Donald Trump wants to trash the Iran nuclear agreement. But he has a big problem. In that pact, the Iranians agreed to refrain from developing a nuclear weapon for at least a decade and some sanctions against Iran would be lifted. Those are the only subjects of the agreement and all the other signatories—China, Russia, the United Kingdom and, as of less than 90 days ago, the United States—have all said the Iranians are keeping their side of the deal.
Unable to produce evidence the Iranians are developing nukes, Trump has directed his team to look for any excuse to pull out of the agreement. Basically, Trump is trying to move the goal posts by attacking Iran over things that have nothing to do with what was agreed. The talking points: The Iranian regime is terrible and—fill in the rest with insults. The agreement was the worst deal ever. Iran is a rogue state that sponsors terrorists and supports enemy regimes like Syria.
All these talking points are irrelevant. Iran did not agree to change its foreign policy any more than Russia agreed to return Crimea to Ukraine or the United States to stop fighting Syria. The agreement covered nukes and sanctions, period.
Then there is the all-purpose talking point Trump has used concerning not only Iran but also North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela—wherever the United States wants regime change and Trump’s hardest core supporters want a more bellicose U.S. policy. That talking point is that all these governments are guilty of the vague charge of destabilization.
The irony is that Trump is the supreme destabilizer in the world today, following in the footsteps and outdoing his destabilizing GOP predecessors George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. The latter two, among other outrages, waged illegal wars in Nicaragua (Reagan) and Iraq (Bush) and broke U.S. and international law by perpetrating torture (Bush). Bush also declined to renew a mutual non-aggression commitment between North Korea and the United States, reached under Bill Clinton, thus setting the stage for the current U.S.-North Korea confrontation. Reagan and George W. set a high bar for destabilization. Trump now is moving it much higher.
Let’s start with North Korea. Under president Clinton, the United States reached an agreement that stated neither country had hostile intentions toward the other. George W. Bush declined to renew that commitment. This was the origin of the escalation of instability in U.S.-North Korean relations. Given Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the real purpose of which was regime change (not the stated reason of destroying inexistent weapons of mass destruction), the message to North Korea (as well as Iran) was clear. One side of the “axis of evil” down, two to go.
Ever since, North Korea (and to a lesser degree Iran before the now-questioned deal) looked toward nuclear weapons as a guarantee against becoming Iraq 2.0 and 3.0. North Korea specifically has been carrying out a supercharged effort to produce more and better nuclear weapons and the necessary delivery systems.
North Korean rhetoric is often bombastic and even bizarre. But in context the decision to pursue nuclear weapons as the only possible deterrent to a reprise of Iraq is not irrational or bizarre. The fact that the United States wages war on weak countries like Grenada, Panama, and Nicaragua, but not against potent adversaries with nukes like the former Soviet Union and China is not lost on North Korea.
The fact that Donald Trump is George W. Bush on speed and steroids, even more confrontational, arrogant and ignorant, has made everything much worse. Trump’s bluster, personal insults and apocalyptic threats—to destroy North Korea totally, among others—reinforces what the North Koreans have believed since Bush renounced the Clinton agreement: the United States is going to attack, sooner or later. With Trump in the Whites House now, the North Koreans believe the attack is imminent.
The main purpose of Trump’s threats to “totally destroy North Korea” and to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran is less to intimidate those countries than to shore up his dwindling base at home, aggrieved by a couple of half steps recently taken by Trump in the direction of rationality, specifically on bipartisanship, DACA and the debt ceiling. But playing to the loony bin that forms the hard, hard core of Trump’s base at home is inherently destabilizing and a very dangerous way to deal with countries like North Korea and Iran. It is also ineffective.
This analysis also applies to the statement by Secretary of State Tillerson that he is considering closing the U.S. embassy in Havana. The excuse in this case is the suspicion that Cuba is conducting a sonic warfare against U.S. diplomats in Havana. But the sonic stuff, whatever it is, started under Obama, the man with the olive branch and has also affected a Canadian diplomat. If Cuba is behind the sonic attack, Raúl Castro has lost his mind. He hasn’t, and it isn’t.
U.S. citizens who have spoken with president Raul Castro on the subject found him uncharacteristically rattled. The idea that the formidable Cuban security apparatus has yet to decipher what is going on here and who is doing it must have Raúl understandably upset. Cuba has stayed afloat amid more hurricanes, both meteorological and political, than have hit Florida. They have accomplished this in two ways: by running a tight ship and, unlike Saddam Hussein, by knowing where the U.S. red lines are and not crossing them. Hurting Americans, whether sailors in Guantanamo or diplomats in Havana, is a bright red line. Cuba knows it.
Hardening U.S. policy toward Cuba does serve a couple of twisted purposes for Trump, however. It’s a way of ingratiating himself with a very special part of his base, hardline Cuban exiles, still bitter after all these years. Moreover, like Obamacare repeal, it’s another way to stomp on Obama’s historical achievements. Turning Obama’s legacy to ashes is an obsession for Trump, the GOP, and right-wingers in general. To accomplish this and to give the base some red meat, Trump and the Republicans are ready to hurt tens of millions of Americans by repealing Obamacare. Undoing the thaw with Cuba engineered by Obama is costless in comparison.