President Trump’s first address to the UN General Assembly came at a point in time when a sizable portion of world leaders have been wondering what shape America First foreign policy will take. They received an answer this morning, and as an added bonus the world was also given an brief glimpse at the pillars of a potential Trump Doctrine. The US President’s speech contained blunt language and was missing the diplospeak and doubletalk that is common in world leaders’ addresses to the General Assembly.
North Korea was the main talking point. First off, to be clear, his referring to Kim Jong Un as ‘Rocket Man’ once again did not belittle, or minimize the urgency surrounding the North Korean nuclear crisis. Trump made it clear that the US will welcome UN efforts to bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. He followed up by letting it be known that if the crisis continues on its current trajectory, the US may be forced to “totally destroy” North Korea. Trump’s words were not an idle threat, or a rambunctious boasting of US military capabilities. Should North Korea launch an ICBM at US territory successfully, Trump will have no choice but to turn North Korea into the world’s largest sheet of glass. The North’s UN ambassador did not watch the speech in person, unfortunately. He opted to leave the chamber before the US President began speaking.
Iran was also in the crosshairs today. Trump dismissed the nuclear deal between Iran, the US and other world powers. Just as he did on the campaign trail last year, Trump blasted the deal as an embarrassment to the US and hinted that it will be revisited in the future. In fact, the Trump administration is currently reviewing the deal and next month the president plans to announce his intentions with regards to its future.
Venezuela was another target of Trump’s criticism. He hinted of a coming expansion of the already wide economic sanctions now in place on Venezuela if Nicolas Maduro continues to impose authoritarian rule. He did not repeat an earlier threat to consider military action as such a move would not receive support from most Latin American allies of the US. Nevertheless, by affording Venezuela as much attention as North Korea and Iran, Trump made it clear how important the US considers the crisis in Venezuela to be.
World leaders and journalists at home will spend the next week dissecting the speech in an attempt to determine what Trump was saying between the lines. The effort will prove to be an exercise in futility. Today’s address was clear, concise, painstakingly honest, and made an indelible impression on America’s allies and enemies alike.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered her nation’s participation in future negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program. She took her comments a step farther by suggesting that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran would make an excellent model for negotiations. Merkel’s intervention come at a point when she is in the midst of a reelection campaign. Even though she is widely expected to win, campaign season is traditionally a time for incumbent leaders to take the opportunity to float ideas by their constituents, as well as their neighbors and allies to see how they might play in Stuttgart or Brussels.
President Trump’s handling of the North Korea crisis has unsettled some of Washington’s European allies. For a continent that became used to the less proactive foreign policy approach of Trump’s predecessor this is understandable. During the Obama years, US policy towards states like Iran, and North Korea were centered around multi-party negotiations, and the threat of economic sanctions. A stringent effort was made to avoid discussing potential military options if the terms of any future agreement was violated. Trump’s approach is different in many respects, most notably when it comes to discussing military options. He has made it clear that the United States will retaliate should North Korea launch a missile against US territory. Trump has also made it apparent that the military option is not off the table when it comes to ending North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Talk like this is horrifying to many Europeans, especially diplomats and leaders unaccustomed to such forward non-diplospeak on sensitive matters.
However, remarks by the leader of a US ally that champion the Iran nuclear deal as a success are equally as distressing to many Americans. Contrary to what the media spins on the subject of the Iran deal, the majority of Americans remain against it. Even if this were not the case, the North Korean situation has few parallels to Iran’s. Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons, and an ability to use them against targets located on US territory. The North has also directly threatened to use these weapons against the US should economic or political pressure damage its economy and nuclear program.
Merkel fails to recognize that future negotiations with North Korea will be destined to fail. Not because of what could be perceived as aggressive posturing by the United States, but because North Korea does not want them to succeed. Pyongyang’s main goal right now is to buy the time needed for its nuclear scientists, and ballistic missile engineers to produce a hydrogen device, and a missile that it can be fitted to respectively. Kim Jong Un is interested in nothing less.
Angela Merkel and Germany do not have a dog in this fight. For that matter, neither does Europe. North Korea is not levying threats on Western Europe, and likely will not be doing so in the near future. It is threatening the US on a daily basis and given the direction that the crisis is moving in, negotiations involving Germany or other European nations are not a viable avenue to explore at the moment.
Saudi Arabia expected a swift capitulation after it imposed sanctions, and a quasi-blockade on Qatar last month. The action came about in large part because of Qatar’s independent foreign policy, as well as its penchant for pursing endeavors that were in direct conflict with those of the other Gulf States. Crises among the nations of the Arabian Peninsula are nothing new. The majority have been short-lived, and generally wind up resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
This crisis is different in many aspects. Saudi Arabia, and its anti-Qatar partners went straight for the jugular. Riyadh’s demands amounted to a virtual surrender Qatar’s sovereignty. There were no indications that this action was in the works or on the horizon. It came as a bolt out of the blue, likely just how Riyadh intended for it to be. The Qataris did not capitulate. They brushed off the shock of the blockade, made the necessary adjustments, and soldiered on with a business-as-usual attitude. Efforts were made to resolve the crisis diplomatically. However, Qatar was not prepared to accede to any of the demands of the Saudis and their partners. The subsequent list of demands, and accompanying ultimatum that the Saudis handed down is dead in the water. Doha didn’t bite.
Now, as we move into late July, the Saudis are realizing they’ve placed themselves in a box. One which they cannot extricate themselves from without suffering a severe loss of face. The US is not going to be able to rescue them. Washington is frustrated with the lack of flexibility shown by the Saudis. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been pushing hard for a diplomatic resolution, essentially forcing the Saudis to negotiate on items they had previously considered non-negotiable.
The longer the crisis drags on, the worse the consequences will become for Saudi Arabia. It is losing face as a regional leader. Their move against Qatar has served to destabilize the Gulf region instead of bringing it in line with Riyadh’s wishes. Iran is gaining an advantage as the crisis brings the already chummy Tehran-Doha relationship even closer. Through its efforts to assist Qatar, Iran has helped derail a major power move by Riyadh. Finally, the Saudis have learned the hard way that President Trump’s enthusiasm for them will not translate to Washington blindly supporting actions or policies that benefit Saudi Arabia but simultaneously damage other US allies, as well as interests in the region.
The campaign to liberate Mosul has come to a successful conclusion. The iron grip that ISIS once held on the northern Iraq city has been lifted. The city and its inhabitants are free following a drawn out nine-month long effort. The Iraqi army, and its coalition allies paid dearly for every street, and neighborhood secured. ISIS understood all to well that this was the endgame in Mosul. Its fighters there accepted their fates and fought with the ferociousness of cornered animals, because that is more or less what they were. Some fighters and senior ISIS officials made it out of Mosul before it fell back into Iraqi hands, but the majority elected to stay on and battle until the bitter end.
Today is a day of celebration for Iraq. Mosul represents a turning point in the war against ISIS, as well as being a watershed moment in the history of post-Saddam Iraq. The Iraqis bore the brunt of the campaign to liberate one of its major cities. The simple reality that Iraq controls Mosul right now is astounding when one considers that a few short years ago ISIS was making seizing territory right on the outskirts of Baghdad.
In the aftermath of the Mosul campaign, what happens now? Iraq’s government and army have made major strides since those dark days, but they still have a long road ahead of them. Suicide and car bombings have become a regular part of life for Iraqis. Periodically, ISIS launch coordinated bombings that inflict large numbers of casualties and erode the rock of stability that Iraq is trying to carve out for itself. Will a battlefield victory against ISIS translate to better security and less attacks? Or will the opposite hold true?
Then there is the matter of Iran. Iranian influence within the borders of its one-time rival has been extensive and will likely last in the post-ISIS era. Tehran’s intentions remain unclear, but given Iran’s actions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, it is safe to assume that it is plans to maintain a significant presence in the region for some time to come. The United States and Saudi Arabia are wary of Iran’s moves in the area to say the least. The nightmare scenario for both nations is to see Iraq gravitate closer to Tehran and ultimately wind up as a vassal state to Iran one day.
Out of the meeting between President Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg has come a somewhat unexpected brood: An agreement on a ceasefire in southern Syria. The ceasefire has come out of concerns about fighting spilling over Syria’s southern border with Jordan and Israel. Those two countries have been particularly alarmed over the expanding Iranian presence and involvement in the area. Jordan has been closely involved the negotiations geared towards bringing this deal to reality, which had been underway for some time before the final product was realized in Hamburg.
The parties involved in the ceasefire need to keep in mind that Syria has become a graveyard of ceasefire efforts in recent years. More than one has died shortly after being put into effect, largely because of outlawed factions such as Al Qaeda not going along with an agreement’s terms and deliberately disrupting it. Other times extraneous ceasefire terms were used by Russia to goad the pro-Western rebel groups into behavior that violated the said ceasefire.
There are still many questions that need to be answered about this one. This ceasefire is set to go into effect on Sunday at noon, Syrian time. It is unclear exactly what the enforcement guidelines will be, or who will be enforcing the terms. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Russian military police will be the enforcers, however, US and Jordanian diplomats have disputed that, saying the issue has not yet been decided.
There is no predicting if this latest ceasefire will hold, though it does have some advantages that its predecessors did not. Foremost is that it mostly affects an area that is not the heart of the conflict. Southwestern Syria has experienced significantly less fighting than other parts of the country. A second leverage is the significance this ceasefire will have for Syria’s neighbors. This agreement is not just aimed at stopping a conflict between dueling Syrian groups. Jordan, and Israel stake a major claim in this ceasefire since it helps secure their borders with Syria. This point may help give the ceasefire added strength that its predecessors lacked.
In any event, this is a positive step forward to a more concrete agreement in the future. With the exception of perhaps the Syrian government, every other party involved in the Syrian conflict has grown weary of the fighting. ISIS now on the ropes, and the time has come for the major powers involved to take a hard look at the potential shapes a post-ISIS Syria can take.