Though it is headed by a man who considers himself one of history’s greatest dealmakers, the Trump administration lately has been doing its best to avoid making deals.
The possibilities in foreign policy for a master negotiator are legion: There are Iran and North Korea with their nuclear programs; Venezuela, whose bankrupt regime presides over a major humanitarian crisis; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Trump once described as ripe for a “deal of the century.”
Yet in recent months, U.S. policy has seemingly been aimed not just at preventing accords on these problems but also at precluding bargaining by our would-be closer in chief.
Take the case of Iran. When he withdrew the United States from the multilateral deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear program, Trump said he was “ready, willing and able” to negotiate a new accord and confidently predicted that the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was “going to want to make a new and lasting deal.”
Nearly a year later, Trump has done less bargaining with the Islamic republic than any president in the past 40 years. Not only is his administration not known to be talking with the regime about its nuclear program or its aggressions in the Middle East; it also has taken only minimal action to free the several U.S. citizens that Iran has unjustly imprisoned.
Instead, U.S. policy seeks to apply crushing pressure to the regime without offering it a way out. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a bid to take Iranian oil exports “to zero” by threatening sanctions on the remaining buyers. The gambit might not work, but if it does, Tehran will face a potentially devastating economic crisis. And by Pompeo’s account, it could gain relief only if it meets a list of 12 demands adding up to a 180-degree reversal of its foreign policy.
As a practical matter, notes Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, “Washington’s present approach makes possible two scenarios, neither of which is promising.” Either Iran “digs in,” prompting the Trump administration to redouble its pressure; or it decides to resume its nuclear program to gain some leverage. Either way, Vaez argues, the non-negotiating strategy opens “a fraught and dangerous path.”
The administration has taken a similar approach to Venezuela, where it has imposed a drastic sanction against the regime of Nicolás Maduro — a ban on oil trade with the United States — while rejecting negotiations with his government. U.S. strategy is to force the Venezuelan military to remove Maduro and work out a transition plan with the opposition’s alternative government. But the generals have not budged, leaving Venezuelans to face a catastrophic decline in already dire living conditions.
As for the deal of the century, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and envoy Jason Greenblatt are expected to roll out their long-awaited Mideast peace plan in a month or two. But the administration has already sabotaged it by delivering a series of body blows to the Palestinians, from cutting off funding to the Palestinian Authority to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Trump’s team seems to think it has given the Palestinians a necessary softening up. But those who know them better, such as longtime U.S. Mideast negotiator Dennis A. Ross, say it has merely triggered the deeply ingrained Palestinian penchant for defiance. Their leaders have refused to talk to Trump’s envoys since last year — and it’s probable they never will.
Then there is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, with whom Trump has portrayed himself as negotiating. Only he hasn’t, really. At their last meeting in Hanoi, Trump proposed that the North Korean leader agree to surrender Pyongyang’s entire nuclear arsenal, plus its chemical and biological weapons, a whopping nonstarter. When Kim refused and made his own one-sided offer, Trump walked away.
The North Koreans had reason to be confounded. Before the summit, there were indications the administration would be open to a more incremental deal, in which North Korea would give up some of its nuclear capacity in exchange for limited U.S. concessions. When Trump instead struck his all-or-nothing stance, the regime blamed Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. Pyongyang has since demanded that Pompeo be dropped from future talks.
North Koreans are not known for rational political analysis, but in this case, they may be on to something. Bolton has a decades-long record of favoring force over diplomacy, while Pompeo has made a militantly uncompromising position toward Iran a trademark since his first election to Congress. It’s notable that the two don’t figure in the one notable negotiation in which the administration is engaged — with China over trade terms.
Trump’s first national security team, led by H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson, was devoted to curbing his most reckless impulses. Could it be that his second is trying to ensure that he makes no compromises?