bad enough when Trump blurted this out last week, but saying it a second time on purpose makes things worse. Repeatedly bringing up the 2011 Libyan war in connection with North Korea diplomacy is either proof of the administration’s ineptitude or an attempt at deliberate sabotage of the negotiations. When Pence says that “this will only end like the Libyan model ended” if Kim doesn’t make a deal, he is repeating a threat to attack, overthrow, and kill Kim unless he surrenders his government’s nuclear weapons. Kim assumes that Gaddafi’s error was in agreeing to dismantle his much less advanced nuclear program in exchange for normalization and security guarantees, so he is not going to take his chances by handing over nuclear weapons. He certainly won’t do that when he is being threatened with an attack if he doesn’t play ball. The threat is as obnoxious as it is crazy, and if it were carried out could even lead to a nuclear exchange. It will just confirm the North Korean government in its belief that it needs a nuclear deterrent for self-preservation, and it will poison the atmosphere at the summit if the threat isn’t retracted publicly.

The best thing that every member of the Trump administration could do from now on is to stop mentioning Libya and stop making comparisons to what happened to Gaddafi for the rest of Trump’s term. They obviously don’t understand or don’t care how alarming all this Libya talk is to the North Korean side, and the more they bring it up the worse it will be for making any diplomatic progress. What makes this “Libyan model” talk especially worrisome for the U.S. and its allies is that Trump and Pence may be seriously contemplating launching an attack on North Korea if the negotiations don’t yield the impossible results they expect. The administration’s dangerous rhetoric needs to be identified and called out for what it is, and members of Congress need to make clear that the president doesn’t have the authority to order an attack on North Korea on his own.

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Trump and Pompeo Are Spitting in the Faces of Our Allies

Walter Russell Mead describes why European allies are angry about Trump’s reneging on the nuclear deal, but he can’t grasp that they are right to be angry:

To the Europeans, Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran deal and impose sanctions on European companies that trade with Iran is a profound betrayal. As they see it, the U.S. made a solemn commitment to observe the deal after European countries entered into it in good faith. Harming European commerce with Iran to serve American interests is the act of a bully and an overlord, not of an ally and friend.

Mead predictably misses the point that European allies mostly resent the presumption that the U.S. should dictate their foreign policy choices to them. Commerce between Europe and Iran is greater than it is between the U.S. and Iran, but it is trivial when compared to their larger commercial interests. Contrary to the nonsense spouted by Mead and other WSJ columnists, European governments are not feuding with the Trump administration for the sake of commercial opportunities in Iran but rather as a way of asserting their right to conduct their own foreign policy free of American dictates. For that reason, Pompeo’s preposterous Iran speech has gone over very poorly in Europe, and our allies aren’t going to offer support to the administration’s hare-brained scheme. Trump and Pompeo have been spitting in the faces of our allies, and it is no wonder that they object to it in the strongest terms.

The issue for our allies is that Washington is trying to force them to do something against their will for no good reason, and they naturally oppose attempts to penalize them for adhering to agreement that the U.S. encouraged them to support just a few years ago. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. has betrayed several of its genuine treaty allies for the sake of placating bad clients that wish to ratchet up tensions with Iran. It is a bad trade-off for the U.S. and the region, and a competent analyst would be able to explain that to his readers. Unfortunately, Mead can’t or won’t do that.

The French ambassador to the U.S. effectively dismisses Mead’s argument in a short statement:

In case Mead doesn’t understand this message, it was the U.S. that arbitrarily changed its position on the nuclear deal and started threatening its allies with punitive measures if they refused to go along with it. Our allies have remained committed to the agreement that they negotiated alongside our government, and the contrast between their conduct and the behavior of this administration is embarrassing for the U.S.

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The War on Yemen and Pompeo’s Propaganda

Pompeo’s Iran speech was awful in many ways, including its completely one-sided and dishonest portrayal of the war on Yemen:

In Yemen, Iran’s support for the Houthi militia fuels a conflict that continues to starve the Yemeni people and hold them under the threat of terror [bold mine-DL].

The IRGC has also given Houthi missiles to attack civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and to threaten international shipping in the Red Sea.

What Pompeo doesn’t mention here is that the conflict was escalated by the Saudi coalition with U.S. backing that continues to this day. The people of Yemen are being starved in large part because of the coalition blockade that the U.S. supports. Yemeni civilians are most often terrorized by indiscriminate coalition bombings of their cities and towns. All indiscriminate attacks should be condemned, but the reason why there are missiles being fired at Saudi Arabia and the UAE is their relentless and bloody bombardment of Yemen that has caused thousands of civilian casualties, devastated the country’s infrastructure, and helped to cripple its health care system. If there had been no Saudi-led intervention, these attacks would not be happening, and if the intervention ended the attacks would likely come to an end as well. The administration has no demands for the governments that are actually destroying Yemen, but rather looks for excuses to continue helping them with their indiscriminate and reckless bombing.

If all Iranian support stopped tomorrow, the war wouldn’t end because Iran’s involvement has always been minimal. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been unstinting in providing the intervening coalition governments with weapons, fuel, and intelligence to wage their atrocious war. Of course, the Trump administration doesn’t want to cut off support to the coalition, and they certainly don’t care about alleviating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. They are content to aid and abet the Saudi coalition in their crimes while using limited Iranian involvement to distract attention from our own much more consequential and destructive role.

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Pompeo’s Iran Ultimatum Makes War More Likely

Barbara Slavin comments on the demands contained in Pompeo’s preposterous Iran speech:

Pompeo listed 12 demands that range from Iran ending all uranium enrichment and providing anywhere, anytime access to “all sites” within the country to stopping support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran’s other historic partners in the Middle East. He also demanded that Iran withdraw “all forces under Iranian command” from Syria, where Iranians and Shia militias have been fighting at the request of the Damascus government.

The demands would require that the Iranian leopard not just change its spots but transform itself into a lamb, subordinated to the wishes of the U.S. and Iran’s regional rivals — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Pompeo conceded that the demands “may seem unrealistic” but insisted, without providing any evidence, that they would achieve buy-in from U.S. allies.

Pompeo’s speech summed up everything that is wrong with the Trump administration’s handling of Iran and the nuclear deal and with the policy preferences of Iran hawks generally. The U.S. has much less leverage and virtually no international support for a more restrictive nuclear agreement, but Pompeo is demanding that Iran accept “zero enrichment” that much greater international pressure failed to get. It won’t succeed, and it is more likely to widen rifts between the U.S. and our allies in the process. Just as the Trump administration makes unrealistic, maximalist demands of North Korea, they are making equally fantastical and extreme demands of Iran. The 12 demands Pompeo lists would never be accepted by any state, much less one that has just learned that the U.S. can’t be trusted to honor its commitments, and they are reminiscent of the ultimatum that the Saudi-led bloc delivered to Qatar last year. Like the ultimatum to Qatar, this one will also backfire and produce exactly the opposite of the results that the administration says it wants.

Except for the demand to release U.S. citizens, every one of the things Pompeo calls for is a non-starter with Iran. To agree to most or all of them would be for all intents and purposes to surrender its foreign policy decision-making to Washington and U.S. clients and to abandon all of the governments and groups that have relied on its support until now. Imagine how a similar list of demands from a hostile state would be greeted in Washington and you get some idea of how ridiculous and offensive Pompeo’s speech will seem to Iran’s government and most Iranians.

Perhaps the most insulting part of Pompeo’s speech was the pretense that the administration is concerned to help the Iranian people. If that were true, the U.S. wouldn’t be piling on punishing sanctions and making unreasonable demands for Iranian surrender. The main effect of the administration’s Iran policy will be to stoke Iranian nationalism, strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, and make Tehran even more intransigent on all of the issues that Pompeo cited as problems. This is a recipe for increased tensions and increased risk of an unnecessary war with Iran and its allies, and it subordinates U.S. policy to the interests of our reckless regional clients at the expense of American interests.

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Pompeo’s Preposterous Iran Speech

Mike Pompeo, CIA director (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Mike Pompeo’s speech on Iran policy this morning at the Heritage Foundation was even more unmoored from reality than I expected. The speech consisted mainly of rattling off Washington’s usual complaints against Iran, threatening Iran with sanctions, and then making a laundry list of demands that Iran would never conceivably agree to. Pompeo was effectively issuing an ultimatum to Iran with his declarations of what they “must” do, and the ultimatum is so extensive and unreasonable that we have to assume that the administration intends for it to be rejected. As I said earlier today, it is obviously a pretext for escalation and conflict. Emma Ashford had a similar reaction:

Pompeo’s speech has been billed variously as “plan B” following the president’s decision to renege on the nuclear deal or as a “new strategy” for Iran, but there doesn’t appear to be much of a plan or strategy beyond inflicting punishment on the Iranian government and people for punishment’s sake. Suzanne Maloney sees it as a prelude to pushing for regime change:

There is no connection between the administration’s actions and its desired goals, and there doesn’t appear to be any connection between its goals and U.S. national interests. Israel and the Gulf states will be pleased with what Pompeo had to say, since it is the sort of mindless confrontation with Iran that they have been urging the U.S. to pursue for years, but the U.S. is unlikely to find much support for this reckless and aggressive Iran policy elsewhere in the world.

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Another Crackdown by the Saudi ‘Reformer’

Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner, and his wife, Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump,at the Murabba Palace with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The latest Saudi crackdown has led to the arrest of several of the very same activists who called for an end to the ban on women drivers:

Nearly four years later, Ms. al-Hathloul is back behind bars, after a government crackdown swept up at least seven prominent women’s rights advocates just weeks before the government is to abolish the driving ban. The clampdown has made adversaries of activists who typically would be allies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s liberalizing agenda, sounding the alarm on the limits of social change in the conservative kingdom.

“Everybody thought that by granting women the right to drive Mohammed bin Salman is a great reformer,” says Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi opposition activist and professor at the London School of Economics. “That’s nonsense. He is a person who wants to reach the top at any cost.”

The Saudi government is autocratic and repressive, and relaxing a few of the rules doesn’t change the nature of the government. Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) may be willing to loosen some restrictions for the sake of appearances, but as these latest arrests show he absolutely won’t tolerate any meaningful dissent or criticism. This was already clear when the government was rounding up dissidents last year and executing peaceful critics of the government, and it is impossible to miss now. MbS’ many cheerleaders in the West were quick to credit him as a “reformer” before he had done much of anything, and they applauded him for what he said he would do in the future rather than wait to see what he actually did. As MbS continues consolidating power prior to his succession to the throne, we should expect more crackdowns like this.

Like practically everything MbS does, the latest crackdown has been heavy-handed and unnecessary:

Pro-government media outlets and Twitter accounts have since unleashed a smear campaign branding those detained as “traitors.”

The Saudi daily Al Jaziran ran a front-page story on Saturday with the photos of Ms. al-Hathloul and Ms. al-Yousef with the headline “There is no place for traitors among us.” The hashtags “embassy agents” and “traitors of the religion and the motherland” on Sunday were trending in Saudi Arabia on Twitter, a platform that is popular among Saudis and closely monitored by the government.

Authoritarian regimes often try to portray internal dissenters as agents of foreign powers in order to maintain the fiction that no “real” patriot would question or challenge the regime. While this may suppress dissent for a time, it exposes the fragility and lack of confidence of the regime that does it.

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The Trump Administration’s Confusion and the North Korea Summit

This New York Times report on Trump’s reaction to recent North Korean moves confirms that the president badly misunderstood the North Korean position all along:

Mr. Trump was both surprised and angered by a statement issued on Wednesday by the North’s chief nuclear negotiator, who declared that the country would never trade away its nuclear weapons capability in exchange for economic aid, administration officials said.

Trump should not have been surprised by this, but his usual combination of vanity and ignorance set him up for a fall. He didn’t know that North Korea wouldn’t accept the administration’s demands because he doesn’t understand the relevant issues or definitions (and isn’t bothering to learn them), and he spent the last several weeks congratulating himself for extracting “concessions” from Kim than had never happened and weren’t forthcoming. The North Korean and U.S. positions were and still are far apart, but Trump agreed to the summit because he wrongly believed that North Korea was prepared to capitulate.

The administration’s recent celebratory rhetoric about the effectiveness of the “maximum pressure” campaign strengthens the impression that no one in the administration has understood what was going on. It is an indictment of Trump’s entire national security team, especially Bolton and Pompeo, that it took Trump this long to understand the North Korean position correctly. It is only now beginning to dawn on them that North Korea’s position isn’t what they thought it was, but they still don’t grasp that their position has remained the same and the administration officials are the ones who have failed to pick up on it until now.

Going into the summit with unrealistic expectations was always dangerous, because those expectations were sure to be disappointed and diplomatic engagement would suffer a serious setback. If the Trump administration realizes this and corrects for its earlier error, the summit might not be a complete waste. As long as Trump remains wedded to the fantasy of “complete, verifiiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” he is not going to have any success in Singapore next month. Then again, considering how little effort the president is making to prepare for the summit it is doubtful that the summit will yield anything of value.

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