“More than anything else, I think deal-making is an ability you’re born with,” wrote Donald J. Trump in The Art of the Deal. “It’s in the genes. Mostly it’s about instincts.”
Presumably, that firm conviction explains President Trump’s resistance to detailed briefings on prior, failed deals with North Korea. And his insistence that he can squeeze a better bargain out of Iran after junking the deal that curbed Tehran’s nuclear program.
As far as Trump is concerned, if you’ve got the instincts, why mess with the details?
The answer became blindingly obvious last week. Kim Jong Un made clear he has no intention of relinquishing his nukes anytime soon or maybe ever — dashing Trump’s premature plug for a Nobel Prize. Dealing with dictators requires a bigger skill set than building Trump’s towers or casinos.
Unless the president can overcome his hubris, his deal-making instincts are likely to backfire. Rather than produce the deal of the century with Kim or the ayatollahs, he’s more likely to get played — or embroil the nation in new wars.
Let’s start with North Korea. By ignoring his own briefers, Trump left himself open to be blind-sided. The president even ignored his own advice in his handbook: “You have to convince the other guy it’s in his interest to make the deal.”
Every North Korea expert, along with the Pentagon, stressed that Kim would never completely divest his nukes, which guarantee his survival. Yet, the president insisted he would accept nothing less than the complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to Kim’s program.
Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, demanded that Kim adopt the (totally irrelevant) Libyan model, whereby the United States closed down Moammar Gadhafi’s small nuclear program (which had produced no weapons) in three months in 2004.
Yet, the president was taken aback last week when North Korea declared it would never unilaterally surrender its weapons. Pyongyang also angrily denounced Bolton and the Libya analogy (which eventually ended with the overthrow of Gadhafi). Thrown off kilter by the prospect that Kim might cancel the summit, Trump rebuffed Bolton. He publicly backed off his demand that Kim abandon his arsenal before any U.S. concessions.
So already, the U.S. president is on the back foot, revealed as a wannabe deal-maker without a clear strategy or a coherent team.
Kim, on the other hand, has already maximized his options. If the summit takes place, it will validate him as an international leader and advance his goal of being recognized as a nuclear power. It will also decrease U.S. leverage on Pyongyang, as South Korea pushes for a peace treaty with the North even before it divests its nukes.
A summit could still be useful if Trump goes in with eyes open, listens to his briefers, and recognizes that any possible deal will be imperfect – requiring lengthy negotiations that will contain Pyongyang’s program but not eliminate it. In his eagerness for a deal, Trump may get played by Kim and by China.
Whatever, it will not be the deal of the century. It would require Trump to drop threats of regime change against Pyongyang, of the kind Bolton clearly wants. And how will Trump justify an imperfect deal with North Korea after he has just abandoned an imperfect deal with Iran?
Which brings us to Trump’s strategy for gaining a better deal with Tehran. Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded Iran end its nuclear energy and its ballistic missile programs forever, and withdraw from all its malignant activities in the Mideast.
These are fine objectives. But the speech gives no hint of a realistic strategy to achieve them. “This is a wish list rather than a strategy,” says the Brookings Institution’s Robert Einhorn, a former State Department special adviser on nonproliferation. “I’m sure [the Trump administration] knows there can’t be negotiations on the basis of these points.”
Indeed, the Iran “strategy” rests on the assumption that renewed sanctions will force Tehran to bend – or provoke a popular uprising that leads to regime change. Neither assumption is realistic.
European allies were ready to push for new sanctions against Iran’s missile program and Mideast mayhem. But they are angry at Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal, which curbed Tehran’s program for the next 10 to 15 years. They will resist reimposed sanctions, as will Russia and China.
Tehran, meanwhile, will blame economic pain on Washington. And banking on regime change is riskier than gambling in a Trump casino.
Yet, we are left with a situation where Trump’s deal-making skills may at best produce an iffy North Korea deal and at worst will revert to Boltonesque plans for regime change. Meanwhile, regime change appears the only U.S. option under consideration for Iran, which means Tehran will push back in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
“You can’t con people, at least not for long,” Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. “You can create excitement … and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”
By then it may be too late.