Tag: Nuclear weapons

The North Korea conundrum

While America can’t seem to get enough of issues like healthcare and Trump’s Russia connection, North Korea is getting precious few electrons. It deserves more. The hermit kingdom, as we used to call it, is now a nuclear power developing ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan if not yet the US. President Obama famously told then President-elect Trump that Pyongyang should be at the top of his to-do list.

That hasn’t happened. President Trump has demonstrated more interest in the cancellation of his erstwhile TV reality show than the launch of multiple missiles into the Sea of Japan. Except for a conversation with Japan’s Prime Minister and deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea, there has been precious little public sign of White House interest in the issue.

That might be the good news. The last thing the world needs is one of Trump’s rapid fire decisions. Josh Rogin, who is smart and well-informed about these things, says the National Security Council deputies and principals are seized with the issues. They reportedly don’t like Pyongyang’s suggestion that it could stop the missile tests if the US abandoned its military exercises with South Korea, which the North regards as hostile.

Washington will naturally look to Beijing to bring additional pressure on Pyongyang. The Chinese have, however, already cut their coal imports from North Korea as well as many exports to their ill-behaved neighbor. Beijing hesitates to go further because the last thing it wants is the North Korean regime to collapse, which could send refugees fleeing into China and precipitate reunification with a South Korea allied with the US.

There aren’t a lot of other good options out there. Pyongyang has thousands of missiles and artillery pieces already pointed at Seoul. Any belligerent US or South Korean moves could trigger a horrendous barrage. Destroying a North Korean missile on the launch pad, as Ash Carter and Bill Perry proposed more than 10 years ago, has gotten far more difficult, because Pyongyang has made its missiles mobile. The US could agree to talk with the North Koreans, something candidate Trump suggested he would want to do as president. But it is not clear what such talks could do to improve the situation. Yielding to them now would confirm in Kim Jong-un’s perspective that missile tests get attention.

Regime survival is Pyongyang’s top priority. Possession of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles is arguably the best guarantee possible that the US and South Korea will not risk war. Even converting the armistice that ended the Korean War into a peace treaty with American, North Korean, and South Korean signatures would not match that, in particular for a regime committed to extreme self-reliance.

This is not a pretty picture: a real threat to American allies in the Pacific and very few options to manage it. Americans elected Donald Trump to deal with such a conundrum. Let’s see how he does.

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Will Trump disappoint as much as Obama?

In his Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture February 28, Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm discussed the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East and America’s foreign policy options within the context of the Obama administration’s legacy in the region and the Trump administration’s inheritance.

Gnehm focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath as well as intervention by outside powers in regional power struggles. With hopes dashed and chaos raging across the region, old power centers such as the military and entrenched bureaucracies have reasserted themselves and undone much of the work the revolutions hoped to do. The conflicts erupting in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, have led to increased external intervention and proxy conflict. Notably, Iran and Russia have spread their influence and military clout around the region in pursuit of their own national interests.

The US has remained notable for its absence. Obama’s reluctance to intervene confused and angered many traditional American allies. This led to a widespread view in the Middle East that a gap exists between expectations and US performance. Obama’s hopeful rhetoric in 2009 in Cairo did little to create actionable change in the region. The administration’s failure to follow through on its Syria red line was devastating to American credibility and lost the United States respect in the region. Although the Obama administration’s efforts in combating ISIS and supporting the Syrian opposition were significant, the widespread feeling of disappointment is Trump’s inheritance as he took the reins earlier this year.

Gnehm weighed Trump’s policy options in confronting the regional landscape as it stands and in charting a course for the future. In Syria, Trump could continue the present policy of arming Kurds and rebels, ramp up American military presence, or accept the existing Russian and Iranian influence. Although each option has its consequences, Gnehm felt that directly engaging militarily with ISIS would underscore Trump’s current rhetoric. In Iraq, Trump could continue supporting the Iraqi government to regain control of territory and  continue to provide assistance and training to Iraqi Kurds, or he could increase American involvement.

Iran poses a greater challenge to Trump due to its opportunistic bids for power in the region, which undercut Saudi Arabia and position Tehran as the champion of Islam. With regards to the nuclear deal, Gnehm saw four options Trump could pursue:

  • directly confront Iran and respond with force to force,
  • impose new sanctions,
  • alter the nuclear deal,
  • or continue the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Iran to curtail its aggressive behavior.

How Trump chooses to deal with Iran has implications for America’s regional allies, who remain uncertain about US commitment. The Trump administration may be able to restore good faith among allies in the Gulf, especially in light of his tough line on Iran. However, Gnehm also stressed the humanitarian crisis in the region as people remain displaced, areas destroyed, and societies shattered. Although the administration has not said much about this aspect of the regional landscape, it will remain a significant challenge for policy in the months and years to come.

A little over a month into his presidency, Trump will soon discover that the world he has inherited is a difficult and complicated place with opportunities, risks, and unintended consequences. No course of action Trump chooses to take will be smooth or neatly solve the complex problems and challenges the region faces. Just as Obama raised expectations and collapsed on performance, Trump’s bombastic approach could result in the same outcome.

 

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The bigotry of low expectations

President Trump of course said nothing like what I had suggested yesterday in his speech to Congress last night. The tone was marginally less objectionable than his “grab pussy” speech, but as SAIS colleague Eliot Cohen put it:

POTUS clunky speech seemingly judged a success because he did not sound like an unhinged, belligerent maniac. .

Trump repeated virtually all of his worst domestic campaign promises: repeal Obamacare without specifying what should replace it, counter supposedly rising crime by blocking immigrants who don’t commit more crimes than natural born Americans, build an unneeded wall on parts of the border already difficult to cross, drop government regulations that protect Americans from ineffective or unsafe pharmaceuticals, build pipelines that don’t increase American energy security even though the economics no longer justify it….

The only domestic proposition I agreed with is his $1 trillion for infrastructure, but that’s pretty much what Obama wanted to do too. The Republicans in Congress wouldn’t let him.

The only real adjustments were a pledge of support to NATO (but not the European Union, which is arguably just as important to US interests) and a denunciation of hate crimes, which he should have made weeks ago. China went almost unmentioned, he skipped North Korea’s nuclear weapons and Russian interference in the American election, and forgot about climate change entirely. He offered no indication of how he is going to defeat ISIS.

The moment that struck me as most inappropriate was the exploitation of Ryan Owens’ widow (her husband was killed in a botched raid in Yemen that Trump personally approved), who was present in the gallery. I gather veterans shared my reaction:

But the Congress provided the desired long and loud applause.

The public display of a tearful grieving widow for political purposes grates the wrong way with me, but obviously I’m not with the program. Trump thought McCain wasn’t a hero because he was captured. By what logic does Trump think Owens is a hero because he is dead? Wouldn’t logic suggest that Trump prefers fighting men not only uncaptured but also alive?

The press is celebrating the more moderate tone of the speech, exemplified best in Trump’s refraining from criticizing the media. Some people are easy to please.

Throughout the speech, Trump was glued to his Teleprompter. No doubt within 48 hours he’ll be back to saying the things he really means in the acerbic tones that come naturally to his pouting mouth and short fingers.

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Trying to hem him in

The appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser is one more step in trying to hem in President Trump on national security policy. He remains in charge of immigration, health care, trade and many other subjects, but the Washington establishment (aka “the blob”) is trying to reassert control of some important foreign policy issues:

  • Vice President Pence has been in Europe reassuring the NATO allies of the Administration’s wholehearted commitment to the Alliance and openness to partnership with the European Union, despite the President’s often expressed skepticism of both.
  • Defense Secretary Mattis has done likewise with NATO and also visited Baghdad, in part to reassure the Iraqis that we are not, as the President has suggested we would, going to “keep” their oil (whatever that means).
  • H.R. is well-known for his book criticizing the generals for not objecting to escalation of the Vietnam War–he isn’t likely to stand by idly if Trump pursues courses of action that can’t be justified or sustained. Nor is he likely to ignore or denigrate the intelligence community.
  • Secretary of State Tillerson has been reassuring Ukraine of America’s support, including on Crimea, and calling out the Russians for failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement.
  • Republican Senator McCain has trashed Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, with Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans cheering him on amidst growing pressure for serious investigations of the White House’s Russian connections.

With those holes plugged, the main thrust of White House thinking about foreign and national security policy still has two major outlets: Iran and North Korea.

The nuclear deal with Iran is safe because the Europeans have made it clear they will not reimpose sanctions if Trump undermines it and the Israelis have told Trump they prefer the current restraints to none at all. But Tehran’s support for Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq gives people in Washington heartburn. Despite the nuclear deal, Tehran has few friends in DC because it has been far so aggressive in pursuing its regional interests.

The May 19 Iranian presidential election is already raising the political temperature in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is doing military exercises and shooting off missiles, though it is not clear whether any of them since General Flynn’s “notice” violate UN Security Council resolution 1929:

Iran is prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and States…

President Rouhani is feeling the heat, both from the Iranian right wing and from the Americans. Reformists have no one else to vote for, so he will likely to tilt towards the hawks in an effort to improve his prospects, which are good but by no means unassailable. He is also trying to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs, which would solidify his claim to restoring Iran’s influence and prestige in the region.

North Korea is the far easier and more worthy target. Let’s not even consider North Korea’s assassinations, human rights abuses against its own population, and oppression. Kim Jong-un is well on his way to getting missiles that can reach US bases in the Pacific and eventually the US West coast. The Chinese appear to be at their wits’ end with him. The problem is this: no one knows what, if anything, will bring the North Koreans to heel. If we were to try and fail, Pyongyang can retaliate with massive artillery barrages against Seoul. He could even use a few of his nuclear weapons.

If the establishment professionals succeed in their effort to hem Trump in with respect to Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and Iraq’s oil, he still has the opportunity to make a giant hash of things. The President is in charge. Getting Iran and North Korea right will not be easy, especially if the President decides he is better off listening to Steve Bannon than H.R. McMaster. Bad judgment is Trump’s consistent vice. He can get the United States into a lot of trouble.

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The Middle East post-Khamenei and Sistani

In a February 6 event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, leading thinkers on Iran gathered to discuss the future of Iran post-Khamenei. Ali Mamouri, lecturer at the University of Sydney, and Suzanne Maloney, a deputy director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Mehdi Khalaji, the Libitzky Family Fellow at the Washington Institute, moderated.

Khalaji framed the conversation around his new study, The Future of Leadership in the Shiite Community. Specifically, he discussed the role Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi might play in the post-Khamenei Shiite community. Because of both Khamenei and Sistani’s advanced ages (seventy-seven and eighty-six respectively), Shahroudi may be poised to become Supreme Leader of Iran as well as to take over the role top religious authority for Shia Islam. Khalaji believes it is useful to know him because there is no pattern to follow on succession. We can and should expect surprises. This opened the discussion up to the future of Shiism in the region more generally.

Mamouri discussed the future of Iraq and the prospects for Shiism after Sistani. The relationship between Sistani and Khamenei, while not hostile, is also not entirely friendly. Sistani’s Iraq and Khamenei’s Iran present two different models of governance and religious authority, a traditional Shiite system and the wilayat al-faqih theocratic model respectively. He said competition between the two sides has centered on control of Shiite Iraqis. Sistani tries to avoid sectarian problems while Iran tries to remain influential among Shiites within Iraq. The death of either would create a vacuum that the other could easily dominate. If Sistani dies first, the search for a new leader could take five to ten years, during which time Khamenei would expand his influence.

Maloney  discussed US policy in Iran and how religious succession might influence America’s attitude in the region. The US government is concerned about the nature of the Iranian regime and how it might evolve, adapt, and promote responsible policy around the region. Iran’s regime type drives its political attitudes, worldview, and foreign policy. This in turn will influence Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and subsequently US policy choices. While different administrations have different theories on Iran, Maloney said that we are living through an interesting moment because we might be on the verge of a wholesale transformation in US policy from Obama to Trump.

The central question remains, what creates positive change in Iran? Maloney expressed skepticism of Obama’s theory that diplomatic engagement could bring long-term moderation and wondered if Trump’s confrontational approach would produce short-term change. Succession remains a key factor in Iran’s evolution, and the country is currently at a critical juncture in choosing its next Supreme Leader.

Khalaji then asked the panelists what the immediate implications of the leaders’ deaths would be for US policy within the next four years. Maloney said it depended on who moves into Khamenei’s position, how quickly that happens, and how people react. Mamouri said that Sistani is important for the US because of his wide influence on Shiite Arabs; without him, American policy might not continue to push for a democratic political system.

Both panelists also discussed the role of Iran’s Shiite militias in the region and how they would impact succession. Mamouri said that while Iraqi security forces could incorporate them, some factions would resist following this pattern and instead turn to Iran. Maloney pointed to the heavy military intermingling between groups as well as the greater respect for the institution of the Supreme Leader’s office as differences between succession today and what occurred in 1989. Khalaji concluded by saying that the sustainability of future leadership is reliant on the military, specifically the IRGC, and whether they can come to a consensus on important issues.

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Withdraw, renegotiate, or enforce?

With apologies, I’ve been slow to post this fine piece by Sarah Timreck on an event that occurred the week before last:

The Hudson Institute January 25 discussed the Iran deal’s prospects and challenges during the Trump administration. Participants were Michael Pregent, Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Gary Samore, Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Trita Parsi, Founder and President of the National Iranian American Council. Suzanne Kianpour, Capitol Hill and Foreign Affairs Producer at BBC News, moderated the panel.

With a background as an intelligence officer in Iraq and military experience on the ground facing the IRGC, Pregent opposes the Iran deal and feels that the concessions given by way of sanctions relief are fundamentally destabilizing. Pregent said that he hopes for changes under the Trump administration, which might recognize the deal’s potential to fuel Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and further weaken the region. Although the deal was intended to benefit Iran economically, right now it allows Iran to more freely support groups such as Hezbollah and regimes such as Assad’s. Trump does not need to rip up the deal but rather enforce it, end secret side deals, deny Iranian companies with IRGC stakeholders access to US banking, and continue to put pressure on Iran’s human rights abuses and support of terrorism.

Samore outlined Trump’s options for the deal moving forward. The first , to renege on the agreement and withdraw current presidential sanctions waivers, would undermine support if other members of the P5+1 saw the US as responsible for killing the agreement without just cause. It could also make Iran resume nuclear activity. The second option, renegotiating with Iran for a better deal, is a more complicated choice. The US would add new conditions in order to trade with Iran but also be prepared to offer additional sanctions relief. Samore was not confident that Trump would support this option or if Iran would come to the table. The third option, in which Trump abides by and enforces the deal, would be the option most favored by the P5+1, the foreign policy establishment, and allies in the region. It is therefore Trump’s safest choice. Samore concluded by saying that he is not confident that the deal will last, citing current minor Iranian violations, lingering tension between the US and Iran, and Iranian frustration over the lack of visible sanctions relief.

Parsi discussed the Iran deal in the context of America’s future in the Middle East. The deal was reflective of a change in US-Iranian relations, signaling progress that many believed would never occur. Ultimately, opposition to the deal was more about the regional and geopolitical repercussions than about coming to terms with Iran on critical issues. The Middle East has lost strategic significance for the US and its focus should shift, pivoting towards Asia and other global challenges. The deal allows America to focus its attention elsewhere and not bog down in the region.

Kianpour then asked the panelists about the potential for renegotiating the deal. Pregent emphasized America’s need to remain focused on the Middle East, calling a US pivot away a mistake considering Iran’s strategic goal of keeping the region fractured. Samore believes renegotiation is possible, but does not see willingness within the Trump administration to make more concessions towards Iran. Parsi also did not see a strong likelihood of re-entering talks given how gruesome and tiring the first round was. He also felt the deal gave the US a degree of maneuverability in its relations with regional allies.

Kianpour also asked the panelists about the impact of the deal on internal politics within Iran. While Parsi said there is curiosity on the part of Iranians about Trump’s actions, American conduct in the region, as well as Iranian conduct, will only slowly reveal themselves over the long term. Pregent felt that the deal has emboldened Iran to continue its “nefarious activit[ies],” while also constraining the US, in particular in Syria. Conversely, both Samore and Parsi felt that Pregent was overstating Iran’s influence on America. Problems in the Middle East did not originate from the deal, nor did the Obama administration feel Iran was central to its decision-making.

Many of the questions focused on the impact of destroying the deal and methods of countering Iranian influence in the region. Pregent took the view that because Iran constantly cheats, strictly enforcing the deal would help keep them in check. He advocates that the US take a position of strength when entering negotiations and hold Iran accountable for its actions. Samore remained skeptical the deal would last the entirety of its lifespan, but also warned about what might come after the deal’s expiration, namely the resumption of nuclear activity. Parsi emphasized the need to honor the deal. He also urged the US to listen to the sentiment within Iran to better understand how the deal impacts prospects for the future of the region and American interests there.

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