The Fix | Analysis
August 7, 2017 at 1:35 PM
President Trump is often accused of using Twitter to distract us from stories he doesn't like. But on Monday, his petty, putdown-fueled tweetstorm likely distracted from a very good story for him.
Over the weekend, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously, 15 to 0, to impose new sanctions on North Korea for its testing of two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month. That's notable because two of its members, Russia and China, have long wielded their veto power over the U.N.'s efforts to crack down on Pyongyang and other problematic foreign countries such as Syria. This year, for example, Russia vetoed a U.N. statement condemning North Korea's missile tests. And in late 2015, Russia and China both opposed a special meeting of the Security Council that the United States tried to organize on North Korea's human rights abuses.
But Saturday's vote to go along with the sanctions, particularly by North Korea's ally China, had even Trump skeptics in the foreign policy community hailing the work of the administration and, specifically, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. And it's actually the second big foreign policy achievement to be announced in recent days, along with major progress against ISIS.
Thomas G. Weiss, a United Nations expert at the City University of New York, suggested that Trump was right to play up the U.N. vote this weekend as a major advance.
“While I disagree with 99 percent of what Trump says, I actually think that he is correct,” Weiss said. “Had anyone asked me to lay a bet last week, I would have hoped at most for an abstention from Beijing. The Russian support is predictable, but the Chinese never want to appear to be responding to pressure.”
Weiss added: “This suggests that even our ill-informed and inexperienced and incompetent president may come to appreciate the value of multilateralism. Obviously, I will need more than one example!”
Ian Bremmer, the head of the Eurasia Group and a frequent Trump critic, suggested that China wouldn't have gone along with the vote if not for the current occupant of the White House. He also said the win would be unprecedented — if China actually follows through on implementing the sanctions.
I asked Bremmer to expand on these tweets and why Trump personally deserved credit. He told me: "Trump made the difference here. His unpredictability and performed willingness to hit the Chinese hard on trade -- coupled, of course, with North Korea's intransigent behavior -- got Beijing on board with the vote."
Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama's former ambassador to Russia, also had praise for Trump. He later tempered it to suggest that Haley deserved much of the credit, too.
Andrew Exum, a Middle East scholar who also writes for the Atlantic and has said Trump requires an “intervention,” agreed.
Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, had more qualified enthusiasm for Saturday's developments.
“This is a win for Trump, but it could ultimately prove to be a hollow one,” Gowan said. “My guess is that China and Russia agreed to this resolution to avoid the U.S. choosing to act unilaterally in future. Beijing wants to keep the dispute under control by running it through the U.N., just as Moscow had used the Security Council as a mechanism to control diplomacy over Syria.”
Gowan added: "Nonetheless, this vote is a huge relief for lots of U. S. allies who were terrified that a breakdown at the U.N could lead Trump to escalate over [North Korea] alone."
The news also, notably, came on the heels of another strong foreign policy development for the Trump administration. On Friday, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s senior envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters that gains against the Islamic State have “dramatically accelerated.” According to McGurk, who also served in the Obama administration, nearly a third of the 27,000 square miles retaken from ISIS's peak in early 2015 have come in the last six months — i.e. during Trump's tenure.
Despite there being no large-scale change in strategy against ISIS during the current administration, McGurk cited Trump's decision to delegate decision-making authority and a “campaign of annihilation” that seeks to ensure militants don't escape after an offensive.
Bremmer also lauded this achievement Saturday as Trump's biggest foreign policy achievement.
With news like this, you have to wonder why Trump decided, upon waking up Monday morning, to lash out at Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and the “fake news” media with yet more counterfactual claims. A more focused media strategy might have made his foreign policy wins the story heading into a slow news week.
If anything gives lie to the idea that Trump's Twitter account is a well-calculated distraction machine, this may be it.