President Trump has not given up on his idea that the week marking the 18th anniversary of 9/11 should also be let’s-make-deals-with-thugs week. He used a press availability on the afternoon of the anniversary to suggest that Kim Jong-un’s displeasure had been part of his thinking in firing national security adviser John Bolton. And apparently the last straw for Bolton was his strenuous objection to Trump’s plan for a secret Camp David summit with Taliban and Afghan leaders — and making the media aware of his position after the president announced the meeting’s existence and cancellation on Twitter Saturday night.
Trump has proclaimed peace talks with the Taliban “dead as far as I’m concerned,” and now seems to be full steam ahead on his efforts to meet Iranian leaders at the United Nations later this month and rekindle his Pyongyang bromance. But those regimes won’t forget the aborted Taliban summit — and the lessons it provided on Trump’s negotiating tactics — so easily.
On Twitter, Trump has cited an attack last week in Kabul that “killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people” as his reason for pulling the plug on the summit. But it seems unlikely that the Taliban’s killing of Sgt. 1st Class Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, a paratrooper from Puerto Rico whose bravery had already won him a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, was the primary event that changed Trump’s mind. As the Washington Post noted: “16 Americans have been killed by hostile fire this year in Afghanistan, including one just a week before the most recent death — after Trump was briefed on the peace agreement and sent [U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad] back to the region to finalize it.”
For nearly two decades, the Taliban have steadily been killing American and allied troops — as well as many, many Afghan civilians — and will continue to do so. Inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David in spite of this tells foreign adversaries that a body count is no impediment to dealmaking with Trump. This is, of course, the opposite of what Washington keeps telling Tehran: Stop using your proxy forces to target U.S. troops and our allies across the region, or be met with “unrelenting force.”
It appears a major reason the Camp David summit was hastily arranged in recent weeks — and fell apart even more quickly — was Trump’s desire to put his own stamp on a deal that negotiators had been working on for a nearly a year, and was almost complete. Taliban leaders wanted a visit to the U.S. to come after the final deal had been announced. But as the New York Times reports:
Mr. Trump did not want the Camp David meeting to be a celebration of the deal; after staying out of the details of what has been a delicate effort in a complicated region, Mr. Trump wanted to be the dealmaker who would put the final parts together himself, or at least be perceived to be.
The lesson here for foreign leaders is that if you want a deal with Trump, deal with Trump. The president apparently cut the National Security Council — whose entire reason for existing is to coordinate across government agencies — and most of the government out of his plan to hug it out with the Taliban. This sort of drama isn’t new; from leaving his top Putin expert out of meetings with the Russian president to pitting his advisers against each other on North Korea, Trump sees the national-security bureaucracy as Apprentice contestants to manipulate for ratings rather than as sources of advice and action.
Both Tehran and Pyongyang will look at what emerged over the weekend and see how desperate Trump is for splashy deals, and the accompanying photo ops. Indeed, North Korea is already on the case, stating on Tuesday that it was ready to come back to the negotiating table “in late September” (then launching two more missiles). That should make the next two weeks particularly fun, as late September is also when high-level meetings occur at the United Nations General Assembly, a setting many have been watching for a possible U.S. tete-à-tete with Iran.
It has been clear for weeks now that a funny shuttle diplomacy has been taking place between Washington and Tehran, with first Japanese Prime Minister Abe and then French President Macron serving as Trump’s envoys — an ironic use of allies from a man who dislikes them so. Of course, it is also clear that both Macron and Abe would like to lower tensions in the Persian Gulf (and oil prices), while many of Trump’s advisers (not just Bolton) would rather ratchet them up more in hopes of sparking revolt against the Iranian regime.
This suggests that the Trump administration might be, shall we say, under-prepared for a meeting with Iran — though the president doesn’t see it that as a problem. When Trump was asked last week about the possibility of such a meeting, he said “anything’s possible … we could solve it in 24 hours.”
But of course, the same avenues that can be used to promote diplomacy with Trump can be used to block it, too. Funnily enough, two of the strongest opponents of a Trump-Iran deal are normally mortal enemies; hardliners in Tehran don’t want any deal with the U.S., and neither does the beleaguered Netanyahu government in Israel. It is likely not a coincidence that, this week, international inspectors announced they had found traces of nuclear material someplace in Tehran that it wasn’t supposed to be, or that Israel claimed its intelligence agencies had evidence of an entirely new Iranian nuclear site.
All of which suggests the drama surrounding Trump’s aborted Taliban summit and Bolton’s sudden exit were just the back-to-school preview for a fall of Trump-style diplomacy, in which personality is everything, the U.S. diplomatic infrastructure is near-irrelevant, and a soupçon of violence just might help your case. Buckle up.