When I first heard that Donald Trump had agreed to meet in person with Kim Jong-un, I assumed it was just to get parade advice.
I have been very hard in these pages on this administration’s North Korea policy. (See ‘Round Midnight and An End to Nuclear Fairytales.) In fact, I would put “policy” in quotes, as my chief criticism is that there ain’t no policy per se, just a seemingly random, often self-contradictory careening that baffles friends and foes alike. And this pattern shows no signs of being some calculated Nixonian “Madman Ploy” but rather, genuine madman-ness, featuring belligerence (“fire and fury”), juvenile namecalling (“Little Rocket Man”), and Freudian overcompensation (“My button is bigger than yours’) heretofore unheard of at the presidential level. Is America great again yet?
But now that Trump has accepted Kim Jong-un’s invitation for a face-to-face meeting to discuss the DPRK’s nuclear program, the question is: did it work after all?
It’s a fair inquiry. In a situation this fraught it’s hard for anyone, especially Democrats and other progressives, to reject dialogue and diplomacy, which after all is what we were asking for in lieu of Trump’s schoolyard bullying and game of nuclear chicken. If Obama had agreed to such talks we would have probably cheered. (And the right would have screamed “weakness!” and “treason!” But of course, they screamed that even when Obama tied his shoes.)
So I will be rooting for Trump to succeed.
Did I really need to write that? Should I be rooting for him to fail and for the situation to get worse? Of course not. Only the worst kind of partisan scum would hope for an outcome that hurts the United States (and indeed the whole human race) just out of spite for an opposition president. Know what I mean, Mitch McConnell?
So if this summit results in positive forward progress on defusing the crisis in Korea, I will happily eat crow and give Trump credit. (OK, not happily, but I will do it.)
But there are a lot of things to wonder and worry about before that happens, starting with the question of whether this summit will even take place, and if it does, whether it will be a feather in Trump’s red baseball cap or one of the biggest, most unfathomably stupid blunders in the history of American foreign policy, prompted by a certifiable moron who has no business running a popsicle stand, let alone the United States government.
For the moment, I’m leaning toward the latter. This latest development seems not so much a validation of Trump’s reckless style in relation to North Korea as it is another jawdropping example of it.
DOTARD TO THE RESCUE
To the casual observer, it looks like Trump got tough with North Korea and drove them to the bargaining table. That is certainly how the Donald sees it. True to adolescent form, he has bragged that he has managed to get this face-to-face meeting with the Dear Leader, something none of his predecessors could do. But that’s like Bush bragging that no previous president was able to bring the Twin Towers down.
Pyongyang has been trying to get an American president to meet with their head of state for years; the only thing Trump has done is become the only one stupid enough to take the bait. Is it possible that he did not realize that was the history and context of the DPRK offer?
Just kidding. Of course he didn’t.
The Very Stable Genius walked right into the North Koreans’ incredibly obvious trap, in what the conservative foreign policy writer Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, called a “a head-snapping display of incoherence.” In so doing he demonstrated the patent disadvantages of a commander-in-chief who thinks he knows everything, boasts of ignoring the counsel of experts, and has no patience or attention span or intellectual curiosity (or sense of duty) that might motivate him to read the briefings that are carefully prepared for him on such matters. Trump is a stunning living embodiment of the Dunning–Kruger Effect, too dumb even to know he’s dumb.
As Robin Wright notes in the New Yorker, typically, when negotiating with a hostile foreign power, a summit meeting with the President of the United States would be the culmination of that process, not the beginning of it. It’s a reward, with obvious intrinsic value, not the sort of thing you want to carelessly give away at the very start of the dance in exchange for nothing in return. (See also: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.)
Now, you might say, “Trump is breaking the mold! He’s thinking outside the box!” Hmmmm, maybe. As nothing has really worked before, maybe the bold and unorthodox idea of a summit can jump-start the peace process. Maybe. But that line would be more convincing if there was any evidence that this was a calculated strategy and not merely trademark seat-of-the-pants transactional hip-shooting by the improviser-in-chief. (Wright’s piece provides a concise summary of the long and complicated history of American efforts to thwart North Korea’s nuclear program, the complexity of which contextualizes just how wanton Trump’s action was.)
If Trump meets with Kim, North Korea will get everything it has always wanted. It will be seen as a world power. Its head of state will stand side by side with the President of the United States, as equals, in photographs distributed around the globe that will live forever. And above all, the wisdom of its nuclear ambitions will be confirmed, sending a dangerous message to all other aspiring nuclear powers. Hard to see how any of that advantages the United States, or the cause of global stability, or in any way represents genius grade Kasparov-style maneuvering.
It’s true that in the short run, between now and when talks take place (if in fact they do), the promise of a summit reduces the risk of a nuclear exchange, which is always welcome. But in the long run, it could do more harm than good. The aforementioned Mr. Boot favors a hardline on the DPRK and opposes high level talks full stop, on grounds of the North’s bad faith in the past and repeated acts of provocation. He writes: “Trump has agreed to meet Kim, giving the worst human-rights abuser on the planet what he most wants: international legitimacy. Kim will be able to tell his people that the American president is kowtowing to him because he is scared of North Korea’s mighty nuclear arsenal.”
Ironically, by agreeing to this meeting, Trump has validated the very reason Pyongyang sought the Bomb so relentlessly. Saddam Hussein wanted it, didn’t get it, and instead got the US 3rd Armored Division rammed up his ass. By contrast, Kim Jong-un, in possession of nuclear weapons, gets treated with deference and respect and gets a state visit from the POTUS. In effect, Trump is rewarding North Korea for its efforts, signaling to other tinhorn despots that their atomic ambitions are similarly advisable.
Is it any wonder so-called “rogue nations” seek the Bomb?
BARRY, DICK, AND DONNY
I have argued strongly that diplomacy, not idle threats of fairy tale force, are the path forward on non-proliferation, so in theory these proposed talks should be welcome. Silly me for not stipulating that the diplomacy should be clever, not stupid.
With his characteristic loose cannonism, Trump accepted Kim’s initiation impulsively and without consulting any of his top foreign policy advisors, who were all caught flatfooted, as their subsequent Russell Wilson-like scrambling attests. Now their idiotic boss has put them and the entire United States in a box, squandering whatever leverage we held after decades of deliberate—if frustrating—gamesmanship with Pyongyang.
Bargaining with Kim may be realpolitik, and as I have argued before, preferable to the fantasy that we can use military force to stop nuclear proliferation, but it doesn’t really jive with Trump’s tough talk and his adolescent “I alone can fix it” mentality. The decision speaks to Trump’s childish desire for grand, sweeping gestures that outdo his predecessors (especially Barack Obama), a trait that in this case threatens the global stability of the entire world and millions of human lives. In that sense, it’s less a reversal of his simpleminded “fire and fury” approach than another side of it.
Circling back to a point at the top of this essay, as Rachel Maddow and presidential historian Michael Beschloss mused on TV, imagine if Obama had announced he was meeting with the North Koreans. Fox Nation would—at best—be howling over America’s capitulation, if not openly making dark rumblings about where the President’s true loyalties lie. (See here for a tidy summary of Fox News’s shameless double standard on this issue in particular.)
OK, OK, this whole “imagine if Obama” trope is getting old—even though it’s undeniably true—and we should not be surprised at partisan hypocrisy, especially from the modern Republican Party. A more legitimate argument is the old maxim that “only Nixon could go to China.” That is, only a leader perceived as an unapologetic hawk would have the credibility to take such a initiative. (I was gonna say “unimpeachable hawk,” but reconsidered.)
Trump’s actual effectiveness as a hawk is highly questionable—see my post Surrender of the Hawks—but he certainly positions himself that way, and his followers and even some independents perceive him as such. (To a lesser extent, the same was true of Nixon, in terms of whether he was actually advancing American security or hurting it.)
But here’s the rub.
Nixon was, like, a smart person, as Donald himself might put it. His surprise visit to China was a strategic masterstroke, the culmination of months of careful diplomatic engagement, preparation, and planning, engineered by the reliably conniving team of Nixon & Kissinger—two horrific human beings, but formidable political thinkers. Every angle of the maneuver was cautiously considered and debated, And once set, Nixon went into those meetings thoroughly prepared and briefed, not to mention bringing with him decades of political and foreign policy experience. Like him or loathe him, Nixon was undeniably a smart (and tough) cookie.
Cadet Bone Spurs, not so much.
In fact, there is some question whether he even knows the difference between North and South Korea.
So a president without an iota of Nixon’s skillset and experience and also eschewing any kind of prep is gonna go in and face off with a ruthless foreign dictator, no matter how callow?
What could go wrong?
CARRYING A BIG STICK
The North Korea summit is the exact kind of situation that makes Trump supporters howl: “You liberals won’t give the President credit for anything, even when it’s something you support!”
Not so. It’s simply that this development is not what he claims it is, and in fact may be quite the opposite in terms of benefit to the United States. Even if the agreement to meet with Kim were not a mind-boggling concession by a US president, the question of how Trump will handle the meeting looms terrifyingly large.
After ridiculing the carefully crafted Iran deal throughout the presidential campaign and all the way into office, what makes Trump think he can strike a better bargain with North Korea? As David Sanger writes in The New York Times:
(I)f Mr. Trump pulls out of the Iran deal, Mr. Kim may well wonder why he should negotiate with the United States if a subsequent president can simply pull the plug on any agreement…
“The ironies abound,” said Robert S. Litwak, the director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and the author of “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout.” “The man who wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’ has staked out a position that the Iran deal was the worst one in history,” he added. “And now he has to show that he can do much better, with a far harder case.”
While he will have to negotiate a deal with the North Koreans that is even stricter than the Iranian one that he has denounced as naïve, insufficient and dangerous, that task will be made all the harder by the fact that Pyongyang, unlike Tehran, actually possesses nuclear weapons.
“If the president gets the North Koreans just to stop what they are doing, and perhaps get a timetable for future action, that would be a huge step in slowing the North Koreans’ program,” said Christopher Hill, who negotiated the last major deal that the United States had with North Korea, under the George W. Bush administration. “But it still wouldn’t be close to what Iran agreed to do.”
It scarcely needs mentioning that Trump fancies himself a negotiator par excellence; indeed, that is a huge part of the wool he pulled over the American electorate’s eyes in November 2016. But as we have seen since, it is an utter joke. Trump might actually be the worst negotiator in US political history. He was unable to get his own party to agree on repealing Obamacare, its signature goal for the past nine years. He has mucked up every Congressional negotiation and other legislative action into which he has insinuated himself. Yes, a radical tax bill was passed on his watch, a massive Christmas gift to the 1%, but it passed largely in spite of—not because of—his efforts.
And this guy is gonna get Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons?
Unlike Nixon, Trump not only ginned up this whole kooky idea on a whim, but will almost surely go into the meetings basically winging it. God knows what he’ll say or do. Given his habit of talking tough and then bending over (see Xi Jingping), he might give away the store, a possibility enhanced by his overt and disturbing admiration for dictators, and his tendency to agree with the last person to whom he spoke. Boot again: “Kim may offer to give up his nukes if the United States will pull its forces out of South Korea and sign a peace treaty with the North. Trump, if confronted with such a scenario, may imagine it is a big ‘win’ for him, but that’s only because he knows nothing of North Korea and has no one at a senior level in his administration who does.” Conversely, Trump might lose his infamous temper and start a fight, as he did on the phone with the prime minister of Australia before he even took the oath of office. If he can’t get along with the fucking Australian PM, how do you think he’ll get along with Kim Jong-un? (Maybe great, birds of a nutsy cuckoo feather and all.)
Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine what the US could offer that would incentivize North Korea to truly give up its nuclear program. Yes, the country is literally starving and is in desperate need of aid. But as long as it can get patronage from China and Russia and play off them off the US, which they seem happy to do given the incompetence radiating out of Washington, that may not be enough. I am skeptical that anything will do the trick, as obtaining the Bomb is what brought the US to the bargaining table in the first place. For her New Yorker piece, Robin Wright spoke with Frank Aum, a former senior adviser on North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who makes that very point:
Given the history of diplomacy and North Korea’s current capabilities, there may be nothing that convinces the regime to give up its bombs or missiles. “We may get back to negotiations,” Aum told me. “The issue is how do we overcome the fundamental problem of whether North Korea really is willing to denuclearize, and, if so, at what cost? And is the U.S. willing to meet all its terms? The answer seems to be no. If we gave North Korea everything it wanted, it still wouldn’t denuclearize, because nothing guarantees your security more than a nuclear weapon.”
There is even debate over precisely what “denuclearization” means to each side. Even the supposed promise itself has only been relayed secondhand, by South Korea’s national security adviser, not formally offered to the US by the DPRK. And the US and the ROK have good reason to be leery of each other’s motives and honesty.
If Trump comes home with no real concessions from Pyongyang, all he will have done is look like a chump while giving Kim the photo op of a lifetime. He will also have destabilized the situation, leaving military conflict more, not less, likely—another reason not to jump to head-of-state level negotiations so quickly. As East Asia expert Victor Cha writes, “Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.” (Cha, of course, had been nominated by Trump to be the US ambassador to South Korea before withdrawing over policy differences—namely, his objection to Trump’s ill-advised threats of force.)
In fact, the odds that Trump will return with a serious non-proliferation agreement are rather long. There are many more plausible outcomes, like Trump and Kim getting into a slapfight, or as Michael Che says, realizing that they actually love each other, like in the movie Stepbrothers. Or maybe the Trump we get back will be an imposter (see the little-known “Nixon Substitution Scenario”). Or maybe Pyongyang will pull an Otto Warmbier on him, or entice him with prostitutes and golden showers and poach him away from the Kremlin to be their puppet from now on. We shall see.
Speaking of which, how does the Warmbier family—who have made a point of criticizing the Obama administration’s actions and of announcing their allegiance to Trump—react to this president making nice with the regime that brutalized and effectively murdered their son in the cruelest and most inhuman way imaginable? Perhaps they will rationalize it, as so many Trump supporters rationalize everything this cretinous fake president does. But that does not change the nature of what is being proposed. So much for Civis Americanus sum.
DEAL OR NO DEAL, END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT EDITION
Above all it’s important to bear in mind that the whole summit may never even happen. The Trump administration has already backed off the Fake POTUS’s impulsive RSVP, hastily and retroactively attaching preconditions that Pyongyang must meet, including “verifiable” steps to denuclearize including access by foreign weapons inspectors—all things the US has long demanded before any such meeting could occur and that DPRK has repeatedly refused to do. As there is little reason to think they will do them now, this face-saving ploy amounts to a total negation of Trump’s reckless gesture, which was surely the intent. I suspect that no sooner did word hit the wire of what their boss had done than McMaster and Mattis and Tillerson began madly looking for a way out, and this is what they came up with. It’s a modern day version of the Baruch Plan.
Later, with the consistency characteristic of this slapstick administration, deputy press secretary Raj Shah reversed course again, stating that all North Korea has to do is refrain from further atomic testing in the interim and not make its usual fuss over joint US/ROK military exercises. It’s not clear Pyongyang will do even that much, of course, though they might if they were smart, given the potential reward, and the fact that those measures can be easily reversed.
If it is indeed the case that those are the only requirements, it’s even dumber on the United States’ part. Not that he is ever averse to wantonly breaking a promise or telling a lie, but it is not hard to imagine that Trump’s ego—his desire to go through with what he sees as a triumph, at all costs—is trampling both strategic considerations and common sense.
But of course, ol’ Rex is off the hook now, which must come as a relief to him, with differences over North Korea reportedly one of the key reasons for his termination by the Fucking Moron-in-Chief. (As Morrissey wrote, “Rejection is one thing, but rejection by a fool is cruel.”) Tillerson’s dismissal is part of a wider shakeup at State and beyond; reports now are that McMaster will be next to go. No surprise there. Does it make sense to conduct such a large scale purge on the eve of a major diplomatic maneuver like this one? Perhaps, if the intent is to create a team with a communal vision and not one riven with infighting. But when that vision is a stupid one, that’s a different story.
If the summit fails to materialize, it will just be more smoke and mirrors from the most screwed up administration in modern US history. But like the jobs at the Carrier air conditioning plant in Indiana that Trump “saved” but turned out not to have saved, it won’t matter to his slavish followers, because just saying he is going to do something is enough for them even when he later reneges. If the summit does happen, it might be even worse. Either way, Trump will spin it as a victory and his myrmidons will nod vigorously in agreement.
To reiterate, if the summit actually happens, I will be rooting for Trump to pull this rabbit out of the hat, despite its ad hoc genesis and the dangers of ceding ground to Pyongyang. I hope he actually comes away with real and enforceable steps toward the DPRK’s denuclearization, or at least additional safeguards to ratchet down the DEFCON on the Korean peninsula. I will happily feast on humble pie if this careening clown car of an East Asia policy manages to inch us toward a safer world, even accidentally. But—spoiler alert—I’m not holding my breath.