Shake, Rattle and Roll.
The title of that rock and roll oldie popped into my head as I followed President Trump’s travels to South Korea and China, along with this week’s stunning developments in Saudi Arabia.
The president clearly wants to shake up the region – and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un – by convincing Asian leaders he’s willing to use force to compel Kim to denuclearize.
Meantime, Trump is cheering this week’s efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to shake up the Mideast. MBS (as he’s known) just solidified power at home with an unprecedented purge of princes and businessmen who might challenge him. And he seems bent on promoting an all-out regional war against Iran – involving the United States and Israel.
The prospect of new wars has definitely rattled Asian and Mideast leaders. Yet Trump clearly believes his risky roll of the dice will bring Kim and the ayatollahs to heel. But shake, rattle and roll could just as easily send both regions spinning out of control.
Let’s start with Trump’s North Korea challenge trip.
America’s North Korea policy does need some shaking up; in the past, Pyongyang has cheated at and quit talks that offered recognition for denuclearization. “So we can’t take the same failed approach as in the past, of entering into long drawn-out negotiations, without any prospect for initial steps, at least, toward denuclearization,” said Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, in a recent speech on U.S. strategy to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
But McMaster’s warning doesn’t mean no talks at all.
The heart of Trump’s policy, which underlies his trip, has been to press for more intense global sanctions on Pyongyang. And sanctions presumably aim at pushing Kim into serious negotiations.
“We call on every nation, including China and Russia, to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions … and sever all ties of trade and technology,” Trump said in a careful speech in Seoul, in which he stayed on script. He also refrained from tweet-goading Kim while he was in Japan and South Korea, a nod to their nervous leaders.
Yet, due to Trump’s previous contradictory tweets and statements, Asian leaders are still unsure of what the president wants or means.
Only last month, the president famously tweeted that direct talks with North Korea were a “waste of time,” even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was pursuing a back channel to Pyongyang. Trump refused to recant that tweet when pressed by reporters in Seoul.
So it’s unclear whether the president wants talks. Or whether he would require North Korea to substantially roll back its nuclear program before coming to the table – a nonstarter. Indeed, the heart of Trump’s speech in Seoul seemed to advocate regime change in Pyongyang, which virtually guarantees that the paranoid Kim will never bargain and will continue to test.
Unless the president clarifies his view of talks, he could find himself boxed into a situation where his only option is to attack North Korea. Such a war would cause hundreds of thousands of casualties and be opposed by Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan.
Meantime, as Trump traverses Asia, the Saudi crown prince has rattled his region, arresting scores of princes and businessmen, allegedly for corruption, while intensifying Sunni Saudi Arabia’s confrontation with Shiite Iran.
“I have great confidence in King Salman [MBS’s father] and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump tweeted on Monday.
Clearly the Saudi prince’s move came as no surprise to Trump, who has aligned himself closely with the kingdom. First son-in-law Jared Kushner has become a close friend of MBS and recently made an unannounced four-day visit.
But, in their eagerness to shake up U.S. policy towards Iran, and confront Tehran’s expanding influence in the region, Trump and Kushner have overestimated what the young Saudi leader can do.
As with North Korea, there is reason to revise U.S. policy in the region, where Iran and Russia are the winners after the defeat of the Islamic State. Expanding Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will keep the region boiling, encourage the rise of new Sunni jihadis, and threaten Israel.
Yet any strategy to curb Tehran needs to be careful and coordinated. Given Iran’s proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, a direct military confrontation is a losing proposition.
Already, MBS has dragged the United States (with drones, advisers, and massive weapons sales to Riyadh) into a Saudi quagmire in Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite tribal fighters, the Houthis. His engineering the removal of the Sunni prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, could provoke a new civil war in Lebanon – or drag Israel into a premature war with Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters.
Trump and Kushner are heedlessly backing a prince who is a poor match for Tehran.
And if Trump decides to withdraw from the nuclear accord with Tehran, Iran can take revenge by encouraging its proxies to strike back at U.S. and Saudi interests and troops in the region. (The Houthis just fired a missile at Riyadh.)
Shaking up Mideast and Asian complacency might make sense if the White House had a comprehensive strategy to follow its threats and sanctions. No such strategy is visible, but let’s hope one emerges and Trump doesn’t undercut it. Otherwise both regions face the prospect of war.