Editor’s Note: Michael Desch is the Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center. The views expressed are his own.
Many people are understandably alarmed by President Trump’s appointment of unrepentant George W. Bush-era hawk John Bolton as his new National Security Adviser to replace General H.R. McMaster, who is unceremoniously marching off into the sunset on the heels of his predecessor, General Michael Flynn.
Is Donald Trump recanting his recanting on the Iraq War and belatedly throwing his lot in with George W. Bush and his neoconservative war council?
In 2003, Bolton rode in the vanguard of the war party, pushing to topple Saddam Hussein on the specious grounds that Iraq was pursuing nuclear and chemical weapons and in cahoots with al Qaeda. Unchastened by the Iraq debacle and the exposure of the bogus rationales for the war, an out-of-power Bolton has sniped at the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear agreement and beat the drums for war to denuclearize North Korea.
While putting Bolton back in power may signal the demise of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for Iran, I am less worried, ironically, about the prospects for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Indeed, I can see a way that the President’s ego, combined with his penchant for ignoring his advisers, could advance a diplomatic solution to the tinderbox straddling both sides of the 38th Parallel even while they drive the last nail in the coffin of the Iran nuclear deal.
This would be a shame, given that the JCPOA has broad international support among our allies and other important powers such as Russia and China. Like most arms control agreements, it is not perfect, but most of its supposed defects involve things like Iranian meddling in other countries, support for terrorist organizations, or development of ballistic missiles which were not covered by the original agreement.
Most knowledgeable observers inside and outside the United States concede, even if grudgingly, that Iran has abided by the narrow terms of the agreement itself.
So why would President Trump discard a good agreement with Iran and pursue what is likely to be a far more flawed one with North Korea? Such an approach makes little strategic sense, but strategy has little to do with how the President thinks about the world. Rather, our Art-of-the-Deal President operates primarily on a personal level.
While he hates former President Obama’s Iran deal, primarily because he, himself, did not cut it, I could imagine him reaching a far worse deal with North Korea which he would love, warts and all, because it was his.
To be sure, there are also more credible reasons for him to pursue a diplomatic, rather than military, solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. It has become apparent in recent months that, despite the President’s badgering of his military advisers for a plan to pre-emptively knock out the Hermit Kingdom’s budding nuclear arsenal, the best he can get out of them are plans to give Pyongyang a bloody nose through symbolic strikes, hoping that will scare Kim into surrendering his arsenal.
Nor can America’s military planners assure the President that even a reasonably successful first strike on Kim’s nuclear arsenal would prevent a catastrophic conventional war that would kill hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians. This realization that their capitol Seoul and millions of their citizens are within range of tens of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces has led our South Korean allies to push hard for jaw-jaw rather than war-war, to borrow Winston Churchill’s famous phrase.
China is joined at the hip with North Korea in a dysfunctional marriage of inconvenience, in which the Middle Kingdom provides its wayward younger brother with most of its food and energy supplies to avoid having an American ally on its border and preserve the last shred of its increasingly threadbare international Communist legitimacy. So it would also welcome a deal that ends the slow-motion crisis between Washington and Pyongyang.
Finally, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s flurry of diplomacy with the South and hasty train trip to visit his patrons in Beijing could signal that North Korea’s foremost Dennis Rodman fan may also want to play Let’s Make a Deal.
Predicting what President Trump will likely do is as fraught an endeavor as divining the murky palace politics of “little rocket man’s” regime. But assuming that ego trumps strategy in Washington these days, the desire to cut a North Korean nuclear deal makes sense of some of the recent puzzling moves from the President, particularly the indecent alacrity with which he accepted Kim’s olive branch delivered via Seoul a couple of weeks ago.
Incoming Trump National Security Adviser Bolton will surely not want to play along with this diplomatic Kabuki dance, which is unlikely to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. Indeed, most analysts think that in exchange for an easing of the crippling economic sanctions, the best President Trump is likely to get is a “freeze” on additional North Korean missile tests. This is hardly a great deal from Bolton’s global regime change perspective or even compared with the JCPOA.
But if I am right that Trump’s ego will trump Bolton’s hardline strategic agenda, any flaws in an agreement with North Korea may be irrelevant.
Ironically, this might be one instance in which the President’s well-documented penchant for bypassing his advisers may favor diplomacy. Indeed, a cynic might wonder whether Bolton’s appointment was in part Trump’s effort to protect his right flank as he pursues a historic, if flawed, North Korean nuclear “deal.”