War is the ultimate test for nations and their leaders. History is full of great leaders who fought and won military victories, from Revolutionary War hero George Washington to Abraham Lincoln’s civil war and World War II’s FDR.
Victory is the key to greatness.
President Trump is different. If George W. Bush went into his successful 2004 re-election campaign embracing his role as a “war president,” Trump may angle to win a 2020 re-election as the nation’s “peace president.” Remarkably, if things go well, he could be Donald Trump, peacemaker.
Disquieting as it may be for those who see him as morally bankrupt, as well as a threat to democratic norms and human decency, there has to be a reckoning that he just might actually succeed in pursuing peace on multiple fronts. Trump’s campaign promises, unorthodox methods and his limitless ego are leading him to seek an end to American military engagements and — with a couple of notable exceptions — even lower the temperature elsewhere.
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The cost of the current Trump-initiated peace plans may be high, and the potential concessions previously unthinkable, but the outcomes may very well be desirable. North Korea is the most obvious success he has recently chased. Even though he walked away from a bad deal this week, the bilateral dialogue and international sanctions continue. North Korea denuclearization is not a done deal, but a more normalized and peaceful exchange with Pyongyang now exists and a missile testing moratorium is still in place. That’s a good thing.
A man of huge appetites, Trump is not only eventually seeking a real historic success, but also the international adulation he craves. In anticipation, he has likely already picked out where on his Mar-a-Lago retirement villa mantlepiece he will place his Nobel Peace Prize. Early in his presidency, he made no secret of his interest in the award, musing publicly and with affected humility that everyone thinks he should receive it. More recently, he received the most beautiful copy of a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe telling him about his 2018 Nobel nomination.
Trump may be ready to fire up Air Force One for a flight to Oslo this winter, but he would be wise to hold off celebrating his multiple peace initiatives until the ink is dry. Summiting in Vietnam did not bring about a Sharpie-signed denuclearization accord, peace treaty or diplomatic normalization. But it again showed a personally engaged interest in pursuing peace deals. What else is in the works? A grand-bargain Middle East peace plan being developed by White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner.
Timed to be publicly launched sometime after the April 9 Israeli elections, Kushner’s regional peace plan is currently short on details and long on ambition. If Trump can pull off what has eluded so many previous presidents, his Nobel could be his for the asking. The cost of that peace may be high — Trump has already given Saudi Arabia a pass for Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder as part of the deal — and the terms are onerous. But peace is not justice. Peace, in fact, is rarely justice. Peace treaties are mostly agreements to cease overt violent hostilities. A Middle East peace accord needs only to convince, coerce or co-opt multiple parties to hold their noses and learn to live with each other. There will be losers in the process.
America’s retreat from Syria, for example, is a tough call and, effectively, an abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies. It’s an invitation for ISIS to regroup, Iran and Russia to flex their regional muscles, and an acknowledgment that Bashar al-Assad won his brutal battle against civility. Afghanistan’s current peace process cuts out the Kabul government and is an accommodation with a Taliban that simply promises to play nice once American troops have left town. If you are a schoolgirl or working woman in places like Helmand or Jalalabad, however, you should expect life to become much, much more difficult.
Peace is often elusive and always comes at a cost, one that Trump seems ever ready and willing to have others pay.
Trumpian peace is not breaking out everywhere in the world, however, with plenty of places waiting to blow up. Yemen remains unresolved and is the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis, while the Venezuela standoff is a new potential flashpoint. Fire and fury seem to remain an option with Iran, with some of Trump’s national security team jonesing to bloody Tehran’s nose.
Trump may be delusional. His peace plans and potential treaties could simply be short-term Band-aids on deeply festering wounds. In fact, the whole world might explode into a massive conflagration thanks to withdrawal from nuclear arms deals or by poking too many Iranian clerics in the eye.
Regardless, Trump intends to be heralded for achieving peace in his time: no more Middle East ground wars on his watch, no more war with North Korea and, coming soon to a soybean exporter near you, no more trade war. Despite his personal vices and nonstop self-aggrandizement, his burning desire to be loved for brokering peace might be his least dangerous.
Markos Kounalakis covered a few too many wars as a foreign correspondent. He is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.