In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the “Axis of Evil.” In 2019, a week before President Donald J. Trump is set to deliver his own, the six heads of his intelligence community (IC) provided their annual assessment of worldwide threats. Instead of an evil axis, they identified “the BIG 4” – China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran – as the countries that pose the greatest menace to the United States. Despite the U.S. media focus on the different perceptions between President Trump and his own IC, there were several notable developments that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle of partisan bickering.
China and Russia
One striking headline from the U.S. intelligence chiefs’ testimony and their written statement for the record, is that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year” as they “seek to expand their global influence.” That is to say that a central pillar of the U.S. strategy to win the great power competition that for decades sought to keep China and Russia divided is fast eroding. It is being replaced by their increasing cooperation in which their rivalry with the U.S. is the apparent glue binding them together.
The main difference between the two lies in their respective approaches. Overall, China’s more methodical actions “reflect a long-term strategy to achieve global superiority,” whereas Russia’s approach targets the U.S. more directly as it “relies on misdirection and obfuscation as it seeks to destabilize and diminish our standing in the world.”
Such pernicious behavior by capable adversaries would not likely be tolerated by the U.S. if the offending countries lacked certain weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But China and Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenals are established facts that America must consider when managing those relationships.
North Korea and Iran
By way of contrast, the lesser two of the Big Four – North Korea and Iran – present a different challenge in that the former is an aspiring nuclear weapons power and the latter is believed to have already developed as many as 60 nuclear weapons with missiles that given continued development could soon reach all parts of the United States. As such, they currently lack the means – but not the ambition – to present a threat to the U.S. and global order on par with China and Russia.
With plans for a second presidential summit in late February between the U.S. and North Korea meant to address the latter’s de-nuclearization, the opening statement provided by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dan Coats, set off some alarm bells: “[W]e currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”
Undoubtedly, the regime in Tehran views its own nuclear program through a similar lens where it is considered an insurance policy for its survival. To that end, those hoping for a glass-half-full IC appraisal of Iran’s activities since the Trump administration abandoned the nuclear agreement were disappointed. As the testimony by the intel chiefs made clear, the regime in Tehran, which maintains the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, is projected to continue its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shia militants in Iraq, while focusing to various degrees on its political, military, and economic entrenchment in each location.
Moreover, Iran will pursue these objectives “while developing indigenous military capabilities that threaten U.S. forces and allies in the region.” Even less optimistic according to the assessment, is the regime will continue pursuing all of these ambitions “even while its own economy is weakening by the day.”
Indeed, while it is true that mismanagement of the economy coupled with the tough sanctions re-imposed by the Trump administration has left Iran facing the toughest economic situation in 40 years, the regime has demonstrated a willingness to prioritize its foreign adventures and its nuclear insurance policy over the wellbeing of its own people. One may then deduce that economic sanctions alone won’t bring the regime to heel on either its nuclear program or rogue regional behavior, much like little indicates that relying exclusively on financial sticks will succeed in turning North Korea off its present path.
Turkey and Syria
Another area that received little attention is the IC’s perception of Turkey under President Erdogan, which is important given that President Trump’s December 19 decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria came largely as a result of assurances made in a phone conversation between the two a few days earlier. While the details of those discussions and any arrangement reached remains difficult to pin down, it is clear that a portion of Trump’s latest Syria strategy will entrust Turkey with securing at least some of America’s interests.
Unfortunately, the IC’s assessment dumps a considerable amount of cold water on that approach, explaining that Turkey “is in the midst of a transformation of its political and national identity that will make Washington’s relations with Ankara increasingly difficult to manage during the next five years.” DNI Dan Coats further stated, “under President Erdogan, U.S.-Turkish relations will be important but not decisive for Ankara.” Interestingly, the last part was underlined for emphasis in the text of the remarks as prepared for delivery and as released online by the Office of the DNI. It remains to note that the notion Turkey is merely flirting with Russia and Iran but will ultimately return to the relative stability of its NATO marriage may be overblown.
As for Syria, the IC’s written assessment proceeds from the understanding that the U.S. will withdraw its military forces as President Trump instructed, which would, it should be added, constitute an unwarranted sacrifice of carefully constructed U.S. leverage in the face of multiple gathered adversaries. Trump’s Syria team at the State Department correctly views Syria as the lynchpin of Iran’s regional designs and properly understands the fate of the country as something not only tied to the question of ISIS but as part of any reasoned approach to maximizing external pressure on Iran. Indeed, Syria should present U.S. policymakers a stark example of a win-lose scenario where the depth of a U.S. withdrawal will be superseded by Russia and Iran’s gains in Syria and beyond.
Strangely enough, the IC assessment contends that Assad will try to re-assert his dominance over eastern Syria, rebel-controlled territory, and consolidate his gains “while seeking to avoid conflicts with Israel and Turkey.” It is entirely unclear how that will happen vis-à-vis Israel given that Iran’s regional objectives prioritize keeping Israel in its crosshairs from entrenched military positions on its northern doorstep. Likewise, it remains to be seen what agreement Turkey would reach with Russia and Iran over Idlib and eastern Syria. For his part, Assad may find that he is the meal rather than a guest at the Middle East banquet prepared in Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara.
The Gordian Knot of American Politics
The bottom line is that the U.S. will face an evolving and increasingly complex threat environment as a result of what the IC describes as “a toxic mix of strategic competitors, regional powers, weak or failed states, and non-state actors.” Meanwhile, American politics have become so acidic that reaching an agreement that declares the world as round often seems a hill too steep to climb as the difference between substance, process, and optics become increasingly confused.
The ascendant political voices today increasingly question America’s foreign policy choices and tend to prefer over-correction to learning and applying appropriate lessons from past mistakes. They overwhelmingly call for less U.S. action abroad – despite the threat matrix described by the intelligence community. Whether or not the U.S. is bound for a period of a self-imposed global retrenchment or withdrawal remains to be seen, even if the beneficiaries of such a development have been clearly articulated. For America’s Middle East allies, leading regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Israel may discover the urgent need to cooperate over pressing issues such as Iran and other important areas where agreement can be found. In that scenario, they should at least expect it would come with the full backing of the United States, even if it is relegated to a background role.