President Donald Trump may have hoped to enter the heat of the 2020 presidential race boasting of having defanged Iran, defeated socialism in Venezuela and ended North Korea’s nuclear program — all without firing a shot.
Instead, the specter of American military action is looming in each country. In Iran, the government on Wednesday announced plans to restart some nuclear activity as Trump sent warships closer to the area. In Venezuela, a U.S.-supported uprising intended to oust autocrat Nicolás Maduro floundered last week, leaving opposition leaders openly discussing whether to welcome American military involvement. On North Korea, where Trump once warned of “fire and fury,” the Pentagon on Wednesdaysuspendedefforts to negotiate the return of the remains of U.S. service members, a move that comes as Pyongyang resumes some missile tests.
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The developments suggest Trump may struggle to portray himself in 2020 as a foreign policy savant capable of striking deals with even the most recalcitrant and malicious leaders. And the prospect of new American military engagements overseas could cut against Trump’s vow to reduce the country’s presence abroad, a major rallying cry for his loyal base. The possibility has even alarmed some Republicans, with a handful, like Indiana Sen. Todd Young, recently stressing that only Congress can declare war.
All of this gives Democrats an incentive to pounce on foreign policy to needle Trump during the campaign, especially given that it’s hard to run against an economy that remains strong.
“Abandoning our values, leaving us less respected, leaving us less safe and not keeping his promises — that will be an effective argument that Democrats can make,” predicted Jeffrey Prescott, a former senior national security official involved in 2020 efforts to defeat Trump.
Trump’s campaign dismissed the presumptive line of attack. Erin Perrine, a campaign spokesperson, pointed to Trump’s support for Israel, his insistence that NATO members increase their defense spending and the territorial defeat of the Islamic State terrorist group as just some of the president’s foreign policy accomplishments.
“President Trump’s record on foreign policy is unquestionably a strength,” Perrine said.
Iran’s announcement Wednesday was pegged to the one-year anniversary of Trump’s decision to quit an Obama-era nuclear deal made with Tehran, in which the Islamist-led regime agreed to curtail its nuclear ambitions in exchange for a rollback of international sanctions.
Trump derided the pact as the “worst deal ever,” in part because it didn’t cover other Iranian military activities that worry the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.
Since leaving the deal — which also included Germany, Britain, France, China and Russia — Trump has vowed to negotiate a “better,” more comprehensive agreement with Tehran. But in the year since, the two countries have come closer to conflict than conference tables.
Iran used the anniversary to warn the remaining countries in the deal if they do not come up with mechanisms to protect Iran from American sanctions within 60 days, it would resume higher uranium enrichment and stop exporting excess uranium and heavy water, two requirements of the deal.
As Iranian leaders unveiled their plans, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier was headed closer to Iran’s shores on Trump’s orders amid reports of unspecified Iranian threats to U.S. troops in the region. U.S. officials warned Tehran that any such attacks would be met with “unrelenting force.” Back in the U.S., Trump slapped new penalties on the Iranian iron, steel, aluminum and copper sectors.
Most of the Democrats running for president have stayed mum this week as the Iran drama plays out, although several had earlier pledged that if they win the White House, they will rejoin the nuclear agreement so long as Iran is upholding its end.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who jumped into the presidential race last month, offered a preview of some potential 2020 attack lines on Trump.
“Every day, this White House moves us closer to the brink of war with Iran,” warned Moulton, who is running in part on his military background.
With the election over a year away, events could still break dramatically in Trump’s favor with no need to use force. Besides, some Trump supporters dismissed the theory that an armed conflict could undermine the president — even with his base.
“He isn’t really worried about any of this hurting his 2020 chances. His base thinks it makes him look tough,” said James Carafano, a foreign policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If any of these regimes are foolish enough to escalate and force a U.S. response — again Trump will look tough.”
Top Trump aides, such as national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been out front defending the administration’s hawkish moves against Iran. Pompeo even made a surprise trip to Iraq on Tuesday to talk to officials there about the seeming escalations.
But Trump himself has been largely quiet on Iran this week, even as he’s commented on everything from a casino bill to fireworks at Mount Rushmore. As he leveled the latest round of sanctions on Iran Wednesday, he issued a statement that, while harsh in describing Iran’s “violent terror,” also offered a bit of an olive branch.
Trump reminded Iran that the U.S. has laid out 12 conditions it wants Iran to meet to strike a new deal with the United States. The conditions are so far-reaching most analysts say they are non-starters for Tehran. And yet, Trump still held out the prospect of diplomacy.
“I look forward to someday meeting with the leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves,” the president said.
With the exception of calling for a more forceful fight against terrorist groups, Trump ran for the White House on a largely non-interventionist, deterrence-focused platform that also called for a stronger military — a “peace through strength” model.
“We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” Trumppromisedweeks after winning the 2016 election.
As president, however, he’s had mixed success trying to calm global hotspots, even as he’s taken diplomatic gambles.
After repeatedly threatening North Korea early in his presidency, Trump went on to ignore tradition and meet one-on-one with the dictator Kim Jong Un, even claiming the two “fell in love.” But Trump has failed to get the country — which, unlike Iran, already has nuclear weapons — to begin denuclearization.
Talks recently fell apart in Hanoi, when the two leaders cut short a summit after hitting an impasse. Kim had requested the U.S. lift many of its sanctions in exchange for North Korea shuttering a major nuclear facility — an offer Trump rejected.
Since then, the relationship has deteriorated further. North Korea has tested short-range missiles and ramped up criticism of the United States and key Trump aides, such as Pompeo.
Still, North Korea has kept its moratorium on long-range missile testing, which Trump points to a sign of progress. Trump has tried to keep the relationship going, tweeting Saturday that Kim “knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!” But with Kim seeking support from others, including Russia, a deal appears far from sight.
In the American hemisphere, meanwhile, Trump has taken on a foe that barely came up on the 2016 campaign trail: Maduro’s regime in Venezuela.
Trump has backed opposition efforts to topple Maduro, whose financial policies and corruption have destroyed Venezuela’s economy and left its people starving.
While the U.S. so far is relying mainly on the sting of sanctions to pressure Maduro to quit, Trump and his aides have dangled the possibility of U.S. military action in the country. The administration announced this week that it is sending a Navy hospital ship to the region to help Venezuelan refugees.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó has hinted at the need for U.S. military assistance, but he toldThe Washington Postthat he would put any offer of American military action to a vote in Venezuela’s National Assembly.
Trump had hoped to turn Venezuela into a campaign issue, casting Maduro as an example of socialist rule that Democrats supposedly support. Drawing attention to the issue could be less appealing, however, if Maduro clings to power. The autocrat for now retains the support of most of the country’s military leaders, who spurned appeals by the opposition to join an uprising against Maduro last week.
Trump may be banking on the extraordinary strength of the U.S. economy — the unemployment rate is 3.6 percent, the lowest since 1969 — to push him over the finish line in 2020. But his tense diplomatic relationship with China could undermine that, as well.
Over the weekend, Trump threatened to increase tariffs on Chinese goods even higher than he already has, rattling ongoing trade talks between the two countries. Trump aides say China has tried to retreated on its earlier promises, although China insists it is negotiating in good faith.
Trump argues that the tariffs he’s already imposed are benefiting the U.S. economy, but analysts say they have raised costs for U.S. consumers, not China. And Midwestern farmers, many of whom support Trump, have been hit hard, they say.
That being said, if Washington and Beijing come to a deal, Trump can nonetheless claim a victory.
The president himself has even used the latest tensions with China as a piece of 2020 rhetoric, targeting one particular Democratic Oval Office candidate in particular.
“The reason for the China pullback & attempted renegotiation of the Trade Deal is the sincere HOPE that they will be able to ‘negotiate’ with Joe Biden or one of the very weak Democrats, and thereby continue to ripoff the United States (($500 Billion a year)) for years to come,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
“Guess what, that’s not going to happen!”