May 18, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Trump's wars: The 3 most concerning possibilities

Donald Trump faces potential issues in the Middle East, North Korea and China.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America feels closer to three different possible wars than at any point this decade.

The big picture: Possibilities include a confrontation with North Korea over nuclear weapons, a spontaneous war in the Middle East, and a trade war with China.

Why it matters: It’s unlikely any of the three turn into hot wars. But people inside the national security team or in those regions tell us that the possibility of each is higher than publicly appreciated.

  • In all three cases, the kindling is dry enough, the trust broken enough, and the stakes serious enough, that the sparks warrant closer attention.
  • Trump enjoys and even revels in having a whole lot going on at the same time. But Jonathan Swan wrote in Sneak Peek on Sunday that the White House is stretched too thin, with barely enough people to manage the day-to-day, let alone the dizzying array of battlefronts Trump has opened up.

A source close to Trump tells me the Middle East is the most likely of the three to go sideways:

  • "Trump has a ton of personal capital invested in the NoKo and China outcomes, where his instinct is to engage — unlike in the Middle East, where he's typically more inclined to let the regional players hash it out."
  • "[T]here are numerous ways the Middle East could catch fire, and without Trump's personal attention and investment, those outcomes are much less in our control."

On North Korea, White House senior staff tell Jonathan Swan they're still operating under the assumption that the summit happens, with the huge caveat that you never know with Kim Jong-un.

  • Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer told me it's "all a question of how we define denuclearization." If Trump sticks with national security adviser John Bolton's formulation, "this could fall apart quickly."
  • Victor Cha, Korea chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, still thinks the summit will happen, but says to watch whether North Korea follow through on shutting down its test site, or finds a way to delay.

From the Middle East, Barak Ravid — senior diplomatic correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 news, and an Axios expert contributor — tells me there are three main flash points:

  1. Iran: It's still unclear whether Iran continues to abide by the nuclear deal (together with Russia, China, France, Germany and the U.K.). The leading assessment is that Iran will try to find a way to continue the deal.
  2. Syria and Lebanon: For now, it seems both sides do not want an escalation. But the ongoing struggle between Israel and Iran over the future of Syria definitely creates the risk of a war.
  3. Gaza: Unlike the Bush and the Obama administrations, Trump is giving Israel for now a free hand in Gaza.

On trade, Trump met yesterday with Vice Premier Liu He, leading China's delegation for trade talks. The lead story of the N.Y. Times reports: "Chinese negotiators are preparing to offer the administration a deal to buy up to $200 billion worth of American goods, which would allow Mr. Trump to claim victory"

  • "But the Chinese promises would be largely illusory, economists cautioned."
  • Anyway, China denies.
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