Mike Pompeo gives a speech on U.S. policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. on May 21, 2018. Yang Chenglin/Press Association. All rights reserved.
The world faces a substantial risk of military escalation in two regions, the Middle East and east Asia. What links the situations is the central role of an intemperate and unstable United States administration.
The more immediate danger lies in the intermittent conflict between Israel and Iran erupting into outright war. Binyamin Netanyahu's government, with what amounts to a free hand, is already conducting frequent airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets, underscoring the potential for a full-scale conflict involving both Iranian forces and its local allies.
In the slightly longer term – which now counts as months, rather than weeks – the Korean peninsula represents an equivalent if at present more subdued worry. If a heightening of Israel-Iran tensions might lead to direct US military involvement, a failure of proposed US-North Korea talks could lead to American bombers being unleashed there too. In both cases, Trump and his hardliners may see themselves in the position of facing straightforward threats to which war is the natural answer. Before that precipice is reached, however, some tricky political realities are making themselves felt – and causing serious frustration – in the While House (see "Trump in a fix: North Korea and Iran", 9 September 2018).
North Korea is for the moment foremost among these realities, as reflected in the high-profile visit to New York of the senior general Kim Yong Chol in preparation for the on-off-on summit of heads of state. The South Korean government has embarked on intensive diplomatic activity to ease tensions, the aim being to move towards a condition of reasonable coexistence that benefits both states across the Korean divide. Seoul's overarching view is that for North Korea to give up its entire nuclear capability would require an extraordinary change, but Pyongyang's desire to prioritise economic growth is such that a considerable scaling down of tensions really is possible. The endgame would be far better relations, plus closer economic and social interaction – while stopping well short of a search for regime change.
The South Koreans are driving this agenda, but the prevailing view among the Trump militarists is that Pyongyang is taking Seoul for a ride. Thus the North's version of “peaceful coexistence” actually seeks to achieve a US withdrawal from the South and follow this by the forceful reunification of Korea under Pyongyang’s rule. Even if the US-North Korea summit does happen, that will make no difference to the hardliners' estimation of the North's threat – although they doubtless fear that the unpredictable Trump might just go ahead and conclude a bad deal for the glory of the moment.
Such worries among key White House personnel are compounded by the difficulty of exerting control over the Seoul government and by the attitude of China, whose broad satisfaction with Seoul's approach to Pyongyang is another indication that the US is far from in charge of events.
A fracturing order
If Trump’s militarists are irritated by trends in east Asia, they are also having problems with Iran. The speech of new US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in 21 May, following the unilateral US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, is significant for its tone and content alike. Its demands were so extensive that no government in Tehran, now or in the foreseeable future, could possibly comply with them.
Since the fall of Iran's Shah in 1978-79 and the hostage crisis of 1979-81, most US administrations have regarded Iran's theocratic system as the fundamental threat to US interests, whose only solution is the regime's termination. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama pursued this logic, but for Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and junior, and especially Donald Trump, Iran simply must be dealt with. Moreover, this stance also defines Israeli security policy and is welcomed by the Saudis. To cap it all for Trump, finishing with Tehran would be to demolish an Obama diplomatic success.
The problem for Trump and the hawks is that otherwise sound allies simply do not share their view. What makes it tricky is that the trouble with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is that annoying word “Joint” – France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China are also involved, and none want regime change in Iran.
Perhaps these wayward partners can be discounted, given Washington's “make America great again” sloganeering? It is notable in this respect that neither Angela Merkel nor Emmanuel Macron could persuade Trump to stick with the treaty in spite of personal meetings. Theresa May did not even bother to make the trip to Washington, instead sending the unfortunate Boris Johnson. The United Kingdom foreign secretary's latest embarrassing spectacle was being interviewed on Fox News, a stone’s throw from the White House, in the hope that Trump might be watching.
The Trump cabal's own concerns also have a twofold economic foundation. If Trump places his main emphasis on the strongest sanctions that can be imposed, then three key countries will work hard to undermine them – Russia, China and India. Russia will increase its arms sales and China and India will increase their already considerable oil and gas links. Moreover, anything that India does, Pakistan will try and exceed, for it is wary of Indian efforts to expand its regional sway. In this, Pakistan's long common border with Iran could become an asset, while the country is well able to facilitate Iranian influence in Afghanistan.
In their different ways, North Korea and Iran each pose real challenges to the Washington hawks, and further signal the relative decline of United States's political and economic influence across the Middle East and much of Asia. Yet if the US's ability to command events is diminishing, it remains a massively strong military power. And that creates new perils at least as grave as the old (see "North Korea: a catastrophe foretold", 29 September 2017).
After all, the condition of "strength in decline" is a dangerous one at any time – but perhaps even more so now, when to admit the very idea of a slow but inexorable retreat would strike at the heart of Washington's worldview. Trump and his hardliners can't let go of a deep sense of status anxiety about their frayed empire. In face of reality, using military firepower to assert the US's lost pre-eminence may be all too tempting.