Tillerson and Mattis Challenge Trump on North Korea and Iran


Prologue: On Tuesday September 19,  Donald Trump gave his first presidential address to the United Nations General Assembly.    He stressed “sovereignty”  and his “America First” policy.  “I will always put America first, just like you , as the leaders of your countries, would always and should always put their countries first.”  It was a combative speech, peppered with threats for countries he described as America’s enemies,  North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. There was silence throughout most of his speech, with a smattering of applause at certain points.

Trump singled out North Korea for its pursuit of nuclear weapons and mistreatment of its own people. “No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles,” he said. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.  Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.  No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea.”

When he spoke of Iran, Trump denounced the nuclear agreement negotiated by Barack Obama and signed by the United States and five other major powers – France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China.  It had been ratified by the  Security Council to stop Iran’s nuclear program for ten years in exchange for lifting international sanctions against Iran. Trump has until October 15 to certify that Iran is complying with United Nations scrutiny of their facilities. He has done this twice since he took office, but he has made clear he would prefer not to do it again.   He said, “The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States  has ever entered into.” He added, “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have split from Trump in their positions and statements about North Korea and Iran respectively. Three days after his United Nations address, Donald Trump ridiculed North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, again  as “Little Rocket Man”, drawing loud applause at a campaign rally in Alabama.  The next day, he tweeted his insults and threats. The verbal war accelerated when Kim Jong-un called Trump a “dotard”, translated into a ‘senile old man’.  Cable news commentators and newspaper analysts focused on the escalation of  tweets and reponses as risky and dangerous. A Washington  Post poll found that “37 percent trust Mr. Trump “a great deal” or “a good amount” to handle the situation with North Korea; “42 percent trust him “not at all.”  In contrast, 72 percent trust American military leaders who have largely avoided combative language while saying that a military option is possible.

There are three current and retired generals advising the president:  General John Kelly, his chief of staff; Lt. General H.R. McMaster, National Security adviser and James Mattis, retired four star Marine general who is Defense Secretary.  James Stavridis, former NATO commander, said, “All three of the generals fully realize the carnage that would result from a war on the Korean peninsula. I am certain they are counseling operational caution,  measured commentary and building a coalition approach to dealing with Kim Jong-un.  But controlling President Trump seems incredibly difficult. Let’s hope they are not engaged in mission Impossible because the stakes are so high.”

 Rex Tillerson has been at odds with the president for many months.  After Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence that ensued after White Supremacists, Ku Klux Klan and Neo Nazis marched in Chalottesville, VA,  Tillerson said, “The president speaks for himself.”   When a dispute broke out between Qatar and its Arab neighbors, Tillerson felt uniquely qualified to mediate it based on his long relationship with all countries in the region. He publicly called for a “calm and thoughtful dialogue”. Within an hour, Trump sided with the United Arab Emirates and called Qatar a “financier of terrorism”.  Tillerson  complained later that Jared Kushner had influenced the president to do this.

Rex Tillerson traveled to China at the end of September.  He was in Beijing on October 1 when he told reporters traveling with him that he was seeking a diplomatic solution to the escalating verbal war with North Korea. “We are probing, so stay tuned”, he said. He revealed that the United States had two or three channels to North Korea asking, “Would you like to talk?”  Therefore, he added, “We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout.”  When Trump learned of this, he immediately contradicted Tillerson, writing on Twitter, “ I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man. Save your energy, Rex.  We’ll do what has to be done.” It was very clear that the president was focused solely on military options.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis  has steered clear of the White House with his office in The Pentagon.  When he testified before The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, October 3 about the nuclear agreement with Iran, he openly split with the president.  He stressed under repeated questioning that keeping the Iran deal was key to national security.  Mattis has always taken the position that if he had to confront Iran, he would rather confront a non-nuclear Iran, and that the agreement was preventing the country from possessing or making enough bomb-grade material for a weapon.  He told the committee, “Absent indications to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with.” He added that he supports “the rigorous review that he has going on right now.” When that answer did not satisfy certain members of the committee,  Senator Angus King, Independent from Maine, asked whether the defense secretary thought holding onto the nuclear pact is in the interest of the national security of the United States.  Mattis, paused before replying, ‘Yes, senator, I do.”

Rex Tillerson, still in Beijing, joined Mattis in urging the president to certify the Congress once again that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement. This was despite Trump’s declaration in  August that he would have declared Iran “noncompliant 180 days ago.”  At present, the issue is not resolved.

Epilogue: When the president was asked about rumors of Tillerson’s possible resignation, he brushed that aside with “Fake news. Totally phony story. I have total confidence in Rex.”  Senator Bob Corker,Republican and Chairman of the Foreign Relations C ommittee, said, he hoped Secretary Tillerson would not leave because he serves as a check on instability.  “I think Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos, and I support them very much.”

……………………………………………………………………………Joyce S. Anderson


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