Is Trump throwing a match into the Middle East tinderbox?
WASHINGTON — The one area in which any president has almost complete latitude is foreign affairs. Lord save us.
Lord save the world, actually. President Trump is making rash and risky moves that promise either brilliant success or catastrophic failure. Given that it’s Trump we’re dealing with, I do not like the odds.
I can only applaud his achievement in securing the release of Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, the three Americans who were being held in North Korea on baseless charges — apparently as bargaining chips. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Pyongyang to bring them home, and Trump was there to meet them when they arrived before dawn Thursday at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington.
“We want to thank Kim Jong Un, who was really excellent,” Trump said. It was an odd way to describe a dictator who leads one of the most brutal and secretive regimes on earth — a man whose nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, according to Trump and his advisers, pose a grave and unacceptable threat to the United States and its allies.
Trump announced later Thursday that he and Kim the Excellent (formerly known as Rocket Man) will hold their much-anticipated summit on June 12 in Singapore. I remain skeptical that Kim will ever give up his hard-won nukes and missiles, even for an ironclad U.S. promise never to attack or seek regime change, which is what Kim says he wants. I believe Kim looks at Trump and sees unprecedented opportunity.
Kim is finally getting one thing that North Korean leaders have always sought — one-on-one negotiation with a U.S. president as equals. I believe Trump was right to agree to a summit, since the policy of (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) talking hasn’t worked. But a lot more groundwork should have been laid, and I fear Trump will return with a bright, shiny package full of promises that turn out to be empty.
I understand why Kim would want to get out from under international sanctions and offer his oppressed people enough economic growth to make his own position more secure. I also understand why he might want to signal officials in neighboring China that if they are not more forthcoming with money, technology and other goodies, North Korea has another suitor knocking at the door.
But there’s no reason to prejudge the summit’s outcome when we don’t even really know the agenda. Kim has already declared a pause in his provocative nuclear and missile testing. Maybe he and Trump will emerge with a pact to reach a more substantive agreement at a later date. That would be a good thing — while we’re talking, we’re not shooting — and Trump would have achieved something worthwhile.
That credit is negated, however, by Trump’s unjustifiable and reckless decision to renounce the Iran nuclear deal. Of all the bad decisions Trump has made as president, this is the most dangerous. He seems to be trying to start an unthinkable war.
Officials in Germany, France and Britain have pledged to try to keep the agreement alive. But with the Trump administration already threatening to sanction European firms that continue to do business with Iran, it is unclear if the deal can survive without the world’s leading economic power and most important reserve currency.
It is customary to insert the caveat that the Iran agreement isn’t perfect, that it has obvious flaws, that it could be much better, and so on. But actually it is, or was, quite good. It has provided an unprecedented window into every nook and cranny of the Iranian nuclear program; divested Iran of its stocks of highly enriched uranium that can be easily made into fuel for bombs; and halted Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear weapons for at least a decade.
Put yourself, for a moment, in the Iranian regime’s position. You know that the full economic benefits of the deal will never come through. You see the U.S. administration aggressively promoting your rival, Saudi Arabia, as a dominant regional power that is bristling with advanced new weapons and backed by other Sunni states. You see nuclear-armed Israel effectively joining in as a member of an anti-Iran coalition.
Iranian officials can just surrender. Or they can intensify their campaigns of asymmetrical warfare, using groups such as Hezbollah, while also secretly resuming work on a bomb.
I fear that Trump’s decision greatly increases the likelihood of a major war in the Middle East — not because he has a better idea, but because he can’t bear living with a landmark pact signed by Barack Obama.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected](c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group