On Iran and North Korea, Trump prepares to screw everything up
by Paul Waldman
There are some arguments so dumb only President Trump could take them seriously. That’s the only conclusion you could reach after seeing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s faux-dramatic speech on Monday, in which he literally pulled a sheet off a pile of documents, like a magician unveiling a cage full of doves, to demonstrate Iran’s dishonesty about its nuclear program.
The point of the act was to persuade Trump to pull out of the nuclear agreement negotiated in 2015 between the United States, Iran, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union, and it just might succeed.
Which in turn could make a nuclear agreement with North Korea all but impossible.
As you look around at these high-stakes matters of foreign policy and national security, you quickly realize that everyone, no matter which side they’re on, takes it as a given that the president of the United States is an infantile half-wit, and they must adjust their strategies accordingly.
Let’s start with Netanyahu’s speech. Citing a trove of materials Israeli intelligence acquired in a raid on an Iranian facility, he said he would present “conclusive proof of the secret nuclear weapons program that Iran has been hiding for years from the international community in its secret atomic archive.” The documents show that Iran’s regular protestations that it had never sought nuclear weapons were false. Here’s how he concluded:
“So this is a terrible deal. It should never have been concluded. And in a few days’ time, President Trump will decide, will make a decision on what to do with the nuclear deal. I’m sure he’ll do the right thing. The right thing for the United States, the right thing for Israel and the right thing for the peace of the world.”
The only trouble is that Netanyahu presented evidence of an Iranian nuclear program that existed up until 2003. Which was something we already knew about. So here’s Netanyahu’s argument:
- Iran had a nuclear weapons program before 2003.
- They lied about whether that program ever existed.
- Therefore, we must scrap the nuclear deal, in which international inspectors are keeping close tabs on Iran to ensure that they have no nuclear weapons program.
This is so asinine an 8-year-old could see through it. It’s as though you said, “You gave that guy a 10-year sentence for robbery? But he claimed he never robbed the store! And he could get out at the end of 10 years and just rob again! The only answer is to release him from prison immediately!” Which is why pretty much every expert on nuclear weapons and national security reacted to Netanyahu’s speech with puzzlement.
But you know who found it compelling? Of course you do: Donald Trump.
The president said that Netanyahu’s presentation “and what we’ve learned has really shown that I’ve been 100 percent right” in his criticisms of the nuclear deal. The White House quickly released a triumphal statement reading, “These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.”
After pretty much everyone cried “WHAT???”, they released a corrected statement saying Iran had a nuclear weapons program. Oopsie!
It’s more than obvious that Trump wants to pull out of the nuclear agreement and always has. But up until now he’s been restrained by a group of sane senior advisers who have repeatedly insisted to him that the agreement is successfully restraining Iran and that if it disintegrated, there would be little to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, exactly the outcome Trump claims he wants to avoid and that the agreement was intended to forestall.
Unfortunately, with the departures of Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, that group has been reduced to one person: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Just last week Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability,” because “it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat.” Mattis now finds himself outnumbered, because Tillerson and McMaster were replaced by Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, two longtime critics of the deal who seem only too happy to see it collapse. Bolton in particular has long advocated military action against Iran.
So right now you have one person, Mattis, who is trying to prevent Trump from doing what he really wants to do, and two people, Pompeo and Bolton, who are encouraging him to give in to his desires and walk away from the agreement. Who do you think is going to win that argument?
But it doesn’t stop there. If you were Kim Jong Un and you saw the United States abandon a painstakingly negotiated agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, how could you possibly trust that whatever promises were made to you in exchange for scrapping your own weapons would be kept?
There, too, everyone is acting like Trump is a fool. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, when it was suggested that he be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to ease the conflict with North Korea, replied: “President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize.” He said this knowing full well that nobody’s getting any prizes before any true agreement is reached, especially given the many times the North and South have briefly opened up ties and promised newly warmed relations only to slip back to the status quo. But he also knows that Trump’s massive ego and rampaging insecurity mean that showering him with praise is the best way to get what you want from him.
One world leader after another, from Netanyahu to Moon to Xi Jinping to Emmanuel Macron to the Saudis who gave him that gold medal, has realized that this president is easy to manipulate. Treat him like a big shot, shower him with compliments, tell him what he wants to hear, and he’ll be putty in your hands, at least for a while.
But eventually Trump has to make a decision. And when he takes the United States out of the Iran agreement, as he probably will, that will all but guarantee that Kim won’t be willing to scrap his nukes because the United States says it will give North Korea something in return.
On Monday, Trump was asked whether pulling out of the Iran deal sends the wrong message to North Korea as we’re trying to persuade them to give up their own weapons. “No, I think it sends the right message,” he replied. And what message is that? He didn’t say.