In the aftermath of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, members of the foreign-policy establishment in Washington almost went nuts, warning that the World War III countdown clock was starting to tick.
After all, The Donald had no foreign-policy experience, and unlike other public figures he was not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and, in fact, had won the 2016 election in part by attacking the so-called “globalist” elites.
The guy lacks self-control, he shoots from the hip and bombards us with those silly tweets, and, hey, he does not even read the latest policy papers being issued by the Brookings Institution and has never served on an American Enterprise Institute panel discussing US nuclear strategy!
Moreover, unlike his predecessor in office, Barack Obama, whom he accused of appeasing America’s global rivals, Candidate and then President Trump pledged to embrace an aggressive nationalist strategy in dealing with governments who challenge US national interests.
More specifically, unlike Obama, the new White House occupant would cease to treat with benign neglect North Korea’s expanding nuclear program and would revoke the nuclear deal that his predecessor in office signed with Iran in 2015.
So in response to reports that North Korea was testing a hydrogen bomb and an intercontinental ballistic missile and that Iran was challenging the balance of power in the Middle East, threatening the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel, two leading US allies, President Trump started employing tough rhetoric, vowing that from now on, things would be different.
Blaming his predecessors in office for failing to thwart Pyongyang’s nuclear militarization, President Trump suggested that he would consider using military power to force North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un to quit his nuclear program.
Kim rejected the US demands, which were accompanied by the imposition of international sanctions against his regime, and threatened to use his country’s nuclear weapons to destroy US cities, calling Trump “a dotard” after the American commander-in-chief named him the “little rocket man.”
These threats and counter-threats created the much-anticipated hysteria of the elites in Washington and other world capitals, with pundits warning that the world was on the brink of a second Korean War and that it was facing the most serious nuclear crisis since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
And apropos of the Cuban missile crisis, we were reminded that president John F Kennedy was a cosmopolitan intellectual, and such a man of reason, surrounded by books and intellectuals, just the kind of statesman who succeeded in averting a nuclear war. Compare him with the man who is currently occupying the Oval Office. Do you think that he is really fit to control nuclear weapons? So be afraid. Very afraid!
At the same time and on another international front, President Trump did not cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran on his first day in office, as he promised during the campaign, an idea that encountered opposition from leading US allies and most of the international community as well as from his foreign-policy advisers.
Indeed, by rescinding the Iran nuclear deal, Washington would have faced diplomatic backlash from the European Union, China and Russia, helping produce growing military tensions in the Middle East that could have drawn the United States into a war with Iran.
Hence we were heading to new wars in the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, and blame the ‘madman’ in the White House. But then President Trump, relying on the advice of his astute national-security aides, once again played against expectations and confounded the pundits
But then the worst-case scenario failed to materialize. Never mind. That did not stop the panic-stricken critics to suggest that pressed by the Saudis and the Israelis and their supporters in Washington, Trump was intent on attacking Iran and executing an Iraq-like regime change there.
Hence we were heading to new wars in the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, which may evolve into global confrontations and include the use of nuclear weapons. You have been warned! And blame the “madman” in the White House who was ready to press the “big nuclear button” on his desk for the coming end of the world.
But then President Trump, relying on the advice of his astute national-security aides, once again played against expectations and confounded the pundits.
First, even as he and Kim were exchanging escalating insults, the White House was giving a green light to the opening of lines of communication between North and South Korea.
Trump accepted South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s request that the regularly scheduled military exercises by joint US-South Korean forces be postponed until after the Winter Olympics.
That decision allowed a delegation to travel to the South during the upcoming Winter Games, and in turn, created the conditions for future talks between the two Korean governments that could help defuse the tensions on the peninsula.
That in itself does not ensure that the North Korean nuclear crisis will be resolved peacefully, and it is quite possible that Washington will eventually have to accept a deal under which North Korea will not give up its nuclear program.
No worse than predecessors
But the notion that Trump’s approach toward North Korea demonstrated that he was trigger-happy and ready to draw the US into a nuclear war is laughable. The worst thing you could say about his strategy is that it was not worse than the policies pursued by his three predecessors in office, who at times sounded even more hawkish than him on the issue, threatening to use US military force against Pyongyang.
“I know of no one who seriously believes that the United States and [South Korea] would be defeated in a war of aggression by North Korea if they were to attack. And I made it as clear as I could that if they were to do that, they would pay a price so great that the nation would probably not survive as it is known today.” – President Bill Clinton
“States like [North Korea], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” – President George W Bush
“My preference is always to use a diplomatic approach. But diplomacy has to involve the other side engaging in a serious way in trying to solve problems. And we have not seen that kind of reaction from North Korea.” – President Barack Obama
Nor does Trump’s policy toward Iran suggest that he would adopt the costly and failed “regime change” approach – pursued by Bush in Iraq and by Obama in Libya – in dealing with the Islamic Republic. Iran ends with an “N” and not with a “Q”.
Instead, Trump announced on Friday that he would avoid upending the nuclear deal with Iran that he has repeatedly disparaged and agreed to waive key sanctions the United States lifted as part of the deal, averting an immediate crisis in US-Iran relationship.
At the same time, the White House has made it clear that it continues to demand substantial changes in the 2015 Iran deal and planned to discuss those with its European allies, while it is committed to contain Iranian expansionism in the Persian Gulf and the Levant, in such places as Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and help the Sunni Arab governments and Israel deter Iranian aggression.
Indeed, the Iraq-war analogy may not be relevant here. Instead, one should recall the way the Americans and their European allies contained the Soviet Union and its Eastern European surrogates during the Cold War, by applying diplomatic and economic pressure on them but without using any military force to replace the regimes in Moscow, Warsaw or Budapest.
Those regimes did eventually collapse in response to their economic problems and lack of political support. Which could also happen in Tehran, sooner than later.
In short, on both North Korea and Iran, Trump has exhibited a willingness to employ diplomatic means combined with an assertive military posture in order to achieve peaceful resolutions of the two crises.
In any case, the suggestions that Trump is either lacking any knowledge and experience in international affairs or that or that he is mentally unstable, or both, and therefore poses a threat to world peace, only raises questions about the reliability of those politicians and pundits who are promoting these concerns.
Flawed victors of the past
Two of the great foreign-policy presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who led the US to victory in World War II, and Ronald Reagan, who helped bring down the Soviet Union, were not known as avid readers and entered office with very basic knowledge of foreign policy. “Most of what I knew about international affairs I learned from my stamp collection,” quipped FDR.
At the same time, the late president Richard Nixon, who is recalled today for his major foreign-policy achievements, including the opening to China and the detente with the Soviet Union, was prey to drink, prescription drugs and fits of rage, according to many sources.
And let us not forget that it was the supposedly great foreign-policy thinker, president Kennedy, who had presided over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He then proved to be a lousy diplomat during his talks with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, projecting indecisiveness and weakness that encouraged the Soviets to challenge the Americans in Cuba by placing nuclear missiles there.
And while Kennedy may have written a book that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, he also relied on painkillers and anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic drugs in order to function in office, including during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Stable or not, he now has hundreds of monuments, military bases, and government buildings named after him.