For the rest of December, Washington Examiner reporters will be exploring what 2018 has in store in a number of areas, from the White House and Congress to energy and defense. See all of our year ahead stories here.
A pair of rogue regimes with a longing for nuclear weapons promise to dominate Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s second year atop Foggy Bottom.
Tillerson, in following President Trump’s distaste for former President Barack Obama’s decision-making, declared in 2017 an end to the era of “strategic patience” with Iran and North Korea. As the nation’s top diplomat, he has to try to rally international support for Trump’s more aggressive posture. Diplomacy doesn’t stop at home, though. Tillerson has to persuade Congress to support his vision for reorganizing the State Department, while maintaining his position in the administration, which has seemed precarious at times.
Iran front and center
“Iran is going to be front and center in terms of administration priorities on the foreign policy front,” the Heritage Foundation’s Nile Gardiner said. “I think 2018 will be a decisive year in terms of the future of the [nuclear deal] and the broader approach towards Iran as potential nuclear weapons power and a threat to the United States.”
That effort by necessity will sprawl across the Middle East. Iran hawks believe that the Obama-era pact, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, enabled Iran’s aggression in the region. So Trump’s willingness to keep the United States in the agreement could be influenced not just by direct efforts to mitigate perceived flaws in the deal, but also by the progress of a broader effort to contain Iran.
Tillerson has played an important role in fostering an Arab response to Iran, led by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are leading a coalition against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, a conflict that has provided evidence of the regime violating United Nations resolutions that bar Iran from shipping weapons out of the country.
But that diplomacy has been complicated by a standoff between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which has been accused of financing terrorism but also hosts a major U.S. military base. Tillerson is working to mend the breach, just as he facilitated a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
With Iran trying to secure a “land bridge” through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah, its terrorist proxy in Lebanon, the U.S. wants to engage with Iraq as well as maintain influence over any deal to end the civil war in Syria. Congress is reinforcing those efforts by establishing sanctions against Hezbollah, which has grown in power under Iran’s patronage, to the alarm of neighboring Israel. At the same time, Tillerson can be expected to work with congressional and European allies to toughen the U.S. stance on Iran without ending the nuclear pact unilaterally.
“I think [the Europeans] are looking to see whether there are ways to give a greater comfort level to the president,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., told reporters in a year-end briefing.
The North Korean threat
North Korea presents a simpler threat, though possibly more dire. For decades, presidents in both parties have maintained that the Communist dictatorship would never be allowed to develop the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.
This year, dictator Kim Jong Un's regime detonated a massive nuclear weapon and tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the eastern seaboard. U.S. intelligence officials are scrambling to monitor whether North Korea can put the two together successfully, while Tillerson hopes an aggressive international sanctions regime will convince Kim to negotiate away his weapons cache.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley shepherded multiple sanctions resolutions through the Security Council, including one to put another crimp in North Korea’s access to oil just days before Christmas. The devil will be in the implementation, as ever. China has long insulated North Korea from the full blast of western sanctions, and some U.S. lawmakers doubt China will ever allow Korea to come under the kind of pressure that would force Kim to abandon the nuclear weapons program. Tillerson has vowed to keep up his efforts “until the first bomb drops,” but it’s not clear how much time that leaves.
At home, Tillerson must navigate congressional skepticism of the Trump administration's policy regarding Russia and his own long-awaited plan to reorganize the State Department.
The White House national security strategy forecasts confrontation with Russia. “The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing,” the 2017 strategy memo states. Still, Republicans and Democrats plan to monitor Tillerson’s implementation of sanctions against Russia, which the administration opposed.
Lawmakers are similarly skeptical of Tillerson’s attempt to reform his agency's bureaucracy, following unsatisfactory private briefings. And some congressional sources doubt that Trump will leave him in the job long enough to carry out the plan.
“Are we getting a new secretary of state or not?” a congressional Democratic aide asked. “That is an open question and that affects everything else.”