Trump’s failure in Vietnam is a reminder of the merits of the Iran deal

Washington Post | Ishaan Tharoor: President Trump has precious little to show after a few days of photo-ops and glad-handing in Hanoi. On Thursday, the American delegation pulled out of talks with their North Korean counterparts with no new agreement in sight and no clear plans for a future top-level summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump cited North Korean demands for complete sanctions relief as the reason he chose to “walk away,” while the North Koreans offered a different version of events. Whatever the case, the president tried to spin the developments positively.

“I think everybody hoped we could do this better, but the departure was with an agreement we continue to work on what has been an incredibly difficult problem,” Trump told reporters. “Everyone walked away in that spirit.”

Trump has put himself at the center of the diplomatic efforts to curb the North Korean nuclear program and potentially end a decades-long frozen conflict on the Korean Peninsula. After spending his first months in office insulting Kim and threatening North Korea with “fire and fury,” he dramatically changed his pitch as contacts with Pyongyang grew, and he now speaks warmly of a budding friendship between him and one of the world’s last remaining totalitarian despots.

But experts warned that no amount of personal chemistry can compensate for inadequate preparation. “The failure was an admission of a need for more time and working-level talks to achieve an agreement,” Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Washington Post.

As my colleagues noted, the summit’s abrupt end doomed Trump’s prediction that his sit-down with Kim would be “equal or greater” than their meeting last year in Singapore. “It also raises doubts about whether the two sides can regain momentum in a high-stakes negotiation that has yet to achieve results from lower-level diplomats working behind the scenes,” wrote The Post’s John Hudson and Simon Denyer. “In the absence of progress on the diplomatic front, experts worry that tensions could rise on the military front.”

With Trump’s exit, the task of reviving the process with Pyongyang falls to his lieutenants. But that’s arguably where the problems began. In the buildup to the summit, it became clear that key Trump officials were at odds with each other over the way forward. National security adviser John Bolton, a skeptic of rapprochement with Pyongyang, voiced his disquiet with Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special envoy to North Korea, whom Bolton and other like-minded officials feared was moving too quickly to make a deal with the Kim regime.

“You aren’t ready for a summit if your secretary of state, national security adviser, special envoy to the talks and the president aren’t all singing from one sheet of music,” said Richard Nephew, a scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Nephew knows a thing or two about forging nuclear deals. He served in the Obama administration and was the lead sanctions expert in the American negotiating team that helped broker the agreement between Iran and world powers in 2015. Trump repeatedly panned that deal as naive and ineffective and then undermined it by reimposing on the Iranians sanctions that had been lifted under Obama in return for severe restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

But Nephew and the Iran deal’s other defenders point to the years of diligent, painstaking diplomatic legwork required to achieve what U.N. monitors and the U.S. intelligence community still say is as an effective arms control pact. And they set that against the flimsiness of what Trump has achieved so far with North Korea.

“The contrast couldn’t be more stark,” Nephew told Today’s WorldView. “We spent literally months when we weren’t negotiating going over different options, strategizing, working with partners, making sure [administration officials] were all on the same page and all speaking with the same words when we spoke in public. We approached this as a serious, grown-up negotiation.”

When reckoning with North Korea, the Trump administration has struggled even to agree internally on what “denuclearization” looks like. While Obama stayed out of the various rounds of negotiations between U.S., European and Iranian officials, Trump’s rush to personalize the process gave Kim a theatrical pas de deux with the American president, and proof that Pyongyang’s covert pursuit and possession of a nuclear arsenal was the right ticket to legitimacy on the world stage.

Trump’s lack of strategic preparation also created headaches for key U.S. allies in the region — unsettling a Japanese government wary of North Korean duplicity, and now embarrassing a dovish South Korean government that had been banking on a meaningful agreement to emerge from Hanoi.

The one actual document signed by Kim and Trump — a short declaration following the Singapore summit — makes the Iran deal “look like a model of clarity and specificity,” noted Joshua Stanton, a veteran commentator on North Korea. “For all its flaws, [the Iran deal] undeniably gained us something. . . . [I]t got Iran to surrender a big stockpile of enriched uranium and make some useful concessions that would slow (but not stop) its path to a nuclear bomb.”

The Iran deal’s opponents, including Trump, argue that the agreement did nothing to rein in Tehran’s other destabilizing behavior in the Middle East. But the Trump administration has hardly yoked North Korea’s own problematic actions abroad — from targeted assassinations to the sale of chemical weapons material to countries in the Middle East and Africa, outlined in a leaked confidential U.N. report — to the diplomatic process.

The double standard irks former Obama administration officials. “We all agree that in an ideal world, we would have addressed not just the nuclear threat, but all the threats,” said Susan E. Rice, who served as a national security adviser in the Obama White House, at a Wednesday event hosted by Georgetown University. But that, she added, was “not the aim” of the negotiations with Tehran.

Instead, the United States and its allies managed “to take a very proximate, specific and, some would say, existential threat off the table,” Rice said. Even after the Trump administration has scrapped Washington’s end of the bargain with Iran, Rice noted that “we are not getting any more traction on the other threats now than before.”

And a hypothetical future interim agreement with North Korea, Rice said, wouldn’t deliver “a fraction of what we got with the Iranians.”

The irony of the moment, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson Center to the New York Times, “is that the best possible outcome for North Korea would look something like the Iran deal.”