Hubris Replaces Foreign Policy

This week the President announced that the United States would withdraw from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the “Iran Deal.”  It is impossible to predict the short and long-term impacts of this action, but there are huge changes on the horizon as a result.  Some analysts have called our withdrawal the biggest change in the international world order since World War II.  There are many reasons why this may be true.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that the JCPOA was not meant to solve every problem in the Middle East or even to inhibit Iranian adventurism in promoting unrest in the area or their possible development of ballistic missiles.  It was meant, in very technical and specific ways, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.  It worked.  The Iranians, unlike the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, do not have nuclear weapons, thanks to the agreement.  There are many valid criticisms of the Iran Deal, and you may even think that the president made the right decision, but to truly discuss it, one must remember that it was meant to be a stepping stone to resolving other issues, including those not addressed in the JCPOA.  Sanctions against Iran for violating existing limits on ballistic missile developments, or as a reaction to other valid issues of concern could still be imposed.  This is one of the reasons why the Europeans pushed so hard for the U.S. to stay in the agreement and to work with them to tackle the other legitimate issues that should be addressed.

The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from a multi-lateral agreement where by all accounts, all elements of the agreement were being followed by all of the members.  During his confirmation hearings just a few weeks ago, now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked if the Iranians were in compliance with the agreement, said “With the information I have been provided, I have seen no evidence they are not in compliance today.”  Further, when asked if the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, Secretary Pompeo, who was the head of the CIA at the time of his nomination, said, “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.”  Recall that under the Iran Deal, Iranian facilities are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are subject to no notice inspections.  There is no evidence of cheating as some claim.  No proof exists that they have abrogated their responsibilities and indeed the international consensus is that the Iranians have fully complied.

In matters of diplomacy and military strategy, a long-standing adage is that one must always strive to “seize the initiative.”  We have now conceded the initiative to Iran.  They stand on the moral high ground in this agreement as they have filled all of the requirements.  We are the ones that left the agreement, even as we concede that it is working as designed.  Mr. Trump upon announcing our immediate withdrawal gave no specific reasons for doing so other than vague pronouncements that the agreement was “defective at its core.”  Presumably, he means that some years in the future,  the “sunset” clauses of the agreement will kick in and Iran will build nuclear weapons. Besides being technically incorrect, this argument ignores two important factors.  One we know, and the other is speculative but within reason.  First, right now Iran has no nuclear weapons.  Assuming the worst, which over simplifies reality, under the agreement they could start working on them again in ten years.  The last time I looked ten was better than zero. They now have the decision in their hands as to whether to resume their program or not.  They didn’t break the agreement, we did. Secondly, ten years of steady diplomatic effort, as all sides benefit from the agreement, could readily persuade Iran that building nuclear weapons was not in their best interests.  Even if they did threaten to resume their program, nothing precludes the international community from reinstating severe sanctions and other measures to keep them from building them.

Mr. Trump announced the immediate reinstatement of sanctions against Iran and reasoned that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table before and so it will bring them back again for “a better deal.”  Perhaps he is correct.  Even under the current agreement, Iran’s economy is in dire straits.  It might work.  However, logic says that Iran has no incentive to return to the table for a better — to the U.S., but not Iran — deal.  Most obviously, the U.S. walked away from the last deal.  It would be easy for them to brand us as “liars” that cannot be trusted to stick to any agreement.  What trust will they have, even if they return to the table, that we will stand by what we say?  None.

More importantly, we had a multi-national sanctions effort the last time around.  The JCPOA was an agreement between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union, and Iran. It was unanimously ratified by the United Nations Security Council.  All other signatories have clearly stated their intention to remain in the agreement, which means no universal sanctions will be reimposed on Iran.  The U.S. may be the biggest economic power in the world, but we cannot alone bring Iran to its knees economically if other nations trade freely with them.  The other members of the agreement have asked Iran to remain in the agreement.  Again, this gives the initiative to Iran.  They may actually want a “better deal” — for them — with the other nations involved as their price for remaining within the agreement.

The president clearly does not understand that the “enemy” has a vote on how things go.  We cannot dictate to other nations when they do not see that their own best interests are being served.  Playing hard ball in a New York City real estate deal may work for him, but nations have other interests at play and can deploy their own form of hard ball.  The Iranian regime went through an eight year war with Iraq without flinching, even as they lost countless lives and treasure.  They are tough.  Bluster will not bring them to the table and may in fact, cause them to demonstrate their own resolve through some form of military action.

Clearly, the U.S. must act in its own best interests.  Always.  However, it is extremely short-sighted to isolate ourselves from our allies and to pretend that no deal can be a win-win for all nations.  Seemingly, to Mr. Trump everything is a zero sum, win-lose proposition.  This is not true and is dangerous in the international arena.  We are quickly isolating ourselves and may find that in a time of need, we are on our own having burned too many bridges.  Other nations may allow “America First” to become “America Alone.”

This is what may be the most troubling aspect of Mr. Trump’s bluster and belligerence toward Iran.  This is why many analysts call this the biggest change in International Relations in the post-World War II era.  Our closest allies, U.K., Germany and France stand against us on this issue, and increasingly, on a number of other issues as well. Couple our stance on these issues with Mr. Trump’s disdain of NATO.  We are helping Mr. Putin achieve his fondest dream, the break up of the western alliance that stands between him and his ambitions.  As we draw away from our western allies, look for Mr. Putin to become ever more adventurous, especially in Estonia or another Baltic state where many ethnic Russians reside.

Mr. Trump’s imposition of sanctions includes any business or nation that does not follow our lead.  In other words, if he follows through, should Germany or any other ally continue doing business with Iran, then we, the U.S., would impose sanctions on those businesses and/or nations — even, he says, our allies.  He is banking (literally and figuratively since the biggest impact would be on the financial industry) that when push comes to shove, western Europe will fall in line and not do business with the Iranians.  That may or may not be a good bet.  Right now, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese plan to stand by the agreement.  If the Europeans cave to Mr. Trump — an action that is politically untenable in their own countries — and re-impose sanctions, the Russians and Chinese will do ever more business with Iran, and thereby achieve their own international goals.  Should the Europeans withdraw from the agreement at some time in the future, clearly the Iranians would have no incentive to abide by it on their end.

All of this, of course, ignores the fact that by withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. increased the likelihood of war breaking out in the Middle East.  Indeed, just yesterday, Iranian forces fired directly on Israeli military forces for the first time.  The Israelis in turn, bombed Iranian forces and command and control nodes in Syria.  The chances for a major miscalculation, or misunderstood bellicosity, could lead to major regional warfare.

Finally, none of us can currently evaluate the impact of our withdrawal from the Iran Deal as it impacts ongoing negotiations with North Korea.  Mr. Trump and Mr. John Bolton his National Security Adviser, claim that it will strengthen our hand in those discussions because it shows how tough we are.  Or as Mr. Trump said on Tuesday about our withdrawal from the Iran Deal, “the United States no longer makes empty threats.”  It is unclear what he means by that, but I suppose it his way of sounding tough.

An alternative outcome may be that Kim Jung Un comes to believe that along with Saddam and Muhamar Quaddafi, one can put Iran on the list of those that made a deal with the U.S. to give up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and found that we could not be trusted.

Mr. Trump is already talking about the Nobel Peace Prize for his Korean efforts.  In that context, we should be worried that Mr. Trump will do whatever suits him at the moment to get good “ratings”.  Just another episode in the show and a chance to deflect from his problems at home.  However, I honestly hope that his efforts with North Korea pay off and they hand over their nuclear weapons and their ability to produce WMD, but we should be wary.  Frankly, it denies logic that Mr. Kim will hand over his WMD.  This will be at least the third time that North Korea promised to do so, the other two times they reneged.  The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will be historic.  If nothing else, we should be thankful that three American citizens held as prisoners in North Korea returned home last night.  To date, that action is the only substantive thing that Kim has done to show his willingness to deal.  They released prisoners in the past, too.  Which of course totally ignores the fact that U.S. citizens were taken as hostages in the first place.  They also kill them, as was the case with Mr. Otto Warmbier, the college student imprisoned and probably tortured by the Koreans who died as a result.  Talking is way better than fighting.  I hope the talks succeed, but I would not hold my breath.  Walking away from the Iran Deal complicates our negotiations with the Koreans.  More on that in a yet to be post in this space.

Maybe Mr. Trump walked away from the Iran Deal because his main foreign policy objective merely entails undoing anything and everything that President Obama put in place.  No clear foreign policy doctrine has emerged from this administration and as French President Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after talking to the president, there is no U.S. “Plan B.”  That makes it one mighty big gamble.  Every endeavor should have branches and sequels, or “what ifs.”  What if we succeed then what do we do?  What if we don’t succeed, what is the next step?  There is no discernible plan behind just walking away from the agreement.

One might suspect that Mr. Trump’s decision on the Iran Deal was done primarily because he could and that somehow it showed what a tough guy he was.  There are no next steps.  He should look up the definition of hubris (arrogance, conceit, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, excessive pride or defiance leading to nemesis), and nemesis (the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall).

Hubris is not a policy.

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