September 26, 2017— Nancy Youssef, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, discussed the relations between the U.S. and a number of countries, including North Korea, as well as press access and President Trump’s approach to foreign policy, during a visit to the Shorenstein Center. Below are some highlights from the conversation, with the full audio and video recording below. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.
Is the U.S. actually on the brink of war with North Korea?
So much of the focus is on rhetoric. I’m focusing on the logistics because that’s a tangible measure of U.S. military intervention, and there hasn’t been anything.
“I understand the anxiety, but because I’m a military correspondent, I tend to look at logistics. So much of the focus is on rhetoric. I’m focusing on the logistics because that’s a tangible measure of U.S. military intervention, and there hasn’t been anything. There’s one carrier strike group in the region, the Ronald Reagan, it’s in port in Japan for repairs. If we were going to see military action, you would think we would see more carriers in the region. There are roughly 80,000 troops between Japan, Guam, and South Korea, we haven’t seen any deployment of additional troops…We haven’t seen any movement of aircraft, fighter jets and the like, into the region. And on top of that, we haven’t seen even the families of those 80,000 troops evacuated, any sort of warning. And we have not seen any similar action of any kind on the North Korean side either. So for me, in terms of military action, or imminent threat, I don’t think we’re there…that doesn’t mean the rhetoric is irrelevant, or that it can’t have consequences, but if you’re looking at measurable action, to me, that’s what you watch for.”
On preventing North Korea’s progress on nuclear weapons
“In terms of stopping the development of their program, I think it’s all but impossible at this point. If you’re the North Koreans, you’re so far along, why would you stop now? And the Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] himself said he expects we’ll be talking about a successful completed program as early as the end of 2018, that was his testimony today…At what point do you have to start considering North Korea an armed state that you have to deal with in terms of deterrence, rather than things you can do to mitigate or to slow in any real way the test?”
Understanding Trump’s approach to foreign policy
“Earlier this month at the height of all this, the Trump administration announces that we’re changing the trade agreement with South Korea because it’s a disadvantage to us and to our automakers, and everything else. Logically, if you’re thinking in traditional diplomatic circles, that doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t we all have the same voice as we’re approaching North Korea? If you read The Art of the Deal, what you realize is from his perspective, South Korea’s at its weakest, so now let’s move in and get the best deal for ourselves. That’s the calculation, that’s the most logic I’ve come up with in terms of foreign policy, any sort of thread. It’s cutting deals rather than these enduring commitments—it’s much more short term and getting the upper hand.”
Press access under the Trump administration
“We’ve only had two briefings with Mattis in the briefing room, and I know that sounds like a trivial thing, but having someone on camera for everybody to see answer questions…that matters at a time where we have increased the U.S. troop presence in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and the nation is jittery over the future of its policy toward North Korea. It is a notable silence. He comes down to meet with us on average once a week, sometimes less, and does it off camera… it leads to a trickle-down effect, because we’re hearing less from combatant commanders, we’re hearing less from the generals, we’re hearing less from people who used to come forward publicly and on camera and explain policy, because they can justifiably say, if the secretary isn’t doing it, then I don’t have to do it.”
“They’ve dis-invited news organizations from trips and that’s obviously angered people because those trips are such a rich opportunity not only to see the secretary up close, but to meet his staff and actually see in a real-time way his efforts around the world on some of these key areas.”
“It’s made the job harder but I actually think it leads to better journalism, because it demands that you become creative, that you develop new sources, that you don’t get lazy in terms of leaning on easy access…it’s the Pentagon and there are 20,000 plus people. If you try to hold it back, it will push out somewhere else, and your job is to find it. You can’t keep information there quiet. I’ll give you a quick example. The president said we weren’t going to know troop numbers going into Afghanistan…well, there was a military base that had a thousand troops going out, and put out a story for the families, here’s the number of troops we’re sending to Afghanistan, so there’s always a way that the numbers come out, but you have to think creatively.”
The Iran deal
“North Korea and Iran are related. If the United States pulls out of the Iran deal, it makes it harder to do any sort of negotiation with the North Koreans because they will be able to legitimately say, why should we enter a deal with you, you just broke that other deal, which by the way, was pretty much working out well…in terms of the deal itself, you’re starting to see European leaders coming forward—we had a bunch of ambassadors speaking yesterday at the Atlantic Council—saying that this and the Paris Agreement might be a breaking point in terms of U.S.-European relations, because from their perspective, this is not a far off threat, it’s geographically closer. The deal is working from their perspective, the business interests for them are even greater than the U.S….to me it’s become a microcosm of the growing tension between Europe and the United States…I presume that if the United States pulls out, the European community will rally and like the Paris Agreement, there’s the threat of an isolated United States.”
“Right now, I think because Mosul is over and people have held up Mosul and Raqqa as once they fall, ISIS falls…we’ve been down this road before, where we have declared a terrorist group, in the previous case Al-Qaeda, defeated, only to know that they had gone underground, and reconstituted themselves as ISIS. So I think the thing to watch for is, does that happen again? Because it’s hard to believe, particularly recently—in a matter of days, these cities are falling. Did ISIS really just disappear?”
“For years and years, the U.S. has said that the war against ISIS is not in any way going to touch Assad’s campaign…and then in Deir ez-Zor we’re coming violently into it, because you have Assad forces there, you have ISIS forces there. And now the U.S. finds itself confronting a battlefield where its involvement arguably helps the Assad regime, because the defeat of ISIS in Deir ez-Zor is territory that presumably would go back into the Assad regime, so by default, or by geographic coincidence, you have a U.S. policy that is going to arguably work to the Assad regime’s favor. I think that is something we should be following that hasn’t been followed enough…as those territories start to merge together, how does the U.S. deal with it? If the Assad regime must go, as has been the U.S. position, what do you do then? If it’s no longer the U.S. position, what does Syria look like, and does that simply, again, plant the seed for jihadi groups to lay low and have a place to plot attacks?”
“The State Department will come at Egypt and say, you better remove those [North Korean] workers, you better do this about human rights, and you better do this, that, and the other, and then Trump says ‘Sisi’s my friend.’ So the Egyptian response is, let’s just go over to this side, with Trump and his love of us, that’s the message we want to hear, and that’s the one we’re going to respond to. So you have a split that’s happening in terms of the U.S. interaction with Egypt…I think Tillerson, frankly, is exasperated with the Egyptian government and is pushing for change, and the Egyptian government thinks it can buy time by virtue of the fact that it’s been so embraced by the president.”
Israel and Palestine
“I’m not picking on Jared Kushner or anything, but he doesn’t have experience in the Middle East, and we have had people with decades of experience who haven’t been able to break the stalemate…Honestly, when I think about the Palestinian issue, I don’t think about solutions, I think about what happens when you have people in entrenched positions because the U.S. is not there to try to push them closer to the middle. I think Kushner’s made a handful of trips there, but we haven’t had any deliverables come out of it, we haven’t had an agreement, or a promise, or any sort of tangible result from those meetings. I’m not suggesting that they’ve washed their hands of it, I’m simply saying that the end result is we don’t have a deliverable.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.