When U.S. presidents blame all the world’s troubles on a handful of “rogue” regimes, bad things happen. Such was the case when George W. Bush decried the “axis of evil” — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — in his 2002 State of the Union speech. Bush’s rhetoric and the worldview it represented helped set the stage for the invasion of Iraq, one of the most ill-conceived, disastrous wars in U.S. history.
By comparison, Donald Trump’s speech before the United Nations General Assembly this week was the "axis of evil" speech on steroids.
But what does Trump mean by defensive action? Is it retaliation for an attack, a response to an imminent threat, or a reaction to threatening rhetoric emanating from Kim Jong Un? Depending on which one chooses, Trump’s words could be anything from an overheated version of deterrence theory to a call for a war on the Korean peninsula that could put hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives at risk. The fact that one can’t tell for sure what Trump means is in and of itself a recipe for miscalculation.
The truth of the matter is that diplomacy is the only thing that has ever worked to slow North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Under the agreed framework negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994, North Korea stopped producing plutonium — the quickest route to large numbers of nuclear warheads — for nearly a decade. It was only when the United States stopped talking during the Bush years that Pyongyang’s nuclear program accelerated.
Trump’s attack on the Iran nuclear deal is if anything even more ill-conceived. Far from being a “bad deal” that was somehow inflicted on the United States by Tehran’s negotiators, it is a solid agreement that has already led to the dismantling of major elements of Iran’s nuclear program while putting it under a strict inspections regime. And it is a six-party arrangement, painstakingly negotiated among the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China and Russia.
The Iran agreement is an example of precisely the kind of effective multilateral diplomacy that Donald Trump’s go it alone, America First approach removes from our foreign policy tool box at a time when we need it more than ever to work out cooperative solutions to pressing problems like climate change, disease control, and global poverty.
Trump set up his attack on the Iran deal with a scathing rant about Iran’s role in the Middle East in which he called the it an “economically depleted rogue state whose exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.”
Iran has plenty to answer for, not least of which is its support for the Assad regime in Syria, but it is far from the only purveyor of violence in the region. One need look no further than Trump’s fast friends in the Saudi Royal family, who are pursuing a devastating war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
But instead of using U.S. leverage to stop its ally from conducting the war in such a brutal fashion, President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE has seemed to buy into the Saudi narrative that blames the war on Iran’s support for and manipulation of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, an analysis that experts on the region thoroughly reject.
Then there’s Venezuela. The Maduro government has caused great harm to the Venezuelan people, but what exactly does President Trump mean when he says the United States might have to “take further action” if the regime doesn’t change course? Is it military action, economic pressure, or some other approach? Does it involve U.S.-backed regime change? Again, Trump’s words are deeply troubling, but far from definitive.
The bottom line on Donald Trump’s U.N. debut is that it has made war more likely and diplomacy more difficult. Whether it leads to a disaster as great or greater than the Bush administration’s war in Iraq will be up to us. The president’s threats to the peace cannot go unanswered.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.