He added in a Time magazine interview that month that “it was always, ‘Death to America,' ‘Death to America,’ ‘We will destroy America,’ ‘We will kill America.’ I’m not hearing that too much anymore.” Then Trump made a prediction: “And I don’t expect to.”
This week, Iran-backed protesters invaded the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad shouting that exact slogan. And in doing so, they sent the latest signal that Trump’s wildly divergent — and often just plain wild — diplomatic approaches to the United States’s long-standing nuclear headaches aren’t having nearly the impact that his bluster proclaims.
The New York Times’s David E. Sanger sums it up well in a lengthy review of Trump’s foreign policy as we head into the final year of his first term:
While the Iran-backed attack on the United States Embassy in Baghdad seemed to be under control, it played to Mr. Trump’s longtime worry that American diplomats and troops in the Middle East are easy targets and his longtime position that the United States must pull back from the region.In North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s declaration on Wednesday that the world would “witness a new strategic weapon” seemed to be the end of an 18-month experiment in which Mr. Trump believed his force of personality — and vague promises of economic development — would wipe away a problem that plagued the last 12 of his predecessors.
In addition to the premature obituary for the “Death to America” chants, Trump called Iran “a very different nation” on his watch, Sanger said, and tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Pretty much everything since then suggests the problems remain — if the two countries aren’t even more emboldened in 2020.
Iran’s continued provocations in recent months have included attacks on oil tankers, a U.S. drone and Saudi oil fields, along with storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. In North Korea, all signs are that it has done very little, if anything, to scale back its nuclear efforts, even as Trump has offered significant rhetorical and symbolic concessions such as an unprecedented photo op in the demilitarized zone.
And here’s the key line from Sanger:
Neither seems to fear him, precisely the critique he leveled at Barack Obama back in the days when Mr. Trump declared America’s toughest national security challenges would be solved as soon as a president the world respected was in office.
It’s important to emphasize that Trump has taken hugely divergent approaches to these two countries. While he has tried to use sugar and spice to woo North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un into a long-elusive nuclear deal, he pulled out of an existing nuclear deal with Iran — declaring it insufficient and bashing President Barack Obama for entering into it — and has essentially tried to smother Iran into relenting.
But the common thread between the two approaches is that neither appears to have engendered the kind of fear and respect that is central to Trump’s foreign policy. From the beginning, Trump’s foreign policy doctrine has been likened to the “madman theory,” in which foreign countries believe you are so unpredictable that they constantly worry about setting you off. His initial approach to North Korea was similar to the current approach to Iran, with Trump promising “fire and fury” and to “totally destroy” the rogue nation if it got out of line.
Trump has since then made nice with Kim and hailed the supposed progress that resulted. He overzealously claimed that an agreement he signed with Kim in Singapore in June 2018 amounted to a “contract” in which North Korea pledged to move toward the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” If Trump truly believed it amounted to a “contract,” though, Kim is now openly and publicly flouting it. Previously, North Korea seemed to be moving its nuclear program along more quietly; now it’s very much out in the open.
In Iran, Trump has responded militarily to some degree, including over the weekend by striking facilities the U.S. government says belong to an Iranian-backed militia in Syria and Iraq. But after the shooting down of an American drone in June, Trump abruptly canceled planned airstrikes on Iranian soil. And the latest strikes resulted only in Iran-backed demonstrators storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — a scene that recalled the same occurrence in Tehran in 1979, even as the result hasn’t been nearly as serious.
Trump’s responses to both situations have been characteristically divergent. On North Korea, he didn’t have much to say.
“He likes me, I like him, we get along,” Trump said about Kim on Tuesday. “He’s representing his country, I’m representing my country. We have to do what we have to do.”
His response to Iran was exponentially tougher. He tweeted, “They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded on Wednesday by calling Trump “that guy” and goading him by saying, “You can’t do anything.”
That guy has tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad & we will respond to Iran.— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) January 1, 2020
1st: You can’t do anything.
2nd: If you were logical —which you’re not— you’d see that your crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan… have made nations hate you. https://t.co/hMGOEDwHuY
Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass told the Times that Trump is “facing [a crisis] with Iran because he has rejected diplomacy and another with North Korea because he has asked too much of diplomacy.”
The underlying problem, though, is that neither country seems to be worried about what might result from the latest provocation, and now the provocations are becoming more and more provocative. What happens in both situations over the next year seems likely to weigh heavily on Trump’s legacy — and on reviews of his highly unorthodox and often overly simplistic approach to diplomacy.