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Former top Clinton adviser: Next president "should take up" some Trump-style foreign policy approaches

North Korea meeting with Trump
North Korea meeting with Trump 02:11

President Trump's unorthodox treatment of some long-vexing foreign policy challenges may be an approach for a future commander-in-chief to emulate, a former top adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden suggested -- albeit with significant caveats.

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Jake Sullivan, who served as senior policy adviser on Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and, during the Obama administration, as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, suggested that Trump's willingness to "push hard" in relationships with both allies and adversaries might constitute a useful lesson not learned by previous administrations.

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"I would say there are certain areas where we should pause and say, 'Is Trump onto something?'" Sullivan said in an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell. "He is much more willing to push hard in the way that the Chinese and the Russians both push hard on friends and foes alike to try to get to a good outcome."

"The problem is that it's not directed towards anything particularly useful," Sullivan said.

The 41-year-old policy specialist – a former Rhodes Scholar and Yale graduate – was unsparing in his criticism of the actions the administration has actually taken on domestic and foreign policy problems, but acknowledged a useful "sensibility" in Trump's blunt approach to entrenched geopolitical challenges.

In the case of the U.S.' economic positioning vis à vis China, Sullivan said, "Trump is looking at that and saying, 'You know what? This has been going on for too long.' And President Obama complained about it, too. And President Bush did, as well."

"The idea that you don't just say, 'Well, we'll nibble around the edges or we'll grin and bear it – we're going to actually do something here' – I think that's a sentiment that the next commander-in-chief should take up," Sullivan told Morell.

"But," he stressed, the next president should "combine it with a combination of enlightened self-interest and a systematic decision-making process."

While some of Trump's efforts – in North Korea, for instance  – have rekindled what had been dormant diplomatic efforts, Sullivan said, the president has committed strategic errors by both touting premature successes and by adopting a posture of complacency.

"He's extracted some words, even if they're very weak words, from North Korea," Sullivan said, "And I think, at least for the time being, it's in his interest to downplay any sense that this thing has gone off the rails."

"The big danger for American foreign policy in all of this, though, is that, in the current posture, North Korea is sitting pretty. Because they now no longer feel the pressure they were feeling before," he told Morell.

Though the North Koreans have suspended nuclear and missile tests, dismantled some testing sites, and returned the remains of some Americans killed during the Korean War, satellite imagery and U.S. intelligence community assessments have indicated that North Korea has not made meaningful progress toward the now-familiar and purportedly shared goal of "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." 

The North Koreans have instead pressed for an official end-of-war declaration, which they have said Trump committed to during the Singapore summit held in June.  

Trump is said to be considering a second summit to meet with Kim, with whom press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday the president recently exchanged a "very warm, very positive letter."

The net result, Sullivan argued, is still inconclusive.

"Kim Jong-un still has his nuclear arsenal, has the South Koreans coming to him seeking a better relationship, has the Chinese and the Russians now not aligned with Washington, but seeing how they can play this to their advantage vis-à-vis Washington," he said. "[I]t's been all upside for Kim Jong-un."

"And I don't see how we disrupt that dynamic," he continued, "as long as Trump is continuing to essentially claim his brilliant presidential diplomacy has solved the North Korean nuclear issue."

The administration's efforts on North Korea stand distinctively apart from what appears to be a more concerted approach to Iran, Sullivan said, where regime change appears to be an unofficial and unstated goal.

"They have a very clear sense of what they want to accomplish with respect to Iran," Sullivan, who was deeply involved in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, said. "And it is ratchet up the pressure – not just to a ten, but to an 11, 12, or 13."

President Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran last May, and has re-imposed unilateral economic sanctions that are snapping back in stages. Sanctions targeting Iran's oil and natural gas industries will come into effect in early November. 

While a sustained, maximum pressure posture toward Tehran was unlikely to immediately result in renewed talks, Sullivan said, "I do think, at some point, there will probably be some back channel discussions between the United States and Iran."

"The real question is, will the United States back off of that, and say, 'Actually, we're prepared to do an Iran Deal Round Two that might look similar to, slightly different from, Iran Deal Round One,'" he said.

Trump has previously said he would meet with Iran's leaders "anytime they want" and without preconditions – an offer that has, thus far, been rebuffed by Iranian leadership.

Late last week, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said in a speech on state TV that his government receives daily invitations to dialogue from the United States.

"Every day they send us messages in various ways saying, 'Let's talk,'" Rouhani said.

For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Jake Sullivan, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here.

The Intelligence Matters podcast is available on iTunesStitcherGoogle Play and Spotify. We'll post updates about future guests on Twitter and Facebook. New episodes of the podcast, hosted by former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, will post on Wednesdays.  

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