The month of May hangs darkly over President Donald Trump and the United States, for it is then that they face the convergence of exceptionally daunting foreign and security challenges. He has therefore selected to tough intelligence figures, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and his deputy, Gena Haspel, to be at his side for his historic encounter with Kim Jong-un on the future of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and for his decision on whether to take the United States out of the nuclear accord six world powers signed with Iran in 2015.
Both Trump and Kim are uniquely empowered by circumstances and character to program the course of the relationship between the US and North Korea. Their first – and likely only face to face – will write this roadmap and determine how it evolves – whether in amity or in military confrontation. Trump calls publicly for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula; Kim says he wants a guarantee of security. Can these objectives be made to overlap?
Trump would no doubt prefer to get the Korean crisis settled and out of the way before May 12, a deadline that confronts him with another fateful decision: to affix – or refrain from affixing – his signature to America’s continued participation in the nuclear deal with Iran. It would make sense from Trump’s viewpoint to keep the North Korean and the Iranian nuclear and missile issues in separate boxes. Over and above their troubling synchronicity, the president knows about the unfavorable view held by many in Washington – and even more in European and Middle East capitals – of his ability to take on two leaders as cunning and manipulative as Kim and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This skepticism is reinforced by the general consensus that he is about to face the two rogue rulers with a fractured team at his back, namely, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster. These considerations were behind this week’s White House shakeup.
His critics may not have noticed that in recent months, the president embarked on a quiet learning curve over Syria. He began using this turbulent war arena as a microcosm, or a laboratory, for testing his ability to keep considerations of US national security apart from foreign policy.
On military affairs, he listens to the advice of Mattis and the commander of the US Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel. But before making decisions, he turns to CIA director Mike Pompeo for military intelligence input and lets him run with his plans. On pollical affairs, Trump adheres to his decision to keep the US out of Syrian national affairs, while maintaining a military presence in defined areas.
(DEBKA Weekly’s subscribers learned about this covert decision-making process in the Syrian crisis on Feb. 2 in two articles: “Trump Abruptly Scraps Tillerson’s Policy Formula for Iran and Syria,” and “Pompei Runs Covert US Forces on Four Active Syrian & Iraqi Fronts.”)
By then, Tillerson’s days at State were clearly numbered, as widely rumored, and his personal role in Trump’s key strategic decisions was swinging low, whereas Pompeo’s was swinging high.
In their public rhetoric, Tillerson was repeatedly caught at issue with the president on such major issues as China, North Korea and Iran. Trump relies heavily on his personal rapport with Chinese president Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman. When advised against this reliance by Mattis, Tillerson and McMaster, he turned to Pompeo for counsel before deciding on an issue. In the Gulf, Tillerson prominently sided with Qatar against Trump’s chosen allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
President Trump, facing pivotal decisions that will bear heavily for years to come on the US stance vis-à-vis Russia, the Far East and the Middle East – and its foremost allies on two or more continents, e.g. Japan, Saudi Arabia and Israel – chose two top advisers, Pompeo as Secretary of State and Haspel as CIA director, who are in sympathy with the way he thinks and acts. He believes he can trust them to follow where he leads, without him having to keep on looking over his shoulder to see if they haven’t peeled away in other directions. The coming three months of crises looming over administration and America’s national security will determine if he chose well. McMaster and Mattis may find themselves following Tillerson out of the door. Who will go first? Is it wise for the US commander in chief to change horses in midstream of highly daunting challenges? Well, Donald Trump makes his own rules.