China, North Korea, Iran; for these three countries the strategy President Trump chose is failing, writes our columnist François Nordmann.
The fight between China and the U.S. is global, since it could create a new world order. A temporary agreement starting Jan.15 should put a hold on the commercial war but does not solve the deeper problems raised by the U.S. Two regional nuclear crises are occurring simultaneously in addition to these dangerous times: North Korean threats have resumed with greater intensity, while the risk of military conflict between Iran and the U.S. has increased since the elimination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. For these three crises, the strategy President Donald Trump has chosen is failing.
Trump is far from having won the commercial war with China and he had to settle for a modest compromise, even though industrialized countries shared his view on Beijing's damaging practices and are now aware of the threat China poses to the West. President Trump's charm offensive on Pyongyang came to a sudden end, and just like his predecessors, he is now powerless to stop the buildup of nuclear power in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Finally, as a committed supporter of the American withdrawal from the Middle East, he caused the worst crisis in the area since the Iraq War in 2003.
Due to the rising tension with Iran and Iraq, Trump had to send reinforcements to the Gulf states’ military bases. As former State Department official Richard Haass points out, so far the U.S. has stuck to economic sanctions regarding Iran, even after the armed attacks of Pasdarans* against oil tankers passing through the Straits of Hormuz last summer, against Saudi oil plants, or when they shot down an American drone. Since Dec. 27, 2019, the date of the first retaliation by U.S. forces against pro-Iran forces in Iraq that killed or injured American soldiers, the U.S. is now retaliating using military measures in response to Iranian provocations.
In an asymmetrical conflict, the actors have to ponder the direct and indirect consequences of their actions. The siege of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad by pro-Iran militias, and the painful symbolism that came with it, obviously needed to be addressed with U.S. countermeasures. But what we know about Trump's decision-making process in the drone attack that pulverized the car of Gen. Soleimani is appalling: It was the most extreme option suggested by his secretary of defense, who thought it would be rejected, although it had been discussed in the media. But the president instinctively chose it, without consulting anyone, without going through the established processes of the National Security Council, without informing Congress even though the assassination of the commander of the Iranian forces was bound to put fire to the powder keg. Like one person tweeted, “we have known for more than a century that you can't kill an archduke with impunity.”
What Is within Trump's Control?
U.S. allies immediately called for deescalation and restraint on both sides, while claiming solidarity with the U.S. afterward. Meanwhile the Iraqi parliament called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. After the withdrawal of Syria − demanded by Turkey, with which Syria doesn't have the best relations − the forced withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq would be an unhoped-for victory for Iran. It would eventually mean the resurgence of the Islamic State that the U.S. troops came to fight. But since the U.S. is keeping Baghdad's government afloat, it should avoid the humiliation of being chased away from Mesopotamia overnight.
Now, observers are expecting several Iranian actions against American interests at a time set by Tehran, which has also freely resumed producing enriched uranium. Some of the most experienced observers speak about the risk of war, even if neither side really wishes it. But is Trump still in control of the situation?
*Editor’s note: Pasdarans is an informal term for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, part of the Iranian armed forces.