To begin with, here, let’s clarify that “Trump not being an idiot” doesn’t mean “Trump plans to do what you or I want him to do.”
It means he intends to do what he wants to do, and is prepping the battlespace for his campaign.
So it’s necessary to set aside for the moment what you think is the right thing to do, and analyze the operational character of the activity we see from Trump. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an actual strategist in the Oval Office.
It would be too much to try to cinemascope the entire landscape of global crises in one post. But it’s necessary to introduce the very important idea that what you see the Trump administration doing isn’t as random and unconnected as it looks. I’m not saying I know these things for certain, but I am certain that the alternative view merits consideration.
So: consider that Trump and his inner circle see things as interconnected, and have reasons for their actions.
I’ll look just at two events of the last 24 hours. One is the letter Rex Tillerson has sent to Congress, certifying – laughably – that Iran is in compliance with the 2015 JCPOA; that is, the so-called “Iran deal.”
The other is the revelation that the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) strike group hasn’t been headed for Korea as media reporting has indicated for the last week. Vinson is operating in the Western Pacific, yes – after a detour into the Indian Ocean for an exercise with Australia – but was never charging the Korean Peninsula at flank speed, contrary to the expectations raised by the media based on unnamed sources in the administration.
The media are feeling burned by this, er, messaging disconnect. And that’s understandable. The Wall Street Journal’s reporters were at pains on Tuesday to highlight the “jeers from Asia” about the Vinson disclosures, apparently recognizing that the chagrin of the media at being given bad information wouldn’t impress anyone much.
LU’s own DCNF piece by Ryan Pickrell constructed the thoughtful point that the media spun themselves up based on thin clues, and “had everyone expecting another Korean War.” More specifically, the media had a lot of people expecting another Korean War this month – or at least in the very near future.
The underlying conditions that may require military action at some point are still there. The issue of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat is unresolved, so we can expect to revisit the situation of the last few weeks.
But next time, will the media assume they’re getting good information from their anonymous official sources? They’ll be more skeptical, I think.
Breaking the leak factory
I suspect the Great Carrier Caper hasn’t been about sending signals to Asia, so much as about breaking something that wasn’t on anybody’s scope, outside the White House.
One of Trump’s chief requirements – a condition he needs to shape for his battlespace – is a media environment in which he’s not being constantly undercut by preemptive leaks from the bureaucratic opponents of his policy. So far, the biggest sources of such leaks have been the intelligence community and people on the NSC staff.
Consider – just consider – the possibility that the Great Carrier Caper was an op run not against the media, the capitals of Asia, or the American people, but against the leakers.
I did my small bit last week, by biting on the “NBC exclusive” in which intelligence officials leaked that the U.S. was nearing a strike on North Korea. I didn’t actually think a strike was imminent, but I was angry about the apparent faithlessness of these intel officials. And if they thought they were doing something straightforwardly underhanded – leaking a tip, against the interests of the Trump administration – then I stand by my reaction.
But there’s a real possibility that they were being played. Nothing would as surely burn them with their media contacts as being so egregiously wrong about something so big.
Even if a “precision burn” wasn’t possible in this round, the Great Carrier Caper has succeeded in rocking the mainstream media on their heels, and causing them to question what they’re getting from the usual-suspect leak factory. If Trump wanted to set up something like this, DOD would be the place to do it. He can be the most certain of key individual loyalties there.
Remember, Trump’s problem with hostile leaks is far worse than anything his predecessors ever had to deal with. He would be motivated to deal with it in a way none of the presidents in your lifetime or mine has had to be. It’s a problem that will effectively hamstring him in foreign policy if he doesn’t root it out. So the level and kind of action here would comport with the level of necessity.
Certainly, if Trump is to undo the bad JCPOA with Iran, he will need exactly this condition: the ability to take actions without having them leaked and sabotaged in advance from within his National Security Council.
A roundabout approach to Iran
Rex Tillerson’s letter to Congress this week can be seen, I suspect, as a placeholder. Trump isn’t yet ready to move – according to his strategy – on the Iran problem. The simple, linear view would see the letter to Congress as an essential means of stating the U.S. posture and putting pressure on Iran. But there may be a reason why Trump doesn’t want to “strike” by that particular means.
One basic reason is that a prearranged timetable dictates when he has to “strike.” The letter is due at a certain time. That time may not be when he’s ready.
But another is that Trump is already working on the Iran problem in a different way: not frontal, but oblique. He’s systematically lining up conditions to box Iran in and cut off her options for weaponizing a nuke. What is Iran’s main alternative to doing her own warhead detonation, at a test range in Iran? That’s right: doing one in North Korea. The same is true of testing longer-range missiles.
Iran’s principal power-projection engagement, meanwhile, is in Syria and Lebanon, and has been for decades. There are other foreign adventures (e.g., Yemen) from which Iran could draw back if she absolutely had to, and wait to reengage at a more propitious time. But Iran cannot, under any circumstances, let go of Syria and Lebanon.
Everything about Iran’s 1979 revolution fizzles and goes for naught, if the mullahs lose their stake on the Mediterranean: adjacent to Israel; established between a neo-Ottoman Turkey and Israel; with as much military-strategic access to Israel as any Arab nation has; and with a tenacious toehold on the West’s doorstep.
Hitting Iran in Syria is hitting Iran where she lives.
Trump’s movements to merely put North Korea and Syria in play – to make the U.S. a real, and still unpredictable, factor again – are the movements most surely designed to knock the complacency out from under Tehran. In Syria, if the U.S. and our local partners are effective against ISIS (in the east), Iran will have to commit more than she’s had to for years, to prevent the loss of strategic access she once took for granted. The U.S. can drive up the cost of Syria to Iran, and even bleed her dry.
Will we? I don’t know. But suddenly, Iran can’t count on not having to face that problem. The more successful the U.S. partnership is, the more all Iran’s calculations will have to change.
Iran can’t count on being able to get nuclear business done in North Korea either. Trump’s America is too interested and alerted there now. I don’t know what we’ll do in North Korea. But Trump has already changed the facts on the ground in South Korea, moving in forces in the teeth of strenuous opposition from China, and showing no disposition to negotiate the new posture away.
The next four years will not be a time when Iran can expect to furtively detonate a nuclear warhead there, or use Pyongyang’s launchpad to test rockets. I wouldn’t dismiss that as a significant change of conditions, and we can be sure Iran won’t.
Would I love to have all these things being done under cover of proper statesmanlike communications? Sure. I’ve written about that many times. But it’s not Trump who evacuated us all from Stately Wayne Manor. It was his predecessor, on whose watch American power well and truly lost its Pax Americana-era meaning.
There is no going back to 2008 now. The only way through is forward. We can get to a statelier basis for national security policy again, but our only option now is to forge a new path.