By John Bolton (The long obvious perfect choice for Secretary of State)
Wall Street Journal
May 23, 2017
The White House decided last week to continue President Obama’s waiver of significant economic sanctions against Iran. The news, coming hard on the heels of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s April 18 certification that Iran is complying with the 2015 Vienna nuclear agreement, was both revealing and distressing. New missile-related sanctions, simultaneously imposed, were small consolation.
This continuity with Obama-era policies fits a larger pattern. Despite generally tougher rhetoric against Iran and North Korea—including the president’s weekend speech in Saudi Arabia—the Trump administration’s actions against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction increasingly resemble its predecessor’s.
Rhetoric doesn’t faze Iran so long as the nuclear deal’s goodies keep coming, and the ayatollahs have had the effrontery to complain they aren’t flowing fast enough. President Obama and Tehran crafted the Vienna accord in ways that front-loaded the benefits for Iran, intending to lock America and Europe into economic ties that would be too costly to untangle. Every passing day validates that strategy.
Meanwhile, Iran’s violations—regarding uranium enrichment, heavy-water production, ballistic-missile testing and concealed military dimensions such as warhead development—continue unimpeded. Unexpected, unnecessary and divorced from reality, Mr. Tillerson’s certification of Iranian compliance blindsided the White House, which responded by toughening up the final presentation but lacked the wherewithal to reverse the decision.
Friday’s election returning Hassan Rouhani to Iran’s presidency changed nothing, since the nuclear and ballistic-missile programs are controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
A similar policy continuity can be seen regarding North Korea. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Obama did not obsess over negotiations with North Korea (preferring to obsess over negotiations with Iran). Instead, he propounded the doctrine of “strategic patience,” a synonym for doing nothing, which proved equally as dangerous as making foolish concessions.
Predictably, Pyongyang took advantage of American passivity. It concentrated on making steady, significant progress on both nuclear weapons (a sixth test is reportedly being readied) and long-range missiles.
Mr. Trump’s current policy differs little from that of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Mr. Obama, relying mistakenly on China to pressure Pyongyang.
As before, Beijing is feigning pressure, but as yet there is no evidence it will be any tougher than is necessary to quiet America down.
South Korea has just thrown Kim Jong Un a lifeline by electing a president eager to return to the “sunshine” policy—appeasement by another name. And the full scope of Pyongyang’s cooperation with Tehran remains unknown.
Why do President Trump’s proliferation policies increasingly echo his predecessor’s? Although Mr. Obama’s aides derided Washington’s foreign-policy establishment as “the blob,” they were part of it, and, progressively, so are Mr. Trump’s.
The failure to make decisive changes in policy during the administration’s early days, coupled with delays in making presidential appointments in the national-security departments, is taking its toll. Washington’s political distractions aren’t helping.
Mr. Trump’s “new” power elites are increasingly succumbing to (or were already adherents in good standing of) the conventional wisdom, as their respective agency bureaucracies define it. The “capture” problem (more pointedly known as “clientitis” or “going native”) is hardly new. Jim Baker once wisely said about becoming secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush: “I intended to be the president’s man at the State Department, not State’s man at the White House.”
The State Department is Washington’s most sophisticated bureaucracy in capturing political appointees and acculturating them to accept existing policies, but the military and intelligence bureaus are no slackers. The policies they pursued on Jan. 19, the day before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, are the same they pursue on Jan. 21, and Jan. 22, and so on until their direction is changed. Pushing through that change is what presidential appointees are needed to do.
What is true in proliferation policy is also true more broadly. Example: Before Mr. Trump’s current trip to the Middle East, senior administration officials repeated the mantra that Jerusalem’s Western Wall was not “in Israel” because Jerusalem’s final status remained to be negotiated. The White House responded that the wall is “clearly in Jerusalem”—a point no one has disputed for several thousand years.
Curiously, the State Department’s incantation apparently never reached U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who cheerily opined that the wall was in Israel. Likewise, Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem remains in limbo, just like his predecessors’ pledges did.
Despite the furor over Mr. Trump’s purported Moscow connection, his administration’s policy regarding sanctions on Russia over its Ukraine adventure is essentially the same as Mr. Obama’s.
When Mr. Trump exhorted NATO allies to meet their commitments to increase defense expenditures to at least 2% of gross domestic product, critics acted as if the barbarians had breached the gates of civilized national-security discourse. But Barack Obama previously characterized many of these same allies as “free riders.”
There are exceptions to this policy continuity. Proposed increases in Washington’s defense budget are a major example. But even there critics like Sen. John McCain have rightly argued that the increases need to be significantly larger.
But by default, and perhaps by accident, the Trump White House has left Mr. Obama’s flawed and otherworldly strategic vision in place. It isn’t enough for the administration to say that a strategy is being written. The strategy must come first, with the clerical task of writing it down coming last, reflecting what is actually being done day by day. That isn’t happening.
The Trump administration has not yet passed the point of no return on these critical issues, but it is getting perilously close. Warning flags are multiplying. Ronald Reagan once said he wanted a Republican Party that stood for “bold colors, no pale pastels.” Mr. Trump should get out his paintbrush.
Mr. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).
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