Propaganda poster in a primary school at the Chongsan-ri Farm, North Korea. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.A pivotal moment in the "war on terror" was George W Bush’s state-of-the-union address to Congress in January 2002. Almost five months after 9/11, and two after the the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was terminated, the United States president here declared the global expansion of this war against an “axis of evil”. The three rogue states to be targeted were Iraq, Iran and North Korea. His graduation address at the West Point military academy in June 2002 made it abundantly clear that the US had every right to pre-empt threats from such regimes (see "Iran, and a diplomacy deficit", 1 September 2017).
Those speeches were infused with the outlook of the neoconservative right, especially the Project for a New American Century. The powerful backing from these quarters which fuelled Bush's victory in 2000 was animated by an outlook almost identical to Trump’s “make America great again”.
Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was overthrown in March 2003. That sent a clear message to Pyongyang, which its current propaganda greatly emphasises: namely, that its own termination is an actual, existential threat. Under Trump, and despite all the American military failures of the past sixteen years, such a prospect is again very much on the agenda.
This background is acutely relevant to the current crisis over North Korea. The crisis, at root, combines the Pyongyang regime's determination to achieve security through possession of a nuclear force, and Washington's utter will to prevent this. The dangers are worsened by the rhetoric coming from both capitals, not least the US ambassador Nikki Haley’s provocative claim at the United Nations Security Council that North Korea is “begging for war”.
North Korea is thus now paired with Iran as an urgent priority for the US administration. Trump's long-standing argument that Iran is the real problem in the Middle East echoes the neoconservative view of 2002-03 that “the road to Tehran runs through Baghdad”. In the same way that North Korea must not be allowed to deter the United States from doing what a superpower’s got to do, so Iran must be stopped from acquiring its own nuclear deterrent.
What makes this situation even more difficult for Trump's administration is the international agreement over Iran's nuclear development, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In Trump' s eyes, “Obama the appeaser” made the foolish mistake of persuading Tehran to cease its nuclear-weapon ambitions in return for a substantial easing of sanctions, and moreover doing so in concert with six other power groups – China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. That locks the United States into an agreement it cannot overturn, not least as it is highly improbable that any western European power, let alone China or Russia, would support such a move.
A further complicating matter for Trump is that the JCPOA is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Worse, the IAEA is content with how Iran is sticking to the JCPOA – a point confirmed even by Trump’s own state department.
Iran also bothers Trump for the way it is consolidating its new-found regional power: through the wars against ISIS and other extreme Sunni Islamist factions In Syria and Iraq, and via the so-called “Shi’a crescent” of Iranian influence from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. These factors are of acute concern to two key US allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The presence around Trump of retired generals steeped in warfare rather than diplomacy adds another uncertain ingredient.
The speech by Nikki Haley on 4 September indicates the policy momentum of these developments. Addressing the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think-tank with impeccable links with the Republican right, the Trump administration's UN ambassador reiterated her view that the treaty is too dangerous for the United States. Her own advice is that it has inherent faults, giving Trump the right to decertify it if he so decides.
Haley can say this because Obama never tried to get the original agreement accepted by Congress, given its then control by Republicans. Instead, certification to Congress every ninety days was left to whoever is in the White House. The next occasion arrives in mid-October. If Trump decertifies it, then Congress has sixty days to decide whether to impose sanctions, a move likely to be condemned by members of the JCPOA as it risks wrecking the whole agreement.
Haley’s view is clear. She told the AEI audience:
"I'm not making the case for decertifying. What I am saying is that, should he decide to decertify, he has grounds to stand on. What I am doing is just trying to lay out the options of what's out there, what we need to be looking at and knowing that the end result has to be the national security of the United States. We should at no time be beholden to any agreement and sacrifice the security of the United States to say that we'll do it.”
The grounds for the Trump administration breaking the JCPOA are flimsy, for the agreement does not ban Iran from developing missiles. In Trump's view, however, Iran's retention of an active missile-development programme breaks the spirit of the agreement. Indeed, this line of thinking is stretched so far as to say that when the JCPOA expires in the 2020s, Iran could have missiles with ranges long enough to reach the United States – and they could then develop warheads within a couple of years. This very scenario is regarded as unacceptable.
In December 1996, a few years after the end of the cold war, I contributed a discussion paper to the annual meeting of the British International Studies Association, taking place at Durham University. The title was Losing Control – a great future for deterrence but not what you might expect. The introduction argued:
“The future for deterrence is likely to be substantially different from the Cold War experience in three respects – it will involve a mix of conventional deterrence through weapons of mass destruction, it will be far less rigid and even more unstable than the bipolar Cold War experience, and, most significantly, it will be an equalizer in a multipolar set of power relationships in which the presumed basis of western power – military superiority – will be progressively eroded.”
In its substance, the paper looked at ways in which weaker states and movements could use irregular warfare in all its forms. Much of this has been borne out in the post-9/11 world, though the analysis should really have paid more attention to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), especially nuclear weapons.
Where perhaps it was on the ball was in foreseeing that “the presumed basis of western power – military superiority” will be "progressively eroded." This is at the core of the United States's problem with both North Korea and Iran. In its dominant mindset, lesser states simply cannot be allowed to deter Washington from any actions that it believes necessary to maintain its security – and thus to apply what the US military still likes to think of as “full-spectrum dominance.”
The current state of tension is dangerous mainly because of the risk of unplanned escalation. But any hope of returning to a much calmer environment through to the end of Trump’s current term of office is, frankly, unlikely. The administration is dominated by Trump’s immediate family and three retired generals who, as Tom Englehardt points out, may have been central in America’s recent failed wars and have therefore much to prove in the biggest test of all (see "Trump vs North Korea: a 1945 echo", 21 August 2017).
In the perspective of the post-9/11 years, and on the eve of the event's sixteenth anniversary, the current interlocking crises raise an even greater challenge for the United States. Can it come to terms with the risk of strategic impotence, or – with North Korea and then Iran in mind – is that too much to expect?