An ignoble prize

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  May 28, 2018 at 6:00 AM
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Perhaps from years of real estate dealings, President Donald Trump believes that his art of the deal can be applied to foreign policy. Flattery, unfulfillable promises, threats and, as necessary, ultimatums will lead to successful negotiations. Tragically, as other presidents believed that democracy could be applied to Vietnam and more recently to Afghanistan and Iraq, exporting the Trumpian art of the deal may be equally flawed and unworkable.

As of Thursday, Trump seemingly abandoned his quest for a Nobel Peace Prize by abruptly canceling the June 12 summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. In a rather bizarre short letter to Kim, Trump both left the door open to further negotiations while reminding North Korea of American nuclear might as if this threat might actually force a new summit. Why the president decided to cancel may be as quixotic as his instant decision to meet Kim was in the first place, without any time to analyze and think through the consequences and downsides.

Many have speculated why. Using Trump's real estate history as a lodestone to predict next steps, this cancellation could be a negotiating ploy designed to induce Kim to accept more stringent terms in a future meeting. That North Korea sent no representatives to meet with U.S. counterparts in Singapore to discuss the now cancelled summit clearly was not conducive to further talks. In that regard, the president was correct to respond to the diplomatic snub.

It could be that wiser hands finally convinced the president that a summit at this stage was a no-win situation. North Korea was not about to "denuclearize" anytime soon. Failure to gain agreement would leave the United States with no good choices since the diplomatic option was lost. The military option, no matter how effective U.S. forces might be, still risked the use of weapons of mass destruction and potentially hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides of the 38th parallel.

Now, instead of a Nobel Prize, the administration faces two crises of its own making. Last week, following Trump's unilateral abrogation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without cause, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued "12 demands" that Iran must meet if the reimposition of sanctions were to be lifted. These demands ranged from Iran forgoing all uranium enrichment to halting missile programs and allowing intrusive inspections of its military facilities and bases. Clearly, these demands are unacceptable to Tehran.

In the space of a week, the president has upped the ante with Iran and North Korea, raising the risk of military action on two fronts. No doubt the Pentagon has contingency plans for attacking the nuclear facilities in both Iran and North Korea. North Korea already possesses some number of nuclear weapons, along with some delivery capacity, as well as chemical and probably biological agents. These are reinforced with a million-man army and tens of thousands of artillery pieces and rockets within striking distance of Seoul.

To complicate matters, North Korea and China have a mutual defense treaty dating back to 1961. Whether China would intervene in the event of an American attack is problematic. But is surely did so in 1950 when U.N. forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur were racing toward the Yalu River.

While Iran does not possess weapons of mass destruction, it can blockade the Strait of Hormuz. War games have shown that Iran musters sufficient military force to threaten both U.S. and allied warships and bases in the Gulf, a risk that cannot be missed. And Iran has the ability to mobilize proxy forces to include Hezbollah, as well as Shia militias.

History may not repeat. But Trump's actions could suffer from the same strategic miscalculations that turned the Iraq incursion of March 2003 into a catastrophe -- wrong intelligence and the absence of a Plan B. Should the two Trump ultimatums to North Korea and Iran fail to produce successful talks, what will the White House do next?

When confronted with bad choices, too often the United States relied on military force. The second Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964 never occurred. Yet, Congress overwhelmingly approved a resolution for a war that we lost. After Sept. 11, a war on terror was declared that still has yet to be won. Without a Plan B, this White House may be headed on parallel courses with North Korea and Iran.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior advisor at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.

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