In the wake of the Singapore summit with North Korea, many commentators and publicists, Democrats as well as figures from the NeverTrump Right, have argued that President Trump is legitimizing a dictator. Trump critics contend that had President Obama met with a dictator like Kim Jong-un, Republicans would be fuming. After all, Republicans criticized the previous president for negotiating with another despotic regime, Iran, over its nuclear weapons program. Accordingly, honesty and principle require Trump supporters to criticize the current president for doing precisely what would merit attacks on a Democratic president.
A cursory glance shows that the two situations are not at all similar. Iran does not yet have a viable nuclear weapon and North Korea does. The negotiations that led to Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, legitimized Iran’s path to the bomb, achievable within a little more than a decade. The purpose of Trump’s negotiations is to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
Clearly, Democratic and NeverTrump political operatives are not making a serious argument. They’re posturing. Since this is a deadly serious issue, however, it’s worth getting it right.
Obama’s Realignment Effort
It’s vital to understand that Obama’s Iran deal wasn’t simply or even primarily an arms agreement. Rather, it was an instrument with which to realign American interests in the Middle East. The goal of realignment was to upgrade Iran and downgrade traditional American partners—especially Israel and Saudi Arabia—in order to facilitate a U.S. withdrawal from the region.
Michael Doran wrote an important essay in February 2015 explaining realignment and detailing the Obama Administration’s flawed assumptions. Tony Badran is another Middle East analyst whose articles during the course of the Obama years showed how the United States was moving toward realignment. Obama aides and supporters waved off the realignment thesis as a “conspiracy theory” impugning foul intent to a president who simply wanted to avoid another Middle East war.
Most of these Obama supporters didn’t understand what the president was doing. It’s worth recalling that the “echo chamber” was a loud and incoherent chorus given the task not to explain Obama’s policies but to shout down critics of the Iran deal. For instance, the administration trotted out nuclear experts like Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to sell the “science” of the JCPOA—while at the same time Secretary of State John Kerry pushed poetry and fantasy, like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s imaginary fatwa against nukes.
Most of the echo chamber had no idea what it was actually advocating, even though Obama frequently discussed it. In a New Yorker article from January 2014, for instance, Obama described a “new geopolitical equilibrium . . . developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
Realignment was Obama’s version of Great Britain’s twin-pillar strategy. Formulated after World War II when London realized it could no longer sustain its empire, the twin-pillar strategy held that the two great powers of the Persian Gulf, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, would balance the region and manage British interests after withdrawal.
In fact, it was the United States that kept the peace in the Persian Gulf after the British exit, a peace that became increasingly difficult to manage after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Obama was correct to see that the United States had further altered the regional balance by toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, thereby strengthening Iran. Obama wrongly concluded that the way to facilitate the U.S. exit from the region was by further empowering the regime in Tehran.
The Obama Administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran needs to be seen in this context. The United States was not negotiating with an adversarial regime but was rather treating with a potential partner that would help stabilize the Middle East to the benefit of American interests. How could Obama possibly deny the regime what it most desired, the bomb, if he expected Tehran to help balance the region?
The actual intent of the JCPOA negotiations has led to a great deal of confusion. Many critics on the Right believe that the Obama team did a bad job and got a bad agreement. Some thought the way to go was to renegotiate the Iran deal, not crash it, as Trump did in May.
This misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of the Iran deal has helped open the way for Trump critics to return fire. “How can anyone praise Trump when he has won nothing on paper from the North Koreans?” the argument goes, whereas Obama got lots of paper in a deal officially struck with Iran to limit its nuclear activities. But that was not the purpose of the Iran deal. The JCPOA simply provided Obama with enough cover to grant Iran the nuclear weapons program it will have as soon as the so-called sunset clauses prohibiting certain activities expire.
The actual goal of the Obama Administration’s JCPOA negotiations was to legitimize the Iranian regime and its nuclear weapons program. North Korea, in this framework, is already legitimized, regardless of Trump’s efforts. Whether we wish to blame the policies of more than two decades that did not stop North Korea from getting a bomb or prefer to see Pyongyang’s program as an inevitable and natural fact that was no more preventable than a hurricane, the reality is that acquisition of a nuclear weapon puts that power on the global stage.
Delegitimizing a Dangerous Regime
Does the bomb “legitimize” North Korea, or for that matter does possession of a nuclear weapon “legitimize” any regime? “Legitimacy” does not refer to a universal quality all regimes must have in order to exist, nor does it describe a regime’s behavior at home and abroad. It is simply a concept drawn from international relations syllabuses used to describe how various actors secure and sustain power and prestige.
Or, think about it like this: During the Iran debate, advocates of the deal often argued that the mullahs would never actually use the bomb, or they’d be crazy to use the bomb. Iran, said JCPOA advocates, isn’t crazy. It’s a rational regime.
That line of argument falls away as soon as any power acquires a nuclear weapon. After a state’s nuclear breakout, a central concern for policymakers around the world is that said state may indeed use the bomb. The primary purpose of acquiring a nuclear bomb is to get the world’s attention.
Kim Jong-un has the world’s attention. He has Donald Trump’s attention. We cannot yet know whether Trump will be successful or to what extent he may succeed. But in his efforts to “denuclearize” the Korean peninsula, the goal is to “delegitimize”—if that’s how you want to understand it—a dangerous and destructive regime that terrorizes its own citizens and threatens its neighbors. This is precisely the opposite of what the Obama Administration did when it legitimized the clerical regime in Iran and its nuclear weapons program.