From Pyongyang to Paris foreign affairs dominated the stage this week – and not much of the news was good.
North Korea, with its ever-expanding arsenal and its unpredictable Supreme leader Kim Jong-un, mattered the most. With its capacity to launch attacks on allies like South Korea and Japan and its advancing capacity to someday launch ICBMs with nuclear warheads toward America it deserves the rank of Public Enemy #1.
And as Public Enemy #1 it should be front and center in our security concerns and deserves to have focused upon it all the intellectual, diplomatic, political and military resources we can muster.
What it doesn’t deserve is an American president who listens to a dinner guest and end up thinking: “And, you know, you’re talking about thousands of years … and many wars … And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes, I realized that it’s not so easy.”
Not so easy – a rare moment of understatement by President Trump.
Professor and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, wrote in 1980, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Certainly ignorant – and arrogant.
Our president’s arrogance, anti-intellectualism and ignorance is dangerous. He’s unprincipled, unprepared, and totally susceptible to being swayed by whoever’s last in the room with him, whether Chinese President Xi Jinping, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, or some old buddy of his whom he encounters while wandering through Mar-a-Lago’s dining room.
He seems proud of his ignorance. He doesn’t read. He’s surrounded by more sycophants and family than by experts and specialists. Critical agencies – like the State Department – are lacking in the talent they need to be fully functional in time of crisis but he finds time to be mentored by Xi Jinping.
Trump was elected to office because he created a non-intellectual vision – a vision that appealed to many Americans – of government based on fear, anger, and anxiety. It was an anti-aspirational vision based on resentments and intolerance.
The government we have today – upon which we’re relying for security and stability – reflects Trump’s vision, and the manner in which we’re facing today’s foreign policy challenges reflects his unprepared, inchoate and inarticulate approach to governance.
Iran isn’t such a clear and present danger.
Iran isn’t a clear and present danger yet this week, as America and its allies struggled over North Korea the Administration deliberately, and unnecessarily, chose to publicly confront Iran over the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accord.
In spite of the fact that Iran is fully in compliance, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on April 19 that “Iran’s provocative actions threaten the United States, the region, and the world” and he vowed that a review of American policy toward Iran would produce a new posture that would “meet the challenges Iran poses with clarity and conviction.”
Iranian regional hegemony exists today because of America’s reckless 2003 invasion of Iraq and neither attempts to undermine Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps nor threats to regime change will retrieve what we freely squandered.
There are many dangers in assuming a hard time with Iran. It risks returning Iranian hard-liners – who hate the nuclear accord as much as chickenhawks and many NeoCons in Washington do – to power in elections scheduled for June, and it risks an escalation in asymmetrical responses from Iranian regional assets at a time when America is already facing challenges in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other theaters.
Remember, too, this is a region where both Iran and the United States share a joint interest in destroying Da’esh (ISIS) and where China and Russia, as signatories to the JCPOA, are as essential to Middle Eastern regional stability as they are necessary in dealing with Pyongyang.
We cannot go it alone in either theatre.
Without challenging the nuclear accords there is room for increased sanctions against Iran for its aggressive ballistic missile program program and its support of regional terrorism – and the Administration should proceed on those fronts as necessary.
At the same time it’s vitally essential to remember that America’s 2015 deal with Iran – the first diplomatic breakthrough with the Islamic Republic since 1979 —was a product of multilateral diplomacy and mutual compromise – including with Russia and China – and it’s working.
Leave it alone. Not only is it working but it might serve to be a model – especially with its intrusive inspection regimes and monitoring – for how to deal with North Korea.
These aren’t easy days.
Confronted by state actors like North Korea and Iran on one side, and non-state actors like Da’esh and Al-Qaeda on the other we need to be deliberate and non-impulsive in our responses.
For example, consider Thursday night’s attack and murder of a policeman on Paris’ Champs-Élysées by Karim Cheurfi, a French citizen seemingly allied with Da’esh, just hours before the end of campaigning in France’s hotly-contested presidential election. The attack was, I believe, Da’esh deliberately trying to cast a decisive ballot on behalf of Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen, darling of France’s alt-right movement who wants to tighten immigration into France, especially by Muslims, says authorities are not doing enough to protect citizens from attacks like Thursday’s, without noting that most French violence is coming from French citizens.
Le Pen’s rhetoric soothes Da’esh’s ears, rhetoric as soothing as words they hear from Americans who want to stigmatize, marginalize and exclude Muslims from America.
Terrorists and their agents – and the lone wolves and criminals drawn to lives of nihilism and terror – in order to recruit, survive and sustain “legitimacy,” need democracies to oppose them with military might that creates collateral damage. Transnational actors like Al-Qaeda and Da’esh, with whom there can be no negotiation and who must be defeated – count on us as their enablers.
By being drawn into their world view and playing by their rules – by making it us against them – we help them perpetuate the notion that we’re engaged in a clash of civilizations rather than in a clash between democratic, pluralistic, diverse worlds and their world of terror.
Don’t sink into their trap of illiteracy, ignorance and violence.
If we do they win.