President Donald Trump delivered his address this week at the United Nations General Assembly with a focus on the importance of sovereignty and the threats posed by rogue regimes he called “the scourge of our planet.” The president used his time at the podium to threaten that the United States would have “no choice but to totally destroy” North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies and to knock the Iran nuclear deal as an “embarrassment” to the United States.
The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with retired four-star General and former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Jack Keane to get his thoughts on Trump’s approach to North Korea, Iran, and international cooperation.
The Cipher Brief: President Trump made sovereignty a central theme of his speech at the UN General Assembly, saying, “As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.” What do you make of this as a message Trump presented to world leaders as the basis for international cooperation?
Keane: I find this speech is one of his best, and it rivals his speech in Poland, which was a values-based speech. I think it falls right into a pattern of returning America to the world stage as a global leader. He is preoccupied with putting America first, because in the last eight years, America was being taken advantage of so often. And we spent a lot of the time apologizing to the world.
It certainly doesn’t mean America alone. Quite the contrary. What this administration has done for nine months, is reassuring our allies that America is going to stand behind them. The U.S. has done that in the Far East, and in Europe and NATO. Secondly, the U.S. is willing to confront its adversaries in a way that the previous administration was not willing to do. And yes, the president puts America’s interests first. That is not an iota’s difference from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to President Obama. It is largely President Trump’s direct style and bold manner of expression that appears to generate so much interest and controversy.
Of course for every other country in the world, their national interests come first, and the President made a point of emphasizing that is as it should be, and as such, the world itself benefits. I do believe America offers the world a value-based society, founded on the principles of democracy and freedom, with a strong moral underpinning, and because of that, we can set a global example on human rights, dignity, and respect. The President used some of these expressions in his Poland speech, but chose to leave them out of this one.
It seems to me, the essence of what he did was three things that were important. One, he challenged the UN for not being as effective of an organization as they could be. And that the United States pays a disproportionate amount of the funding for this organization, and he wants to see better results for that level of support as well.
Number two, he shared with them what he sees as the major global menaces in the world. He didn’t cite all of them. He didn’t talk about the return to great power competition that exists today with the United States, Russia, and China, but he did talk about other global menaces we have that are considerably more near-term. So, he identifies North Korea as depraved, Iran as murderous, and the radical Islamists as loser terrorists. And he is willing to deal with each and every one of those, clearly, because the United States, as he said, will defend itself.
But the third point he made—and this gets lost by his critics because they react more to Trump’s direct, bold style—he asked the member nations to work together under the auspices of the UN to solve these vicious and complex problems. He clearly prefers to work multilaterally and with our allies.
TCB: Were you surprised that Trump did not call out Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election or in other Western elections given the importance he placed on sovereignty?
Keane: He has done that before. He did it in Europe. Tillerson did it with Lavrov right in front of the Russian media in Moscow. I think this had more to do with the audience he was talking to here, and that he appreciates the cooperation he is getting with Russia and China in dealing with North Korea. He wanted his focus to be on dealing with North Korea and Iran and radical Islamists. There was an indirect indication, you know, of Russia and China’s ambitions without mentioning them in terms of what they were doing in the Pacific and also in Ukraine. But, no, he didn’t signal them out, and I don’t have a problem with that. I think it was more tactical than it was strategic, because he wants their cooperation. He knows Kim Jong-un is likely to continue on a very rapid acceleration of nuclearized ICBMs, and with more sanctions to come, he wants their cooperation in the UN. I think he just determined that this is not the place to identify those challenges with Russia and China.
Look, we’re on a collision course with Russia and China, and I know full well that the Trump administration is very much aware of the great power competition that’s taking place. It is probably the toughest, long-term strategic issue that we’re facing in terms of major security problems facing the United States that actually will transcend North Korea, Iran, and also radical Islam.
TCB: Speaking of North Korea, Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if the U.S. is forced to defend itself or its allies and said the world must isolate the country until it “ceases its hostile behavior.” How do you assess this as a warning to North Korea and to Kim Jong-un?
Keane: Again, this is the bold and direct, no nonsense, less diplomatic approach of Donald Trump. He is not a nuanced politician. Frankly, it’s not anything different from what Clinton, Bush, and Obama said if the U.S. had to defend itself over North Korea. I do welcome his unequivocal statement so that North Korea and China know that he is serious. They never believed Obama was serious about the military options.
Kim Jong-un’s strategy is rational. He’s personally reckless. And I think that’s the concern we have. His strategy is different from his grandfather and his father. He believes that it’s not sufficient deterrence for America in making a regime change by pointing nuclear weapons at the South Koreans, which is what North Korea has been doing in excess of 10 years. His conclusion is that he must nuclearize ICBMs and hold the American people at risk, and then he would have a bona fide deterrent the United States will never cross. That is rational strategy taken unfortunately by someone who is personally reckless.
And he’s doing it rapidly, because he knows full well that he wants to get to that capability before the economic sanctions start to collapse his regime. He believes much as the United States accepted nuclear weapons in North Korea over ten years ago, despite its protestations, that once he has the nuclearized ICBMs, the U.S. will accept it. That’s the calculation that he’s made. Susan Rice, former National Security Adviser, a couple of weeks ago said the same thing, that we should learn how to live with it. But Kim Jung-un’s strategic calculation shift was made when Susan Rice was the National Security Adviser and President Obama was the commander in chief.
Kim Jong-un has to recalculate now, and that is what Trump is trying to get him to do. He is simply telling him that I am not President Obama. I am not going to accept nuclearized ICBMs capable of being launched at any moment’s notice using mobile launch facilities that are difficult to track by someone with your reckless behavior. That is a threat that is unacceptable to me, and if it comes to it, I will destroy you.
The other thing we should note is something that was underreported in the media, but it was reported, is that President Moon’s foreign minister sought out Secretary of Defense Mattis about a week ago and asked him to consider returning to the peninsula tactical nuclear weapons. Now this is the same South Korean administration, when they came to power a few months ago, wanted to have a diplomatic engagement with the North Koreans, did not want to impose sanctions, and certainly did not want to even talk about a military option. So this South Korean regime, because what they believe now, which was obvious to most everyone else at the time, has completely changed its view on this and is seeking to be covered not just by a strategic nuclear shield, which the U.S. already provides, but by a tactical nuclear shield. South Korea is envisioning that tactical nukes may help with deterrence, and indeed they may need to be used.
When Secretary Mattis was asked a question — “Does the United States have a military option to stop North Korean artillery and rocket fire that would rain on Seoul?” — and Mattis said, “Absolutely, but I am not getting into the details.” In my judgment, and I’m not speaking for General Mattis, the only way you could guarantee artillery and rocket fire will not rain on Seoul is to take those capabilities out with low-yield nuclear weapons, along with the underground nuclear sites.
Clearly there are military options, from a naval blockade to further isolate North Korea, to a range of more offensive military options to defeat individual missile launches that are endangering allies or U.S. bases, to limited conventional options against launch facilities and nuclear sites, to include rockets and artillery sites, and tactical nuclear weapons, and a full-out war using conventional and nuclear options as well. No one wants to use any of these options, but the military has no choice but to prepare for the use of them.
TCB: My last question will be on the Iran deal. The President did use his speech to call it an “embarrassment for the U.S.”, and said “you haven’t heard the last of it.” Do you read this as a strong indication that the deal is dead, and what do you expect Trump to do given the certification deadline in October?
Keane: No, I don’t think the deal is dead. I think as the administration spends more time with it, just as they have spent more time with North Korea, Russia, and China and the other challenges they have in the world, they are better informed.
Clearly the administration’s position to date, nine months in, is not to walk away from the nuclear deal. But they also know that Iran has violated the terms of the agreement, and when the IAEA catches them at it, they correct it, and they get credit for abiding by the deal.
I believe the Trump team would first like to fix some of the flaws in the deal, which means more discussion with our allies who signed it. They may also want to get Congress involved in approving/disapproving it, something Obama would never do because it would have been voted down. I suspect if they cannot fix it, they will be leaning to kill it, which only means the U.S. participation in the deal. All the consequences of that decision I am certain the White House is carefully assessing.
The major problem with Iran is its strategic ambitions to dominate and control the region. And the success that they have enjoyed—as they are on the move, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This is a country that in these 36 years has advantaged itself at the expense of the United States and our allies. That is the thing that troubles the Trump administration the most, and the fact that we made such a lousy deal that is funding their future ambitions.
If you listen to Trump closely, he keeps bringing up the deal in the context of Iran’s regional behavior. How to we deter their regional behavior and also stop them from having a nuclear weapon? This is the intersection I think where the administration is. And I believe they are wrestling with it, and they are getting close to a decision.