U.N. Brief: The Laugh is on Trump

China and Russia foil Pompeo’s maximum pressure campaign for North Korea.

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)
(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)
(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer wrap up their week of reporting on the 73rd U.N. General Assembly in New York.

FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer wrap up their week of reporting on the 73rd U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Yes, Mr. President, They Were Laughing at You:

President Donald Trump and his national security team have been working overtime to shoot down reports that the world’s largest gathering of national leaders laughed at Trump for bragging that he had done more in his first two years in office than any other U.S. president in history. More than Washington, more than Lincoln, more than Roosevelt—and definitely more than Obama.

In a lengthy press conference Wednesday night Trump said reports he had been mocked by foreign dignitaries before the eyes of the world was “fake news.”

“They weren’t laughing at me; they were laughing with me. We had fun,” he insisted.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, appeared on Fox News to defend her boss’s dignity.

“I deal with these leaders every single day, I know exactly how they think. Do they love America? No. Do they respect America? Now they do. When he said that, they love how honest he is, and it’s not diplomatic, and they find it funny.”

To get to the bottom of this mystery, we canvassed 21 U.N.-based diplomats and asked what they really thought about Trump’s boast.

Seven either declined to respond or dodged the question (“I wasn’t there”) because, well, they are diplomats. All but one of the fourteen who replied to the survey said the audience was definitely laughing at Trump. But three conceded that he eventually won over the crowd when he smiled and made a joke about it. One respondent challenged the claim that diplomats actually laughed at Trump. It was more of a “murmur,” the diplomat said.

Here’s a sample of responses to the question posed by email or text: “Was the GA audience laughing with Trump or at him?”

  • “At him: everybody thought he was doing an impersonation of Alec Baldwin. And he was obviously not doing it on purpose.”
  • “Laughing in disbelief because of what he said.”
  • “Definitely ‘at,’ I was in the room.”
  • “At—and with when he seemed to laugh at himself.”
  • “First at, then with, I would say.”.
  • “I sense it was at.”
  • “At.”
  • “With him, he knows how to make people laugh.”

Our former FP colleague, Emily Tamkin, reached a somewhat similar conclusion in this Buzzfeed piece.

China and Russia Want to Ease North Korea Sanctions:

China and Russia pressed the U.N. Security Council Thursday to ease economic sanctions on North Korea, marking a sharp break with the United States and its campaign to maintain a policy of “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang until it eliminates his nuclear weapons program.

The big-power clash dealt a blow to the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who hosted the council session, to rally support to maintain economic pressure on North Korea as he lays the groundwork for a second summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Pompeo met Wednesday with North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, to lay the groundwork for the summit. At Thursday’s meeting, he urged the council to remain steadfast in enforcing sanctions.

“We must not forget what’s brought us this far: the historic international pressure campaign that this council had made possible through the sanctions it imposed,” he said. “Enforcement of U.N. Security Council sanctions must continue vigorously and without fail until we realize the fully, final, verified denuclearization.”

China and Russia had their own plans, however. Top Chinese and Russian diplomats announced that they thought it was time to ease sanctions on Pyongyang, noting the steps North Korea had taken to halt nuclear testing and  freeze its ballistic missile tests.

“China firmly believes that pressure is not an end,” China’s Foreign Minister told the 15-nation council.

The council, he noted, has expressed a willingness to “modify sanctions” in the event that North Korea complied with its demand to eliminate its nuclear weapons program.

“Given the positive developments in the inter Korean and the DPRK/US relations and the DPRK’s important pledges and actions on denuclearization, China believes that the Security Council needs to consider invoking in due course this provision to encourage the DPRK and other parties to move forward on denuclearization,” Wang said.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the council should reward Pyongyang’s behavior with sanctions relief. The council, he said, should send a “positive signal” to North Korea. “Steps by the DPRK towards gradual disarmament should be followed by easing of sanctions,” Lavrov said.

The remarks came weeks after a U.N. panel of experts released a damning report documenting widespread violations of U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

“[North Korea] has not stopped its nuclear and missile program and has continued to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illicit ship to ship transfers of petroleum products, as well as through transfers of coal at sea,” the report stated. “These violations render the latest United Nations sanctions ineffective by flouting the caps on the import of petroleum products and crude oil by the DPRK [North Korea], as well as the coal ban.”

Bibi’s Show-and-Tell:

Addressing foreign delegates in the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to show his penchant for visual props during his presentations. In a move that recalled his earlier use of a cartoon bomb and shelves filled with binders, he pulled out poster board with photo of a bland compound lined with concrete walls that he claimed served as a “secret atomic warehouse” in Tehran.

The presentation was designed to reinforce Israel’s and the United States’ diplomatic campaign to isolate Tehran and prod other Western powers to support international sanctions against Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on Sept. 27. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

The compound, Netanyahu said, had stored some 300 tons of “equipment and materiel from Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program” before Iranian officials removed the stockpile and dispersed it throughout the streets of the Iranian capital.

“Why did Iran keep a secret atomic archive and a secret atomic warehouse?,” Netanyahu asked the audience. “Because Iran hasn’t abandoned its goal to develop nuclear weapons. What Iran hides, Israel will find,” he added.

It was impossible to confirm Israel’s claims or to assess whether the evidence proved, as Israel contends, that Iran has violated the terms of a 2015 nuclear deal that Israel and the United States have renounced as inadequate.

Netanyahu said his government has shared its funding with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has repeatedly certified that Iran is complying with its obligations under the nuclear pact. He also accused European governments with the “appeasement” of Iran, urging them to support  Washington push for more stringent sanctions “instead of coddling Iran’s dictators.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed the presentation as an “arts & craft show.”

“The Israeli showman misses no opportunity particularly to accuse Iran,” according to a statement from the Iranian mission to the United Nations. “Lying is in his DNA.”

Primetime Summitry vs. Long-slog Diplomacy:

President Trump set the U.N. corridors abuzz this week with the promise of diplomacy—a promise that was only partly fulfilled.

He broached the prospect of direct talks with Iran’s leader Hassan Rouhani. (The White House later shot it down.)

He was open, he said, to a meeting with President Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan leader he hopes is pushed from power. (He changed his mind.)

The Middle East? The long-awaited ultimate deal for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Trump assured the world’s leaders, would have to wait another two to four months to be presented.

And of course, there is North Korea, where the American president announced plans to hold a second U.N. summit with Chairman Kim Jong Un. “I think we’re going to make a deal,” he said in a Wednesday evening press conference.

But the U.S. president has largely subcontracted the bloodiest and most challenging conflicts in the world—notably the wars in Syria and Yemen—to the United Nations.

This division of labor reflects Trump’s own preference for “high-stakes, made-for-television, face-to-face meetings with other leaders” over the grinding diplomatic spadework required to tackle the world’s most intractable conflicts, said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the U.N. University. “Trump always believes you can have a meeting and fix stuff.”

“The United Nations is always the world dumping grounds for intractable problems and that is the case today with Syria, with Yemen, and other cases like Libya,” he added.

Trump is not alone in taking a hands-off approach to those crises. His predecessor, Barack Obama, also left it to U.N. mediators to manage peace efforts in those countries.

But the Trump administration has gone further, ceding the diplomatic field of battle in Syria to regional powers such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. In Yemen, the Trump administration has stepped up military support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Earlier this month, Pompeo decided to maintain U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen despite growing opposition from Congress and his own staff. Pompeo made the decision after being informed that the United States risked losing $ 2 billion in weapons sales to its Gulf allies, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The dominant military powers in Syria and Yemen, meanwhile, have shown little interest in compromising with their enemies.

One “never had the impression over the last couple of years that there were serious efforts to bring these conflicts to an end and find a political solution,” Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross told FP. “We continue to be in a situation where lots of sides in those conflicts still believe that they can decisively win those conflicts.”

Tweet of the Day:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s long pause after he was asked whether the government of Myanmar has carried out genocide against the Rohingya Muslims, was mesmerizing. Sitting in silence across from his guest, Myanmar’s Minister for the Office of the State Counselor Kyaw Tint Swe, he broke the spell with an awkward “Thank you all for coming to join us.” Also, note that the State Department refers to Myanmar by its unofficial name, Burma.

Meanwhile, in Washington:

National Security Advisor John Bolton’s comments are causing some headaches for the Pentagon. Bolton tore into Iran at UNGA, saying things like “we are watching, and we will come after you.” He also declared that the United States will keep a military presence in Syria as long as Iran is there—something that appears to contradict the Pentagon, which insists its 2,000 troops are in Syria solely to ensure the defeat of ISIS. FP’s Lara Seligman reports on the uncomfortable position this has put Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in.

At UNGA and on Capitol Hill: Spotlight on Sexual Violence:

As many in the United States were transfixed by the riveting and contentious testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, events at UNGA also highlighted gender-based violence. A depressing statistic to underpin the conversation: Just 0.5 percent of funding for global humanitarian responses is devoted to tackling gender-based violence.

In South Sudan alone, where an estimated 382,000 people have died in the country’s brutal civil war, a staggering 65 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence, according to the European Union’s humanitarian aid body.

Mahmoud Abbas: An Aging Leader Facing His Toughest Challenge Yet:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came to UNGA with shields raised, ready for battle. Having led the Palestinian Authority since 2005, he has weathered (and stoked) his fair share of ups and downs in the Israel-Palestine relationship. But he has perhaps faced no greater political challenge than during the Trump era, where he finds himself politically isolated at home and on the receiving end of the most hardline pro-Israel U.S. administration in recent memory. In the past year, Abbas has seen the United States move its embassy to Jerusalem, slash funding to the U.N. relief agency overseeing Palestine, and force the Palestinian mission in Washington to close down.

In a fiery speech before the U.N. on Thursday, the 82-year-old leader issued a blistering rebuke of the Trump administration. “Jerusalem is not for sale, and the Palestinian people’s rights are not up for bargaining,” he said.

Born in Safed, Palestine in 1935, while the territory was still under British rule, Abbas is one of the last remaining founders of the Fatah movement, which remains the largest political faction within the PLO. He was educated in both Egypt and Russia, where he received a doctorate degree. While he is a source of deep controversy—Jewish groups have accused him of downplaying the death toll during the Holocaust, as just one example—he also has a history of extending olive branches: In the late 1970’s, he became one of the first Fatah members to push for talks with the Israelis and, in 1993, was a key player in crafting the Oslo Accords.

But now Abbas is fighting a two-front war: At home, he is facing plummeting poll numbers, political fissures, and regular accusations by other Arab political figures of being a traitor. In Israel, he faces a right-wing leader with near blank-check support from the Trump administration—and any common ground between the two sides appears to be crumbling fast.

Palestinians gather in Ramallah to watch as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York on Sept. 27. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump has tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and a top advisor, Jason Greenblatt, with drafting a new peace plan. While it is still shrouded in secrecy, Foreign Policy previously reported that one aspect of the deal entails ending refugee status for millions of Palestinians.

In his U.N. General Assembly speech on Thursday, Abbas slammed the Trump administration’s approach to the peace process. “It’s really ironic that the American administration still talks about what they call the ‘Deal of the Century.’ But what is left for this administration to give to the Palestinian people?” he said. “When they remove from the table Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and security, what is left?” He also said he could no longer trust Washington to be a neutral arbiter in peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired back with his own impassioned speech on Thursday: “President Abbas, you proudly pay Palestinian terrorists who murder Jews. In fact, the more they slay, the more you pay.”

The dueling speeches come a day after Trump said for the first time that he supports a two-state solution…then appeared to walk back his comments later in the day: “If the Israelis and the Palestinians want one state, that’s okay with me,” Trump said. “If they want two states, that’s okay with me. I’m happy if they’re happy.”

As for Trump’s timeline on a peace plan? “It is a dream of mine to get that done prior to the end of my first term,” Trump said. That’s easier said than done.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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