North Korea, Iran and Venezuela are misbehaving – truly and terribly.
Kim Jong Un, Hassan Rouhani and Nicolas Maduro aren’t sticking to the script one might have expected. Mr Kim should have been more grateful for President Donald Trump’s love and friendship. Messers Rouhani and Maduro should have been more fearful of President Trump’s ire.
But they’re not and no one is sure what happens next.
Will Mr Trump negotiate his way out of each impasse or will he be ready to use military force as his administration has threatened?
That said, the world might rightly fear a confrontation with Iran – planned or accidental. The situation is volatile – Iran is showing its aggressiveness and the US is leading the hostility. On Friday, the Pentagon said it was sending another naval ship and Patriot missile interceptor battery to the Middle East, in addition to an earlier dispatch of a carrier group and bombers, because of potential threats from Iran or allied Arab militias.
But North Korea is a problem too. It has been firing short-range ballistic missiles, something Mr Trump has bent over backwards to declare non-threatening. He said of the two recent North Korean tests that he did not “consider that a breach of trust at all”.
Venezuela, funnily enough, may be the easiest to solve and it will take Russian help to do so. What are the chances of President Vladmir Putin persuading Mr Maduro to leave in some way that saves face for everyone?
In the meantime, Mr Trump has a problem. As The New York Times recently put it: “Mr Trump’s problems with all three countries reveal a common pattern: taking an aggressive, maximalist position without a clear plan to carry it through, followed by a fundamental lack of consensus in the administration about whether the United States should be more interventionist or less.”
But the biggest problem, of course, is the signal Mr Trump has sent the world. He respects power and destructive capacity. Values are for the weak. Accordingly, Mr Kim of North Korea – with 30 to 60 nuclear warheads – has a huge advantage over Iran. He gets summits with the US president and lots of love. The Iranians, who don’t have nuclear weapons, are dissed and reviled every day.
That may explain why the Iranians are threatening to resume production. As Bill Burns, a diplomat with a 33-year-career at the US State Department recently pointed out, “The Iranians didn’t then and don’t now have nuclear weapons. The North Koreans have dozens, and they’re expanding their capacity to make more.”
As a strategy, Mr Trump’s tough-guy policies have their limits.