As the Trump administration careens haphazardly towards an historic and potentially game-changing denuclearization summit with Kim Jong-Un, it is becoming increasingly clear that the North Korea problem is one that needs to be viewed holistically, through the prism of America’s past and current successes and failures.
Some of the greatest and most devastating failures of American foreign policy have been enabled by myopic short-sightedness, and the potential for another Iraq/Afghanistan-level quagmire looms large in the background of any dealings with the North Korean regime. Further complicating matters is the proximity to China, and the PRC’s wariness of American forces advancing any further up the Korean peninsula, even if a potential subjugation of North Korea could be accomplished without the accompanying use of weapons of mass destruction. And if the prospect of a nuclear strike against allied nations like South Korea and Japan was not terrifying enough, the potential flashpoint for a much less localized conflict with another superpower should give what remains of the State Department significant reservations about this situation. This is a high-risk, high-reward negotiation that, if handled deftly and diplomatically, could insure the safety and security of the entire region for the foreseeable future. Botching this ham-fistedly, on the other hand, could push us into the meeting of match and powderkeg.
This is a complex game of many moving pieces, and understanding how those pieces interrelate globally could make the difference between success and bloody conflict. With the possible exception of John Bolton-esque hawks on the far right, no one wants the North Korea situation to devolve into conflict just to play the “I-told-you-so” card amongst the ashes. A successful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is in the best interests of everyone involved, but given the current president’s well-documented penchant for reactive Fox News-infused Twitter rants, and, at least thus far, a disturbing lack of tangible deal-making, a fair amount of skepticism is healthy. But there is an additional complication in Trumpworld that further clouds the potential for a good-faith settlement in North Korea:
Often referred to as “The Iran Deal,” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed under President Obama could and should provide a roadmap and framework for the current administration in its dealings with Kim Jong-Un, should they choose to follow it. The two cases are not dissimilar: Both regimes are inherently hostile to what they view as overreaching American interference in their immediate spheres of influence, both have been the subject of American-led embargos and economic sanctions, both have spotty (at best) human rights records, and both fear the specter of American-led regime change. Both have been driven by their desire to nuclear-proof themselves from a similar outcome to Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who surrendered his nuclear program only to be unseated by insurgents supported by American airstrikes.
The “Iran Deal” is a frequent target of far right pundits, branded as a moment of American weakness where we were taken for our collective wallets by a rogue terrorist nation. That is not, to say the least, accurate. The accord with Iran is not perfect; that is, unfortunately, how treaties work. When Party A and Party B have a disagreement, they hammer out a middle-ground where neither party is wholly happy, but it’s an arrangement both can survive and sell to their respective constituents. That’s how diplomacy (and, in a simpler time, democracy) works. America’s diplomats walked away from that table knowing that they had an agreement that would limit a hostile nation’s ability to acquire, develop and weaponize nuclear material, and it made us all safer.
After Monday’s allegations by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Iran is maintaining a secret nuclear facility – an “atomic archive” – in violation of the treaty, Trump is facing increased pressure from his base to honor his campaign pledge and tank the nuclear deal by the May 12th deadline for recertification. Netanyahu, a world leader of questionable character and a Trumpian aversion to objective truth, has ample motivation to shift the world’s ire towards an Iranian regime that has expanded its influence in the region through proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. Grandstanding upon the world stage with flimsy and unverifiable intel is a simply ideal way to cater to Trump’s long-held belief that the Iranians are operating in violation of the deal, despite ten well-documented inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency that have reaffirmed Iran’s compliance with the accord. The White House practically tripped over itself to jump on the Netanyahu accusation, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders issuing a since-retracted statement that “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world,” later blaming the immediacy of the statement on a typo (or several typos). Revisionist typo history aside, it is clear that the current president is grasping at any straw available to justify pulling out of his predecessor’s signature diplomatic accomplishment.
Walking away from the Iran agreement does not make us any safer. It does quite the opposite, and undermines our ability to make future agreements with other such hostile and nuclear-aspirant nations. And it immediately complicates negotiations with North Korea. What incentive does Kim Jong-Un have to trust that any agreement made won’t be reneged upon either by the current administration or administrations to follow? It is imperative, now more than ever, that the American foreign policy establishment stand behind the Iran accord, for all of its faults, in order to facilitate further deal-making. America needs to honor its commitments on the world stage, regardless of what party occupies the White House. Doing anything less than that cheapens the role we have embraced as the world’s protector, and it makes it that much harder to find common ground with our adversaries in the future.