The greatest gunfight in the history of cowboy films is in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s a three-cornered shootout between Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). The crucial point is that before the shooting starts, Blondie has emptied Tuco’s revolver of bullets.
To members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, regardless of party affiliation, Donald Trump’s decision to exit one nuclear deal (with Iran) only to enter another (with North Korea) is beyond baffling. “At a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed,” wrote former president Barack Obama last week, “walking away from the JCPOA [joint comprehensive plan of action] risks losing a deal that accomplishes — with Iran — the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans.”
“If the terms of the Iran deal were applied to North Korea,” wrote CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Thursday, “it would require Pyongyang to destroy its nuclear weapons.” Richard Haass, of the Council on Foreign Relations, was equally dismayed: Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran deal “could lead North Korea to question the utility of signing an agreement with the US”.
These guys clearly never saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Like Eastwood’s Blondie, Trump understands that only one of his antagonists has a loaded gun. North Korea needs to be treated differently from Iran, just as the Bad had to be treated differently from the Ugly.
I wish I had a dollar — or a fistful of dollars — for every article I have read in the past year about the foolishness or recklessness of Trump’s foreign policy. The funny thing is how few of the people writing such pieces pointed out the much greater foolishness and recklessness of his predecessor’s foreign policy. True, Obama’s cool professorial style was far more congenial to national security professionals than Trump’s tweetstorms. But let’s judge foreign policy by its results.
As I argued in July 2015, the goal of Obama’s Iran deal was not just to postpone the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons by 10 years. For it to be more than a mere deferral, it also had to improve the relative strategic position of the United States and its allies so that by 2025 they would be in a stronger position to stop Iran entering the club of nuclear armed powers.
As Obama himself put it then, his hope was that by “building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivise them to behave differently in the region, to be less aggressive, less hostile, more co-operative . . . in resolving issues like Syria or what’s happening in Iraq, to stop encouraging Houthis in Yemen”.
This echoed what he had told The New Yorker back in 2014. “If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion — not funding terrorist organisations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon — you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.”
Obama’s goal was a balance of power in the region. The key question, as I said at the time, was whether or not the Iran deal would increase regional stability. The outcome has been much as I predicted. In return for merely slowing down its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, Iran was handed $150bn in previously frozen assets, as well as a trade bonanza as sanctions were lifted.
Under the deal there was no threat to “snap back” sanctions if Tehran opted to use its new resources to increase its military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen. And so it did just that.
Equally predictably, Iran’s rivals in the region — particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel — responded by stepping up their military efforts in these theatres. Obama thought that by buying time he would get closer to a regional balance. The outcome was just the opposite: escalating conflict. The whole strategy sounded so clever and calculated. In practice it was foolish and reckless.
What about Obama’s North Korea policy? In essence, his administration applied ineffectual sanctions that did nothing whatsoever to slow down Kim Jong-un’s nuclear arms programme. As Obama left the White House, we were assured that North Korea was still roughly five years away from having intercontinental ballistic missiles and a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on them. Within months of Trump’s inauguration, it became clear that North Korea had in fact been just five months away from possessing those assets.
Trump’s approach is almost exactly the opposite of Obama’s. Here the parallel with the Eastwood film must be set aside. (Knowing that Tuco has no bullets, Blondie simply shoots Angel Eyes then makes Tuco dig for the gold they are after.) Trump began with the Bad, not the Ugly. He explicitly threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury”.
For a time, Kim acted defiant but the fact that South Korea and China feared Trump was in earnest had its effect. The South Koreans offered olive branches. The Chinese squeezed North Korea’s economic windpipe. Trump then made a key concession: he agreed to a summit meeting with Kim. Next month in Singapore we shall see what comes of it. My guess is the deal will make Trump’s knee-jerk critics themselves look foolish. He won’t get complete denuclearisation, but he will get some. Meanwhile, large-scale South Korean and Chinese investment in North Korea will start the process of prising open the hermit kingdom.
I don’t suppose the Scandinavians will give Trump the Nobel peace prize, any more than they will rescind Obama’s for screwing up Syria, but that’s not the point. The point will be that Trump achieved a breakthrough where Obama utterly failed.
Now for Iran. Trump’s strategy in year one was to reassure his country’s traditional allies in the region — not only the Saudis and Israelis, but also the other Arab states — that he was on their side against Iranian expansionism. Apart from the little local difficulty of Qatar, that was achieved. In year two he is not only reapplying American sanctions on Iran — and remember that they affect not only US companies but European ones too — but also applying pressure on the ground in all those countries where the Iranians have intervened. Step forward the new national security team, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — names calculated to make the mullahs quake.
“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend,” Blondie tells Tuco after that memorable gunfight. “Those with loaded guns and those who dig.” Thanks to the Obama administration’s ineffectual tactics, the North Koreans got themselves into the former category: it became a nuclear state. But Iran now has to dig.
Economically weak enough to suffer a wave of riots in December and January, the Iranians will not find it easy to withstand the snap-back of sanctions and the roll-back of its forces abroad. And if you think the Russians will help them, you must have missed Binyamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin last week.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford