When President Trump announced his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria in December, shocked U.S. allies warned that the fight against the Islamic State was far from over. Separate European warnings against a U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal were similarly ignored by Trump last year. Earlier, Japan felt obliged to remind the United States that North Korea still posed a serious security risk, even as Trump said that he and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had fallen “in love.”
In all those cases, the startled reactions by U.S. allies around the world had little impact on the commander in chief in Washington.
But on Tuesday, his own intelligence chiefs directly contradicted Trump on a number of issues and, incidentally, sided with the assessments of their closest partners abroad.
On the Islamic State, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said that the group had suffered “significant leadership and territorial losses.” As my colleagues reported, its reach is still global — something Coats confirmed by assessing that there were still thousands of Islamic State supporters worldwide and other associated networks. The United Nations estimates that as many as 30,000 Islamic State supporters could still be in Iraq and Syria, where the United States would have less sway to intervene once its ground troops have departed from Syria. For that reason, France’s President Emmanuel Macron maintained that French troops would have to stay in Syria, even after their U.S. counterparts are gone.
“The retreat from Syria announced by our American friends cannot make us deviate from our strategic objective: eradicating Daesh,” Macron said on Jan. 17, in response to an Islamic State-claimed attack in Syria that had killed four Americans earlier that week and referring to it by its Arabic acronym.
Macron’s comments directly contradicted Trump’s victory claim over the Islamic State last month. Tuesday’s testimony in Washington is likely to add further weight to the French leader’s warnings.
In future conversations with Trump, several other assessments made public on Tuesday could also come in handy for European leaders. Before he withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal last year, Trump called it “insane,” “bad” or “terrible,” saying that Iran was “behind every problem” in the Middle East — months before the CIA determined that a key U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had ordered the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
While criticism of Saudi Arabia has also been somewhat muted in France and Britain, which both export arms worth billions of dollars there every year, Europe has remained united in its support for the Iran nuclear deal. Germany, France and Britain maintain that Iran has complied with the deal’s conditions and that the agreement is the best way to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. In the Worldwide Threat Assessment report that was presented by Coats and other intelligence officials, U.S. officials appear to agree with prior analyses by their European counterparts, writing that Iran is not attempting to build a nuclear weapon.
That assessment raises questions over the basis for Trump’s claim in May that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons. Trump cited Israeli intelligence, saying: “At the heart of the Iran deal was a giant fiction that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear energy program. Today, we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie.”
To critics, Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last June bore the hallmarks of fiction, too. (Ironically, Kim himself said at some stage during the summit that their meeting may remind people of something “from a science fiction movie.”) The outcome of the summit left key questions unanswered, but Trump stood by his initial assessment that the North Korean leader was serious about denuclearization, even as U.S. allies warned that the president may have been overly optimistic.
In August, as Trump was still celebrating his historic summit, Japan’s Ministry of Defense warned that “North Korea’s military activities pose the most serious and pressing threat our nation has faced.” Since then, more warning signs have emerged, casting doubts over Kim’s willingness to follow U.S. demands.
The language included in the U.S. intelligence community’s most recent assessment sounds similar to the tone struck by Japan and other allies. “North Korea retains its WMD capabilities,” U.S. officials write, adding that “it is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities.”
“North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival,” according to the assessment.
Compare that to Trump’s pre-summit remarks that he would “know within the first minute” if Kim was serious and his post-summit ebullience over the results.
It wasn’t the only meeting between Trump and another leader that caught U.S. allies off-guard. European agencies and their U.S. counterparts have repeatedly warned of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to interfere in Western elections, but unofficial meetings between Trump and Putin at the sidelines of summits and Trump’s early resistance to fully blame Putin for interference in the 2016 presidential elections raised suspicions.
Tuesday’s U.S. intelligence report makes no mention of Trump, but it clearly states that “Moscow continues to be a highly capable and effective adversary, integrating cyber espionage, attack, and influence operations to achieve its political and military objectives.”
That’s why U.S. allies have been especially interested in expanding cooperation on fending off cyberattacks, which has led to multiple efforts to deepen joint initiatives. But being the world’s leader in cybersecurity may prove difficult in a country that just experienced its longest government shutdown in history and where concerns mount that tech talents may be headed into private industry en masse.
The question now is whether Trump will be more open to the views of his intelligence chiefs than he has been to his allies, though in early morning tweets on Wednesday, he doubled down on his achievements, maintaining that the Islamic State would soon be destroyed and there was a “decent” chance of denuclearization with North Korea. Later he lashed out more forcefully calling them “passive” and “naive” over Iran, tweeting “perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
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