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Donald Trump cools Iran, North Korea rhetoric amid war fears, Democrats’ criticism

May 28, 2019

President Trump’s suddenly mellow rhetoric toward Iran and North Korea runs counter to his more hawkish advisers and comes on the heels of some 2020 Democratic candidates accusing him of fomenting war in the Middle East.

Even for a president who often contradicts top aides, Mr. Trump’s comments that his administration is “not looking for regime change” in Tehran and that he’s not bothered at all by Pyongyang’s latest missile tests were startling departures from the administration’s hard line against both longtime adversaries.

“Trump fancies himself a strategist, but whiplash is not a strategy,” said Michael Rubin, a specialist on Iran at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “Trump’s comment relieves the pressure at the heart of the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. He’s falling into the trap by Democrats who want to associate any pressure falsely with war.”

After Mr. Trump decided last week to deploy another 1,500 U.S. troops to the Gulf region to confront Iran, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was among those on the left accusing the president of “provoking yet another war in the Middle East.”

While back-of-the-pack Mr. O’Rourke isn’t likely to hurt the president, analysts say the “warmonger” sentiment is a challenge for Mr. Trump heading into 2020. Polls show that voters, especially independents, give the president poor marks for his often confrontational foreign policy.

A Quinnipiac University survey last week found that 37% of voters approve of Mr. Trump’s handling of international affairs, with only 34% of independents approving.

A Hart Research poll conducted for Democrats in late April found that 67% of respondents worry that Mr. Trump “lacks the temperament we need in a commander in chief.”

The president, who returned to Washington on Tuesday from a four-day trip to Japan, said he believes Iran “would like to make a deal” with the U.S. to lift tough economic sanctions and a tightening oil embargo.

But Iran said Tuesday there are no prospects for talks with the U.S.

“Iran pays no attention to words; What matters to us is a change of approach and behavior,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, according to Reuters.

The president also emphasized that the U.S. doesn’t want to topple Iran’s leadership, saying “we are looking for no nuclear weapons.”

“We’re not looking for regime change I just want to make that clear,” Mr. Trump said. “I don’t want to hurt Iran at all. It has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership.”

A week after Mr. Trump tweeted, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” the president told reporters in Japan, “Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me.”

The president withdrew from last year from the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, and has imposed increasing sanctions on Iran in an effort to force it to the negotiating table.

Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr. Trump is making the U.S. “a global laughingstock.”

Secretary of State Mike “Pompeo is going around the world saying Iran must meet 12 demands,” Mr. Murphy tweeted. “Trump says that [Iranians] just have to get rid of nuclear weapons (which they already had). What a disaster.”

Mr. Rubin said the president is “also falling victim to a rhetorical game.”

“The flip side of regime change is regime preservation,” he said. “We should not be in the business of preserving a regime that kills Americans, nor should we ever throw a life raft to a failing regime.”

On North Korea, Mr. Trump had already expressed satisfaction over the fact Mr. Kim at least wasn’t testing ballistic missiles or nuclear devices. But his downplaying of Pyongyang’s short-range missile tests came just two days after National Security Adviser John R. Bolton said the administration had “no doubt” that the tests violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Scott Seaman, Asia director at the Eurasia Group, said Mr. Trump’s conciliatory comments on North Korea are designed to bolster the narrative that everything is under control and that his bond with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is critical to keeping the denuclearization process on track, “despite the occasional hiccup along the way.”

“It also likely reflects Trump’s irritation with the fact that many of his own advisers, the Japanese, and probably plenty of other people as well are telling him that the situation is not as rosy as he wants to believe,” Mr. Seaman said. “Trump’s main goal is to ensure that North Korea remains a good story and foreign policy ‘win’ for him as he ramps up his reelection campaign.”

Others say Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolton are working on the same strategy, even if appearances differ.

“If they truly diverged, the president would fire John Bolton,” said Patrick M. Cronin, who holds the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute. “Instead, President Trump is playing ‘good cop,’ egging Kim on to commit to complete denuclearization, and Bolton is playing ‘bad cop,’ urging Pyongyang to take a serious step rather than seeking sanctions relief without denuclearization.”

Mr. Trump’s pushback is familiar.

Earlier in his term, he frequently undercut then-Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on North Korea and Middle East policy, broke with former Defense Secretary James Mattis on a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, and dubbed his move to bar visitors from several Muslim-majority countries a “travel ban,” even as his aides avoided the term.

“It’s not the first time he’s disagreed with his advisers on something,” said G. Terry Madonna, a politics professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, on Mr. Trump’s tacit rebuke of Mr. Bolton.

Mr. Madonna said Mr. Trump’s style and public opinions about it are pretty fixed, so anybody who works for him needs to understand that.

“There’s nothing that’s going to change,” he said. “He believes that he can make a deal with anyone. He believes he can best anyone in the art of the deal, and that’s not going to change.”

Mr. Trump’s base also is likely to believe his characterization unless something dramatic happens, Mr. Seaman said.

“The problem, of course, is that Kim has set a deadline of sorts for the U.S. to soften its stance on denuclearization and sanctions by the end of this year or North Korea might walk away from talks for good,” he said.

Analysts at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, don’t expect Mr. Kim to kick off 2020 by testing an inter-continental ballistic missile.

“But,” Mr. Seaman said, “next year will likely bring with it more risk of tensions as Trump and Kim struggle to manage the bilateral relationship in the midst of intensifying U.S. campaigning and uncertainty about the outcome of the presidential race.”

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