WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump yanked the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal this week and will reverse decades of policy in Israel next week, in each case acting on a campaign pledge and intuition that he argues has already proved more successful than traditional diplomacy.
He is aggressively moving forward with his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This week Trump sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit the rogue nation for the second time to continue preparations and bring home three American prisoners released by the Kim regime in a sign of goodwill between the two countries.
"Plans are being made, relationships are building, hopefully a deal will happen, and with the help of China, South Korea, and Japan, a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everyone," Trump said Tuesday.
Trump has become increasingly confident in his gut-driven, out-of-the-box approach to international relations and dismissive of the warnings from "establishment" critics who told him he should stay inside the Iran nuclear deal, keep the U.S. Embassy in Israel in Tel Aviv and tone down his bellicose language toward North Korea despite what he promised during the campaign, according to people familiar with some of the president's recent conversations on these topics. The result is a foreign policy approach marked by Trump's tough rhetoric and break with conventions that his supporters are hailing as a refreshing change and his detractors warn could have dire consequences for the United States and its allies.
"The United States no longer makes empty threats," Trump said Tuesday. "When I make promises, I keep them."
While the outcomes remain uncertain on Iran, North Korea and the embassy move, the president and a new circle of close national security advisers argue they are already disproving the old arguments for caution and consistency.
"Events have transpired in a way that has given the president heightened confidence in his instinct on all three of these topics," said one U.S. official familiar with discussions on each subject and who requested anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
Trump is firm in his view that tough posturing and a disregard for diplomatic norms are effective tools of U.S. power that past presidents were too timid to employ, current and former officials said. The foreign policy priorities of Trump's predecessor, former President Barack Obama, are often the stick by which Trump measures his own performance.
"The lesson that America learned, painfully, a long time ago, but that Dean Acheson once said, is we only negotiate from positions of strength," national security adviser John Bolton said after Trump announced his exit from the Iran deal. "It was a lesson that the last administration did not follow."
Acheson, who as secretary of state from 1949 to 1953 was an original Cold Warrior, held that the United States should defer negotiation with the Soviet Union until it could be confident that its positions were stronger than Moscow's.
Bolton said the Iran decision would "establish positions of strength for the United States."
"It will have implications not simply for Iran, but for the forthcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un of North Korea," Bolton said. "It sends a very clear signal that the United States will not accept inadequate deals."
"Inadequate" is mild by comparison to Trump's critiques of the 2015 international nuclear pact as "the worst deal ever made" and "insane."
Close allies and many of his original team of top national security advisers told Trump that leaving the deal would be dangerous or counterproductive. His action Tuesday killed the hopes of European allies that they might string the U.S. decision out for months and perhaps broker a new agreement with Trump that could satisfy some of his complaints.
Maybe he'll defy all laws of geopolitical gravity, but I doubt it.
Antony Blinken, a former senior foreign policy adviser for Obama and former vice president Joe Biden, said the Trump team sees the Iran deal in simplistic terms. The wholesale U.S. exit may set up downstream problems, including in Syria, where Iran is a major player, and probably in North Korea, where Kim may draw the lesson that the United States can't be trusted, Blinken said.
"It's detailed. It's more complicated than they think," Blinken said in an interview. "Maybe he'll defy all laws of geopolitical gravity, but I doubt it."
U.S. allies also were aghast at Trump's sudden announcement in December that the United States would immediately recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move its embassy there. Trump had promised as a presidential candidate that he would make the move, but he had initially deferred to aides and allies who argued it was risky.
Protest last month in Chicago — Photo: Charles Edward Miller
Trump chafed at following other presidents who have continually deferred the embassy move since the 1990s and told friends and political audiences that he would be the president who finally had the courage of his convictions.
"Very proud of it," Trump said earlier this month of his decision.
Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner are among those planning to attend the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14. The symbolic move upends long-standing U.S. policy that the United States would not prejudge the disputed status of Jerusalem by unilaterally declaring it as the Israeli capital.
Under guardrails of peacemaking that Trump rejects as outmoded, Jerusalem was an issue to be left for resolution between Israel and the Palestinians. The U.S. Embassy's location an hour away in Tel Aviv was a sign that Washington would not put a finger on that scale.
Trump has pointed to the Jerusalem embassy issue as a particular example of what U.S. officials and others described as the "Chicken Little" effect — when dire warnings against something Trump wants to do seem like hollow threats after the fact.
"He heard from many people — commentators, observers and Cabinet members — that there would be all kinds of negative repercussions if he were to make that decision," to move the embassy, said the U.S. official. "Violence, the endangering of U.S. forces all over the Islamic world, all kinds of warnings, virtually none of which have proven to be the case, at least thus far."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet with top U.S. officials since the embassy decision was announced in December, forcing the White House to shelve efforts to restart peace negotiations. But the Trump administration rebuffed that criticism, as well as the milder complaints from allies such as Britain and France, and moved on.
"There were similar "the sky is falling" warnings last summer and fall," when Trump signaled that he would eventually back out of the Iran nuclear deal, "and of course there were warnings about the belligerent language with North Korea last year and how that would lead us to war," the U.S. official said. "That has proven not to be the case."
Trump takes credit for reversing a decades-long narrative of failure in North Korean diplomacy with his stunning decision to meet face to face with Kim.
"We are really doing well with North Korea," Trump said during a rollicking, campaign-style address last week to the National Rifle Association.
He joked that he has tried to tone down his rhetoric about North Korea, now that it has worked as intended.
"Look, for years, for years, they've had this problem and everybody has said, sort of, "Oh, don't talk! Don't talk! Please don't talk!" " Trump said to laughter. "The last administration had a policy of silence," he continued, mimicking a horrified tone. "Don't talk! You may make them and him angry! Don't talk!""
As the audience laughed, Trump said the same dynamic applies to his view of the Iran deal. He mocked the U.S. negotiator, former Secretary of State John Kerry, as a poor negotiator, and said the Obama administration was foolish.
"But we have great things going on with respect to North Korea," he said. "You know what gets you nuclear war? Weakness gets you nuclear war, being weak."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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