On the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, most Americans slept well. No one thought that the next day would change the fate and future of the United States and much of the world as well. The destruction of New York City’s Twin Towers at the hands of al-Qaida prompted a war on terror and military interventions into Afghanistan and Iraq that continue nearly 17 years later.
Over the coming days and weeks, America faces three issues with potentially profound consequences that could approach those of Sept. 11. By Saturday, the president must decide whether to renew the sanctions waivers for Iran in keeping with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Concurrently, the White House must deal with the prospect of negotiations with North and South Korea on the “denuclearization” of the peninsula and a possible tariff war with China and the European Union.
To complicate and confound the president’s attention, the war in Syria and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the past election, as well as any possible wrongdoing by President Donald Trump and his family and associates will not disappear. And the extraordinary interview by new Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani on Fox that revealed presidential fibbing over payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels cannot be helpful, let alone impose further demands on the White House’s precious allocation of time. In other words, the making of firestorm at home and abroad are real. The question is who has the matches to ignite a huge conflagration.
The JCPOA, Korea and the tariff tiffs are all interrelated. If the president chooses not to renew the sanctions waiver, the JCPOA is not necessarily dead. Iran has mechanisms to protest that decision. The sanctions regime is incredibly complicated and will not automatically snap back. How secondary sanctions might affect the EU and the P-5 who are signatories to the agreement is opaque at best. But these uncertainties will have great impact, especially for China, which may see this as an opening for further economic inroads into Iran.
Similarly, if a trade war is not prevented, China and the EU will retaliate. But China is vital to the Korean negotiations. How will those be affected? History provides some examples. But none are nearly as complicated given the entangling nature of these three issues.
In 1972, as President Richard Nixon was preparing to go to the Soviet Union to sign two strategic arms agreements, North Vietnam had launched an offensive. Nixon escalated the bombing campaign and mined Haiphong Harbor with Russian merchant ships alongside the piers. His gamble was that detente was more important to Moscow. He was correct.
Further, White Houses are hard-pressed to deal with one serious crisis at a time. Bandwidth and time are limited. Often when a second crisis arises, such as North Korea’s hijacking of the USS Pueblo in early 1968 as the Tet Offensive mounted in South Vietnam, it is ignored or deferred because of the necessity of coping with larger issues. Now Trump has three international ticking time bombs to defuse along with several seemingly radioactive domestic crises.
With a brand new national security adviser and secretary of state, no matter how clever each may be, grasping the details and nuances of each of these three negotiations on the run is close to mission impossible for anyone. Understanding the possible interconnections and second-, third- and fourth-order consequences likewise is a daunting task. And deriving a policy and strategy that can safely navigate between and among a three-monster version of Scylla and Charybdis amidst the chaos in the White House over investigations and allegations of criminal activities is worthy of a grand prize.
Given the president’s long experience in the real estate and television sectors, it is possible that he sees each of these three issues — Iran, Korea and tariffs — as independent and separate to be solved individually. If that is the case, the chances for a serious or even catastrophic miscue are not zero. And “success” in one such as honoring Trump’s declaration that the JCPOA is the “worst deal” ever could induce an explosion in the other two, especially if the re-imposition of sanctions sparked a trade war with Europe and China.
Under these circumstances, outside advice will most likely never reach inside the Oval Office. The only hope is that someone close to the president will understand that taken together, if mishandled, the nation could be facing another Sept. 10 in slow motion.
Harlan Ullman is the principal author of “shock and awe” and a Distinguished Senior Fellow and visiting professor at the U.S. Naval War College. His latest book is “Anatomy of Failure — Why America Loses Every War It Starts.” Follow him @harlankullman.