As the 2020 election nears, Donald Trump is facing major setbacks on the boldest foreign policy initiatives of his presidency: Defusing North Korea's nuclear threat and constraining Iran.
On New Year's Day, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un proclaimed he was no longer bound by his pledge to halt major nuclear missile and bomb tests and warned he would soon shock the US with a "new strategic weapon." That came after an Iran-backed militia breached the outer walls of the US Embassy compound in Baghdad on New Year's Eve.
Both developments undermined Trump's contention that he can solve challenges that flummoxed his predecessors by imposing "maximum-pressure" sanctions to compel adversaries to the negotiating table -- and then apply the power of his personality to turn them into friends ready to compromise. Iran has refused to talk while sanctions ravaged its economy, and Kim refused to budge despite three face-to-face meetings with Trump.
"It was clear that even if Trump had an idea behind what he wanted, there was no strategy, and he was just anxious to declare success," said Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt and Israel under President George W. Bush who's now a professor at Princeton University. "I don't think it was ever possible to declare success, but certainly when you see the results going into 2020, there's no question now."
Events of the past few tumultuous days suggest Trump's claims of progress were at best premature and at worst an illusion. But administration officials argue it's too soon to make such dire assessments.
Brian Hook, the US envoy for Iran, portrays that nation not as an emboldened player in the Middle East but a country "currently in a state of panicked aggression."
"The regime understands very clearly the kind of economic pressure they're under, and they also know that it's not sustainable," Hook told reporters in a Dec. 30 briefing. "And so they are lashing out. They're not used to being told no."
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that the US is in a better place with North Korea than it was when Trump came to office in 2017, and said he still expected the country would join the US "on a diplomatic pathway.
But things could get worse fast.
Trump has so far ignored repeated short-range missile launches by North Korea even though they violate United Nations restrictions, but a nuclear test or the launch of a long-range rocket may provoke tougher action.
At the least, the US may resume joint military exercises with South Korea that Trump ordered curtailed at Kim's insistence. "That's something we would take a look at, certainly, depending on Kim Jong Un's next move," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday in an interview on MSNBC.
On Iran, tensions threaten to spiral into a direct confrontation, with Pompeo making clear that attacks on US forces by the Islamic Republic or its proxies would garner a "decisive response." Pompeo -- who postponed a trip to Ukraine and Central Asia to deal with Iran tensions -- said Thursday on Twitter that "we will continue to hold the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable wherever we find their malign activity."
Esper told reporters that the Pentagon will move to deter future attacks by Iran-backed militias in Iraq, not simply respond with airstrikes afterward as it did when an American contractor was killed.
"If we get word of an attack of some kind of indication, we would take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, American lives," he said. "The game has changed."
Trump has appeared largely unfazed. "I handle them as they come along," he told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort on New Year's Eve when asked about the prospect that Kim might resume tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
On Iran, he tweeted a warning of dire consequences if it attacks, with a jaunty twist at the end: "They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!"
While Democratic lawmakers have proclaimed Trump's sanction-and-talk approach to North Korea and Iran a failure, some analysts agreed with the administration that it's too soon to rule out an eventual success.
"We are in a process that has yet to play itself out and we can't evaluate it at every turn or twist along the way," said Kamran Bokhari,founding director of the Center for Global Policy in Washington. "The other thing people forget is that negotiations do not take place in the absence of hostilities. The battle space remains active through the negotiations process until it matures."