There Are No Good Answers in the Middle East

Or North Korea for that matter. Why foreign policy should humble us all.

The United States rings in the New Year with two foreign policy challenges that demonstrate once again that dealing with rogue regimes is hard, that the American people ask their leaders to pursue often irreconcilable goals, and that each new American administration has to relearn old truths. Today’s French Press:

  1. Making sense of events in Iraq

  1. Making sense of events in North Korea

Iraq: The more you know, the worse you feel.

I’m not going to rehash all the events of the last few days in Iraq. The short version is relatively simple—after an escalating series of attacks on American bases (including an attack that killed an American contractor), the United States responded with a series of air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that killed more than two dozen militants. Earlier this week, these militias responded by besieging the American Embassy in Baghdad, the U.S. reinforced its defenses, and the militias have withdrawn. For the moment, the immediate crisis seems to have passed. So, what should we make of the week’s events?

First, don’t tell Twitter, but this was no Benghazi. In Libya, an outmanned, outgunned detachment of American diplomats and intelligence officers faced a sustained, organized assault from jihadist militias without meaningful assistance. The diplomatic outpost was overrun, a CIA facility was abandoned, and we lost four American lives, including the life of the American ambassador. It was a terrible defeat, and only extraordinary American heroism kept it from becoming a massacre.

By contrast, the American Embassy in Baghdad did not fall, and an American show of force (including Apache helicopters over the embassy and rapid Marine reinforcements) demonstrated to the Iraqi militants that the U.S. would defend its diplomats. There was no American defeat. The embassy still stands. 

Second, the protests were no “grassroots uprising.” It would be terrifying indeed if an American embassy was besieged by a true popular revolt. A small band of Americans trapped in a seething city of millions would represent a true emergency and could necessitate a dramatic evacuation. But the best reporting indicates that’s not what happened in Baghdad. Embassy guards faced an Iranian-backed militia operation, not a true urban uprising. This was a focused, localized act of retaliation for American air strikes. 

Third, don’t believe everything you read about Iraqi outrage at America. If you’ve been following events in Iraq at all, you’ll know that the nation has been convulsed by large-scale protests against Iranian influence. These uprisings are far more extensive, far more violent, and far more deadly than the localized attack on the American Embassy this week. Hundreds of Iraqis have died, thousands have been injured, and they’ve thrown the Iraqi government into (another) state of chaos. Moreover, the Iraqi government knows that it faces a tremendous challenge from Iranian-backed militias. Thousands of fighters exist within Iraqi territory. They’re outside of Iraqi government control, and they can even (as we just witnessed) conduct operations within Baghdad itself.

Critics of the Trump administration’s air strikes claim that the administration squandered rising anti-Iran sentiment and united Iraqis (and the Iraqi government) against the U.S. That may be correct. I’m not so sure, however. Public condemnation sometimes conceals private support (or at least acquiescence), and I’ve heard indications that the Iraqi government was perhaps more supportive than its public posture would indicate. 

In short, don’t draw conclusions about the long-term effect of the air strikes just yet. They didn’t adjust the structural dynamics that triggered the anti-Iran protests, and many Iraqis know that the American presence does help prevent even greater degrees of Iranian domination and influence. 

Finally, every party is playing with a weaker hand than it would like. Iran’s economy is crippled by sanctions, the regime is facing a rising wave of opposition across the region, and it’s wracked by its own round of deadly internal protests. The Trump administration is taking a firmer approach to Iran than Obama did—and we’re unquestionably the dominant military power in the region—but Trump has no interest in a renewed Middle Eastern conflict, and neither do the American people. In fact, a new Middle East war (and the global economic disruption that could result from serious combat in the Persian Gulf) could doom his re-election chances. As for Iraq, it’s still reeling from its horrific war against ISIS, its politics are still chaotic, and they have no real plan for dealing with the Iranian militias in their midst. 

Against that background of complexity, there is, however, a simple truth. The United States cannot allow Iran’s proxy forces to kill Americans. It cannot tolerate continued rocket strikes against American bases. Self-defense is a deadly necessity.

The longer I live, the more I understand a cardinal truth about the human condition—evil often leaves virtue with few good options. I have real sympathy for the Trump administration. There is simply no clear path forward that will diminish Iran’s malign influence and permanently block its progress to a nuclear weapon without risking wider war. At the same time, easing the pressure on Iran would reduce short-term tensions while likely rendering Iran a much greater long-term threat. Moreover, the American people often present American policy-makers with a set of difficult—often irreconcilable—goals. Keep America safe. Don’t let Iran go nuclear. Limit the terrorist threat. Oh, and end all the wars and bring the troops home.

I defy any administration—Republican or Democrat—to accomplish all those goals together.

The administration should continue to play its weak hand as best it can. The American people are not ready for a new and very serious shooting war in the Middle East. But the Obama approach of easing sanctions in exchange for a temporary hold on Iran’s nuclear program did nothing to moderate Iranian behavior. And the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq was perhaps its worst (and most consequential) foreign policy mistake of his two terms in office. 

American forces should stay in Iraq, they should defend themselves from Iran’s militia allies, and we should maintain (and, if possible, increase) both our economic sanctions and proxy/covert actions against Iran. There are no good answers in the Middle East, but folding in the face of Iranian pressure would be the worst answer of all. 

North Korea is still North Korea.

As if the Iraqi militia attack on the U.S. embassy wasn’t concerning enough, North Korea issued its own New Year’s Eve challenge to the United States

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, ​said his country no longer felt bound by its self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, its official media reported on Wednesday, the strongest indication yet that the country could soon resume such tests.

Mr. Kim also said the world would witness a new strategic weapon “in the near future,” according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, though no details were provided.

The Trump administration’s actions toward North Korea have lurched from the dangerously weird, to the prudently firm, to the absurdly conciliatory. While the administration has imposed necessary sanctions on the regime, its strange threats of 2017 (“Little Rocket Man” and “fire and fury”) gave way to the president’s summits and public valentines to Kim. 

Here’s the hard truth—none of it was ever going to induce North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. I agree with Nicholas Eberstadt. “Pyongyang will never denuclearize voluntarily. Ever.” All its talk of “denuclearization” was the same song and dance, just with a different American dance partner. It wants America to abandon South Korea, full stop. And even then I seriously doubt North Korea would give up its weapons. They’re too central to its national identity and to its cult of self-reliance and cultural superiority. 

If there was any virtue at all in Trump’s recent bear hugs of perhaps the most odious dictator on the entire planet, at least we learned that you can’t flatter Kim out of his nuclear arsenal. Instead, thanks to North Korea’s advances in weapons technology, we almost certainly face a troubling new reality. In Eberstadt’s vivid words, North Korea “gets to threaten San Francisco with incineration, and we get to do nothing.”

Remember what I said above, that evil often leaves virtue with few good options? That applies in spades on the Korean Peninsula. War with North Korea is unthinkable. During my military career, I served in South Korea during Operation Key Resolve in 2010. I ran through a simulated conflict with the north, and it would be brutal to a degree not seen in generations. At the same time, easing sanctions won’t buy off Kim. He’ll pocket his profits and expand his arsenal. 

At the very least, maintaining (and increasing) economic sanctions places limits on North Korean power. He can’t modernize a military that is largely equipped with ancient weaponry—thus limiting his offensive striking power. He is restrained in his ability to increase investments in the nuclear program, thus limiting its growth. The regime has existed for too long to realistically hope for internal upheaval, but a containment at least keeps the peace. Containment at least preserves one of the central achievements of American foreign policy since World War II—the preservation of South Korea and the protection that has allowed it to become one of the most prosperous democracies (and one of our most faithful allies) in the world. 

One last thing ... 

On New Year’s Eve, Twitter erupted in one of its few fun debates. What was the single-best sporting event of the last decade? What was the single best sporting moment? For best game, I say Game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals. As Vox’s Jane Coastan said, it “felt like if the Super Bowl were being played for the souls of everyone involved.” Relive the glory, when LeBron became the GOAT:

As for the best moment? I have but two words. Kick. Six.

“Auburn’s gonna win the football game! Auburn’s gonna win the football game!”

Photo credit: A handout photo provided by Dong-A Ilbo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the South and North Korea on June 30, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea.