What It’s Like to Travel the World With the Secretary of State

We asked a man who knows all about it. 

What It’s Like to Travel the World With the Secretary of State

Nolan Peterson, The Daily Signal’s foreign correspondent, is back in Washington after a week traveling abroad with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Today, he joins Daniel in the studio to share about the trip and the news he reported on, ranging from Russia to China to North Korea and Afghanistan.

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I think when you look at the additional sanctions for the Skripal assassination attempt on U.K. soil by a nerve agent in conjunction with the U.S. decision to finally pull out of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, the medium-range missile treaty that was a carryover from the Cold War that the U.S. withdrew from last week.

You take all these things together, and I think there’s a pattern going on, too, more broadly with the U.S. slapping new … tariffs on China. The U.S. is really digging in its heels and saying that these countries are serial violators of America’s trust, aren’t going to get away with it any longer.

So, I think you’re seeing a more aggressive pushback in some ways by the Trump administration. It happened [with] these two things. The new sanctions for the nerve agent attack and the INF Treaty withdrawal happened concurrently.

So, I think that was a blow for Russia. But yeah, I think America seems to be really making a statement that it won’t be made a fool by these countries anymore.

I think that, finally, you just have to accept reality and saying that we are hobbling ourselves militarily by abiding by this treaty, which Russia was blatantly violating for quite a long time.

I think, also, you can’t overlook the fact that as the U.S. asserts itself as a Pacific power, and as we start to push back against China’s more aggressive military posture in the Pacific region, the ability for us to have these ground-based missiles is important in the Pacific.

So, China was never bound by the INF Treaty, and they have all sorts of missiles that operate within that prescribed range of the INF Treaty.

So, now that we’re unbound from those obligations, we have the capacity to deploy missiles in the Pacific region, which could offer a deterrent effect to China, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper floated that possibility on his trip to Sydney where he met, by the way, Secretary Pompeo there.

So, in a way, Australia has come in a pickle, right? They’re dependent on China’s trade. At the same time, they are feeling the pressure of China: their territorial claims in the South China Sea, acts like this covert base in Cambodia, which got exposed recently. The fact that China and Russia just conducted a joint air patrol [over] the Sea of Japan.

So, I think all these things together make Australia nervous about the long-term military threat posed by China. At the same time, they don’t want to lose that trade by doing something provocative, which might damage their economy.

So, Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Australia really was to rally to Australians to our side to help push back against China. And in doing so, he made a point that the economic costs potentially of stepping away from China pale in comparison to the long-term costs if China is able to either manipulate Australia from within, through these information campaigns and electoral interference, which has happened recently, as well as China trying to position itself as a strategic threat throughout the Pacific.

The rhetoric come from the Australian side. They’re clearly with America, but they also made clear that they have to balance their national interests, and that they don’t have, perhaps, the leeway that we do to push back really aggressively against China because our economy can weather the storm, and I’m not sure if theirs necessarily could.

I think, also, when I mentioned the INF Treaty withdrawal by the U.S, there’s some concern in Australia, too, about the possibility of the United States asking to put missiles on Australian soil.

That request has not been made, but Secretary Pompeo fielded … a few questions about the possibility of U.S. missiles on Australian soil during his trip.

So, I think there is some anxiety in Australia that they don’t want to get caught up in some sort of military escalatory tit-for-tat competition between the U.S. and China.

But I think they feel the pressure of China, and they understand that looking forward in this new era of strategic competition that you can’t just bury your head in the sand and wish this threat [was] going to go away because China’s behavior patterns clearly indicate that they are trying to establish their regional dominance.

So, perhaps, they’re just trying to fan the flames a little bit to approach the talks with more leverage, right? If they walk into the talks after some provocative acts, if America is looking to just get them to stop the missile tests, that gives them something extra to trade.

Whereas if they weren’t doing anything provocative, they’d walk in with less cards to play with us.

So, I think it’s interesting that North Korea has kept these missile tests below a certain threshold by which the U.S. would be forced to escalate or respond with some more sanctions or some more punishment.

But Secretary of State Pompeo made it explicitly clear that he was looking to talk to North Korea. He made multiple entreaties to them both before the trip and during the trip that he was looking to meet, and he also made clear that there were discussions going on behind the scenes.

So, I would not say that we’re at a total impasse right now, but I think things are going on quietly, and that the momentum is there for talks to resume.

The timeline is just to get America to the point where we don’t have service men and women in danger any longer. There’s no artificial marker based on an election. That was the point he made.

Yeah, talks are ongoing with the Taliban. The Taliban has said that it wants to strike a deal with the U.S. for troop withdrawal before it’s willing to talk to the Afghan government.

So, I think the Afghan government feels a little bit left out right now because the Taliban, their overarching objective before they start talking about a long-term peace deal is they want to get American troops out of the country.

So, I think after 18 years of war, I think reality is that they’re a force in Afghanistan, and that they’re not going to be wiped off by any U.S. military action.

The U.S. adopted an advise-and-assist mission in Afghanistan a few years ago. So, we don’t have a direct combat presence per se in the country. But yeah, I think there is now movement toward some sort of solution with Afghanistan.

I think the question is now, “Do we leave the country completely, or do we remain there providing assistance and advice to the Afghan military as they move forward?”

There’s other examples of the United States doing this quietly in places around the world like Kosovo, where I visited earlier this year, where we still have U.S. forces. They’re helping the cost of our government and their military, but it’s not obviously a military combat operation.

But yes, I think there is some movement. The U.S. is trying to talk to the Taliban to get some sort of ceasefire arrangement. But as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and having been a witness to what the Taliban represents, I don’t know how you can trust them.

I think any deal you strike with them, I mean, you have to walk into it with eyes wide open knowing that the minute America pulls out, you no longer have a way to modulate that violence, and it’s very likely that a lot of the progress that Afghanistan’s society has made, particularly freedoms [for] women, will be reversed if the Taliban is able to claw back to power.

But I think in general, the lesson from Iraq is we left too early. The security situation wasn’t shored up. We had to return because, basically, the threat we had been there to defeat … originally, it was to defeat Saddam Hussein, but over the years, it was to defeat that Islamist extremist insurgency, but that returned after we left.

There is certainly a threat that if we leave Afghanistan, that the Taliban can take the country over again. There is a strong Islamic State presence in Afghanistan right now.

So, I think the possibility that the country could revert to being a safe haven for terrorists with designs on global strikes is certainly there. It’s a really tricky spot for America.

I think we do have to ask ourselves the question, though: After being at war for 18 years, at what point do we have to say that we have to leave?

In some regards, we did displace the Taliban from power after 2001. The Afghan government has made strides toward establishing this legitimacy. So, there are some who say that if you’re looking at a definition of victory in Afghanistan, perhaps that’s as good as it’s going to get, and perhaps we are looking at the apex of what we can achieve in that country.

Then, maybe it is time to pull back and see how things go without our overt presence in the country. I don’t know. I think it’s hard to say how things would go.

I think there’s not a great track record of these countries having robust democracies after we leave, and I think it’s important to note that that sort of global Islamist threat still exists even if it is in the shadows, and it’s not quite as powerful as it was before Sept. 11, 2001. It’s still there, and there is a risk of it coming back.

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