President Trump has multiple options to deal with the two defining foreign policy crises of his first term as tensions rise with North Korea and Iran, but it’s unclear whether he has the will to escalate on either front as his political future hangs in the balance.
Mr. Trump heads into 2020 with one eye on his reelection campaign and another on the high-stakes challenges posed by Tehran and Pyongyang, each of which in recent days has publicly tested the resolve of the commander in chief. For the president, the new year brings the need to walk an increasingly precarious line of projecting strength on the global stage while not jeopardizing his chances for a second term by drawing the U.S. deeper into conflict and perhaps even all-out war.
The crosscurrents were on display on New Year’s Eve when Mr. Trump was asked about the near breaching of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that the administration quickly blamed on Iran and Iranian proxies.
“I want to have peace,” Mr. Trump said when asked about a possible military escalation of the crisis. “I like peace. And Iran should want to have peace more than anybody. So I don’t see that happening.”
But in a sign that events on the ground are clashing with the president’s inclinations, the State Department announced Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was calling off a long-planned trip to Ukraine and other countries in the region this week.
Having spent most of his first three years in office vowing to strike an elusive denuclearization deal with North Korea and issuing fiery warnings to Iran, Mr. Trump finds the two countries remain the biggest international flashpoints confronting U.S. policy.
How Mr. Trump deals with the crises may ultimately decide whether he returns to the White House for a second term.
“When it comes to foreign policy, the most significant feature of 2019 was the persistence of the status quo,” Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy magazine this week. The president’s provocative rhetoric and unconventional diplomacy “continued to alarm and kept the chattering classes busy, but 2019 was a potential turning point where most aspects of world politics failed to turn.”
Unstable status quo
But given developments of the past few days, it seems unlikely that the status quo will hold before the crucial November election.
Last week, an Iran-backed Shiite Iraqi militia launched a rocket attack on a U.S. military site in Iraq, killing an American contractor and wounding four U.S. soldiers. After retaliatory U.S. airstrikes last weekend on Kataeb Hezbollah camps in Iraq and Syria, the militia responded by storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday and setting fire to buildings inside the sprawling complex.
The situation in Iraq appeared to ease Wednesday, but the stunning series of events provided yet another chapter in a series of clashes between Washington and Tehran, which has included the Iranian downing of an American drone, the addition of thousands of U.S. troops to the region and a suspected Iranian attack on oil facilities operated by key U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Trump has consistently tried to roll back the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran, most notably with his 2018 withdrawal from the international nuclear deal with Tehran and the reimposition of punishing global economic sanctions.
But regional analysts say the most recent tension has presented a complicated geopolitical challenge for the president this year — mainly the growing dissatisfaction in Iraq with the presence of U.S. troops.
Should Iran continue on its current course, the president may be forced to choose between taking more direct action against Iran or withdrawing the roughly 5,000 American troops stationed in Iraq. Either option could carry grave consequences for the U.S. and, by extension, Mr. Trump’s reelection chances.
“For years, the U.S. was able to live quietly, if sometimes uncomfortably, alongside Iran in Iraq; directly challenging Iran’s role in a theater where Tehran has far greater influence is almost certain to end badly for Washington,” the International Crisis Group wrote in a New Year’s Day analysis of the crisis. “A ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran and a continued U.S. presence in Iraq may not be compatible.”
The Pyongyang problem
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump faces increasing calls to ramp up the pressure campaign on another U.S. adversary: North Korea.
Despite three precedent-shattering face-to-face meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a firm denuclearization deal with Pyongyang remains out of Mr. Trump’s reach. A clearly frustrated Mr. Kim, in a New Year’s Day speech, threatened “shocking actual action” against the U.S. and promised his country would soon unveil a “new strategic weapon” that he cast as a game-changer.
The president so far has seemed content to preserve what he says is a warm personal relationship with Mr. Kim while holding fast to demands that Pyongyang fully abandon its nuclear weapons program before getting any relief from crushing economic sanctions. Mr. Trump has long hailed the North’s moratorium on nuclear testing as a key product of his personal diplomacy and has shrugged off a series of shorter-range missile tests Pyongyang has conducted in recent days.
Asked about Pyongyang’s threat of an unwelcome “Christmas present” if the U.S. did not offer more negotiating concessions, Mr. Trump joked this week that he hoped the gift was a “nice vase.”
But now, with Mr. Kim suggesting he may order the resumption of nuclear testing after a nearly three-year hiatus, Mr. Trump is facing pressure from conservatives to turn up the heat on North Korea — essentially returning to status quo before the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018.
“How to respond to Kim Jong-un’s threatening New Year’s remarks? The U.S. should fully resume all canceled or down-sized military exercises in South Korea. Hold Congressional hearings on whether US troops are truly ready to ‘fight tonight,’” former White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton said in a Twitter post Wednesday, giving voice to the growing chorus on the political right arguing that the president’s negotiations with the unpredictable Mr. Kim had failed.
Mr. Trump may feel pressured to take a different approach this year in an effort to score a major foreign policy win for his reelection campaign or to avoid any more foreign policy adventures while focusing on his domestic record.
U.S. officials acknowledge that Iran and North Korea are aware of the American political calendar, with Mr. Trump facing domestic pressures throughout the year and U.S. policy likely to take a sharp turn if a Democrat wins in November.
Still, some analysts say patience with North Korea is the best course of action.
“There is still time for the United States and North Korea to shift away from military threat and coercion and return to diplomacy,” said Jessica Lee, a senior research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “For Washington, that means not obsessing over North Korea’s ‘new strategic weapon’ or how soon it might resume nuclear and long-range missile tests. Threat-driven, overly militarized posture only makes it harder, not easier, to pursue a different path.”