"No" Soleimani-style Strikes planned for North Korea
White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien is one of the president’s closest aids, and he’s here in Switzerland with his boss for the World Economic Summit. In a one-on-one interview with Die Weltwoche, O’Brien takes aim at former Secretary of State John Kerry. He reassures that armed drones are not coming for North Korea, but US is monitoring rebellious Kim Jong-un “very closely”. And he declares “strength deters aggression; weakness invites it”.
Often close to the president’s side, Robert O'Brien has flown across the Atlantic ahead of Donald Trump to hold preliminary talks at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
O’Brien, 53, is Trump’s fourth national security advisor. After the abrupt departure of John Bolton, known as a ferocious hawk, in O’Brien, sources say that Trump has finally found the ideal person for the job. O’Brien has the skill and temperament to deliver.
As Trump’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs he famously had a deck of baseball cards made with the photos and biographies of US hostages abroad and sent them to US embassies around the world as a reminder of the president’s solemn vow to bring these citizens home.
Directly stepping off the plane, he is sitting opposite me at Zurich Airport. He is full of praise for Switzerland's role as mediator and protecting power. Recently, the American national Xiyue Wang was flown in a Swiss government airplane from Tehran to Zurich, set free after more than three long years in an Iranian prison.
“It's disappointing,” he tells me regarding reports that John Kerry, former secretary of state under Obama, still meets with Iranian leaders. When Kerry signed the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) he “admitted that Iran would likely use JCPOA revenues to fund terrorists. He was right. Iran did just that.” On the ongoing threats from North Korea, Trump's security advisor rebuts any suggestion that Trump is mulling plans for a Soleimani-style strike. O’Brien insists, "The military operation that we undertook in Baghdad was unique.”
After the targeted killing of General Soleimani, it seems that the Iranian regime is standing with its back to the wall. There are demonstrations in the streets against the government, even pro-American demonstrations. How weak is the regime now?
Look, it's hard to say. We didn't take the action, the military operation in Baghdad, to weaken the regime. We took the action because there was an imminent threat to American citizens, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and our diplomats in the region. The target (General Soleimani) was actively plotting against Americans, and the president has made it very clear that if you harm or kill Americans, that's a line you shouldn't cross, and if you do, American justice will find you. Just like we did with Al Baghdadi late last fall, we had to take an action to protect the American people with respect to Iran. The Iranians have said they're standing down. We hope that that's the case, and we'll watch to see what happens.
After demonstrations started against the regime, the president tweeted: “To the leaders of Iran - DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching.” Besides the tweets, what can and what is the president ready to do to support the protesters standing up against the regime?
I think what he's ready to do, which other administrations have not done in the past, is to come out publicly in support of human rights and support of democracy in support of the Iranian people. What the president has always said is that the Iranian people are great people. We have many Iranian-Americans living in the US.
Where I'm from in California, there are hundreds of thousands of Iranians, very successful people in the arts, in industry, in business, in law, in real estate. Very accomplished people.
If Iran behaved like a normal nation, if they weren't pursuing nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles or sponsoring terrorism of the region or taking hostages, especially American hostages, Iran could be an amazing country. It could be a great country. What the president said is, "Stop with the bad behavior and just become a great country. Be a normal country and you can be great." We're behind the Iranian people 100%. We don't have a policy of regime change, but we really hope for the best for them because they're treated very terribly, very poorly by their leaders.
John Kerry, former secretary of state and architect of the Iranian nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew, has met multiple times with Iranians since leaving office. There are reports about him telling the Iranian leadership to “wait out” the Trump administration until November when Democrats come back to power. Is he undermining American national security?
President Trump and many others, including me, believe that the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015) was the worst diplomatic deal in the history of the United States. Unfortunately, the Iran nuclear deal was Senator Kerry’s crowning diplomatic ‘achievement’. Even so, Secretary Kerry admitted at the time that Iran would likely use JCPOA revenues to fund terrorists. He was right. Iran did just that.
Press reports state that Secretary Kerry continues to engage with the Iranians. I hope that rather than discussing the failed JCPOA, he is telling his Iranian friends: "look, the American people are totally opposed to the regime’s activity. U.S. policy isn’t changing. President Trump looks like he will be re-elected. And, even if it is a Democrat who’s elected in the fall, Iran will not obtain relief until it renounces its nuclear program and terrorism.”
To North Korea. Last Friday, the number two general in the Pentagon, Air Force General John Hyten said, "North Korea is building new missiles, new capabilities, new weapons as fast as anybody on the planet.” Is Kim Jong-un playing President Trump? And how will the US react to that?
Look, it's hard to say what Kim Jong-un wants. What Kim Jong-un promised the world and promised the United States and promised the president of United States in Singapore at the summit almost two years ago was that he would denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. He has not done that, yet. We still hope that he'll abide by his commitment, the commitment that he made to the world in Singapore. So far, that hasn't happened.
We do appreciate the fact there have been no nuclear tests. We appreciate the fact that tensions have de-escalated in the region, but we're monitoring Kim Jong-un very closely. We'll have to watch and see what happens. Like with the Iranians, we've laid out a future for the North Korean people, for the DPRK that's a fantastic, terrific future. If you take a look at South Korea, it's become one of the richest countries in the world. The North Korean people are hardworking people. They're innovative.
If North Korea opened up and denuclearized and sanctions were lifted, there's a huge future for Chairman Kim and for his people. We hope they'll go down that route, but they're at a fork in the road. They've got to make a decision if they want to continue to be an isolated sanctioned regime, or do they want to become part of the international community and have all the benefits of being a normal country?
The whole world is carefully watching President Trump’s moves after the drone strike against General Soleimani. Is a targeted killing of a key figure in North Korea on the table?
No. The military operation that we undertook in Baghdad was unique. There was somebody who was actively plotting against the Americans. We dealt with the threat to American lives. That was what we know. That was a unique situation where somebody was out trying to kill Americans. There had been an attack on Americans several days before, on December 27th, on the K1 Military Base in Iraq. There had been an attack on our embassy, and there were further attacks. We took every necessary measure to disrupt those attacks in Iraq, and not in Iran.
In 2016, you wrote a very instructive book. I went over it over the weekend.
Now, you're just flattering me.
No, no. You argued that the world had become more dangerous under President Obama's "lead from behind" foreign policy. The book is called “While America Slept.” Under President Trump, is America fully awake now?
What I argued in the book was basically a “peace through strength” approach to American national security and foreign policy. It's the approach that Ronald Reagan took when he rebuilt the American military after the post-Vietnam malaise period in which the Soviet Union was on the march. People thought that America's best days were behind her. And President Reagan rebuilt the American military, became assertive, showed our allies that they could count on us, and showed our adversaries that they should avoid a conflict with us.
I think President Trump is doing the same thing with his administration. Starting within the bedrock of it is rebuilding the US military. President Trump has spent $2.5 trillion over the past three years to bring the American military back up to the standard that it was in the past. We think that sends a very strong message of deterrence to our adversaries. Weakness and things like the JCPOA appeasement, the JCPOA weakness, those are provocative.
We actually saw that happen after JCPOA, for example, around expanded terrorist activities in the region, in Yemen, with the Houthis, with Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon, with the Assad regime in Syria where half a million people were killed. All of that happened post-JCPOA. So, when you appease these dictators and these illegitimate regimes, it invites attacks.
When America is strong, and America's military strong, and we have a president with a will to use it to protect American interests, that actually deters our adversaries and helps maintain the peace. It may be counter-intuitive to some people, but strength deters aggression; weakness invites it.
What security issues concern you most? What keeps you awake at night?
What we like to say is that we keep other people awake at night. That's number one. But these (concerns) come in two boxes. The most important issues that we face are: peer competitors; great power of competition; a rising China that's been more assertive and more aggressive, especially in areas like the South China Sea, in Hong Kong; China building bases across Africa, across the Indian Ocean, the Indo-Pacific region, getting very active in the second island chain. Those are things that concern us. We're monitoring it, and we need to be strong to deter Chinese aggression.
On the other hand, we think we can have a great relationship with China. We think that there's a very bright future between the United States and China, if China acts fairly and reciprocally with us. We just saw the signing of the “phase one” trade deal. The deal includes provisions to root out intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers and increase Chinese purchases of U.S. goods though it leaves open questions about enforcement.
That was the first time that we've had a comprehensive trade deal with China. We think it's going to be a great deal for the American people and we think it's going to deter some of the Chinese unfair trade practices. We want to have a great relationship with China, the same as with Russia.
For quite some time we have seen signs for a very expensive new arms race with Russia. How do you assess the security situation facing Putin’s Russia?
We're concerned about the new arms race that Russia seems to be involved in. With us, it's not an arms race that we want. But you see the Russians developing new weapons, especially in the nuclear field. That's something that concerns us. We need to keep an eye on the great powers of Russia and China. At the same time, there are issues in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Iran, Venezuela, North Korea that, as America, we have to monitor as well.
It's a full plate out there. I think the bigger story, though, is the strength and dynamism of the United States under this administration. What allows us to fulfill our role and to protect America around the world, whether it's against great powers or some of these smaller powers, is the engine of the US economy. And we have a stock market, the Dow (Jones Industrial Average) is almost 30,000. We have almost full employment in the United States. We have a booming business environment that's good for America and that's good for the world economy as well.
We're pretty excited about the economic dynamism. That's the platform from which our national security policy is built on. And President Trump deserves tremendous credit. Deregulation, lowering taxes, favorable business climate, a confident America — that's good for the United States, it's good for our national security, and we think it's good for our friends and allies in the world, including Switzerland.
In this airport in Zürich, Switzerland, where we sit right now, a prisoner exchange between Iran and the US took place last December that was facilitated by the Swiss government. How instrumental were the Swiss, as a protecting power, in helping to make this exchange happen?
This comes straight from President Trump: We hold the Swiss in incredibly high regard. The Swiss Diplomatic Service, the Swiss Intelligence Service, the Swiss Military — we hold them in the United States government in the highest regard. These are first-class, top-notch professionals. They execute their mission with a level of excellence that is rarely seen in the world. Switzerland's a relatively small country, but punches far, far above its weight when it comes to international diplomacy, its intelligence services, and its military. And so we're very proud to work closely with the Swiss.
Switzerland, because of its tradition of neutrality, is able to do things around the world that the United States can't do, specifically, with respect to Iran and the recent prisoner exchange. That was something that was orchestrated by the Swiss. It would have been very hard to do that deal without the involvement of Swiss diplomats and Swiss intelligence officers. We're grateful for the co-operation we have with Switzerland and for the partnership we have in these areas. We have a tremendous degree of respect for Switzerland.
I, personally, have a lot of affection for Switzerland. I, my wife and kids lived here for two years in the '90s. We lived in Crans, near Nyon, in the canton Vaud.
For me, this is a bit of a homecoming, being back in Switzerland. I have a lot of personal affection for Switzerland, and the United States government is very, very pleased with the strong relationship with the Swiss government.
At the request of Tehran, Switzerland seeks to establish a humanitarian trade channel so that desperately needed humanitarian goods and medicines can be imported into Iran. What are the road blocks? Will you allow the Swiss to do this?
We're always interested in humanitarian issues wherever people are in need. The United States has always been incredibly generous in its own right in helping people in need, wherever they might be, whatever the type of regime that governs them. Obviously, with a government like Iran, which is an incredibly corrupt government — a government that takes from its own people, a government that should be providing the environment for the people to thrive — instead the government takes all of the cream from oil sales and other industrial endeavors and keeps it for itself and does not share it with the citizens.
One thing we're always concerned about when a government like Iran proposes humanitarian trade is we want to make sure if there's a true humanitarian need, that the people of Iran are receiving the benefits of whatever trade takes place, and it's not going to the Revolutionary Guard or to the regime that's keeping the people down. We're always concerned about those things. But we're certainly open to talking with the Swiss. I always have been on these sorts of issues.