Last March, when Trump first impulsively agreed to what became the Singapore summit, I wrote at length about the pertinent issues (Only Nixon Could Go to China….But Nixon Was, Like, Smart). Since then, many others far more qualified than me have weighed in about the meeting’s specifics and its unpredictable but worrying implications.
Now that it has come to pass, I’ll leave the after-action review to them, for the most part. Instead, I’d like to focus on what the domestic reaction says about the current state of play in American politics.
After years of assailing previous US presidents as weak for even floating the idea of talking to the brutal dictatorship that is North Korea, Trump handed Pyongyang an enormous propaganda coup simply by agreeing to meet as equals with Kim Jong Un. He entered the meeting boasting of his unwillignness to prepare for it or educate himself on the issues. Then he gifted Kim a concession the North Koreans have long sought, trading away US military exericses in the region in exchange for nothing, blindsiding both our allies in the ROK and his own Department of Defense for good measure.
As we brace for the flurry of Republican praise for Trump’s alleged “statesmanship,” consider what the right wing press would have said if Barack Obama had agreed to this summit and made this deal.
Craven submission to the nuclear blackmail of a tinpot dictator is the sort of thing that would usually prompt the Republican Party and its amen corner in the right wing media to howl “Munich!”, the red-breasted American hawk’s lazy, go-to comparison for any and every geopolitical decision point. Trump’s insane post-Singapore declaration that North Korea is “no longer” a nuclear threat even eerily echoes Chamberlain’s infamous “peace in our time,” except for being even more delusional.
I am not arguing that the current state of affairs with North Korea is perfectly (or even imperfectly) analogous to that of Nazi Germany in 1938. I am not suggesting that the DPRK is the existential threat to the US that the Third Reich was, or that the situation calls for the sort of steel-willed resolve that Neville Chamberlain could not muster. And I am certainly not arguing that it has reached the point where diplomacy is no longer advisable. On the contrary, in fact.
What I am saying is that the right wing in America is usually very quick to label every international crisis another Munich, as the analogy lends itself all too easily to the most bellicose available position in any given situation. (Who wants to be compared to those who tragically underestimated and therefore softsoaped Hitler?) Yet somehow, with this summit, which readily lends itself to comparisons to Munich……crickets. Instead, Fox Nation is already making plans to cover the Very Stable Genius’s inevitable trip to Oslo.
The long term impact of Singapore will take years, if not decades to reveal itself. But what is immediately evident is the utter hypocrisy of the right wing’s uncritical, fawning approval of it.
SUCKERED IN SINGAPORE
I hear you saying, “But isn’t this just business as usual? Ordinary partisan spin?”
Yes and no.
It’s true that we should not be surprised, as the right wing and its media handmaidens long ago ceased to operate in the reality-based world. “Bias” does not even begin to describe it, in the ordinary journalistic sense. The right wing press is effectively nothing more than an Orwellian disinformation machine.
But if we yawn and chalk up the right wing spin to more of the same, we are complicit in the continuing debasement of objective reality as a common metric for legitimate political discourse. In assessing Singapore, it behooves us to keep it contextualized in historical and political fact, and not submit to the distorted GOP fantasy. The price for our failure to do so will be steep.
I am not dismissing the unprecedented nature of what happened this past Tuesday, although I remain appalled by the recklessness of it on this administration’s part, critical of the tradeoff Trump made, and very leery of what will come next. But the reaction to it within Fox Nation says a lot about the hyper-partisan, post-truth, Bizarro World in which we now live.
The joint statement that came out of the Singapore meeting was predictably vague and short on details, let alone concrete and enforceable provisions. Kim’s pledge to work toward denuclearization is hollow and meaningless and one that no serious student of Korean affairs expects him to keep. His father and grandfather engaged in similar Lucy-holding-the-football maneuvers for decades. Indeed, the very meaning of “denuclearization” is in dispute. Historically, when the DPRK uses that word they append the phrase “of the Korean peninsula,” meaning they are including the withdrawal of US forces from the region, including the American nuclear umbrella. The same is true of the Singapore statement.
More to the point, Kim’s possession of such weapons—long sought and painfully acquired—is the very source of his power and the leverage that brought a gullible and vain US president to the bargaining table. The odds of him giving them up for any reason are less than zero.
The vaccuousness of the “deal” bears repeating.
Trump, who has long sneered at the JCPOA as a “terrible deal,” with its strict regimen of weapons inspections, controls on fissile material, detailed timeline, and severe and wide-ranging concessions by Iran, now considers Kim’s vague promise that he might someday give up the Bomb (maybe) a superior piece of negotiation on his part? (Of course he does.) It would be laughable, were it not for the 30% of Americans who believe any bullshit Trump tells them, to include the wall down south that he assures us Mexico is paying for, or that bridge in Brooklyn he wants them to buy.
The only person who made any concrete concessions in Singapore was—surprise!—Trump, who traded away longstanding US military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for a handful of magic beans. (In fact, in doing so, Manchurian Candidate-like, he parroted the DPRK’s own preferred language, calling the exercises “provocative.” Jesus Christ.)
The summit itself was already a major win for Kim; this was icing on the cake, and he got it for nothing. Ironically, for Trump and his paranoid, neo-isolationist “America First” mentality, the one that views any cooperation with a foreign country—even longtime allies—as the United States “being taken advantage of,“ it was no concession at all but a two-fer. That fact only further confirms his idiocy.
THE VIEW FROM THE NORTH
For a callow prince with a comically bad haircut given that he has access to North Korea’s best barbers, Kim Jong Un has executed a remarkable feat of gamesmanship. First, he presided over the culmination of decades of work by his father and grandfather in the pursuit of battle-ready nuclear weapons. But much more impressively, in the wake of that indisputably belligerent campaign, he has transformed his image from that of a crazy and brutal loose cannon dictator to that of a reasonable statesman actively seeking peace. That may well be a ludicrous ruse, but it is one that he has pulled off nonetheless, thanks in no small part to the gullibility of Donald Trump.
In so doing, Kim has largely defanged American hawks like John Bolton who threaten the use of force. How can the US attack someone who is being so reasonable? (Not that that would stop Trump should he get a wild hair up his ass, but it would certainly make it harder to defend in the court of global public opinion.) He has made the case for the lifting of economic sanctions, enhanced relations with Seoul, and cemented the goodwill of his friends in Beijing and Moscow. And now, to top it all off, he has maneuvered the US President into a face to face, one on one meeting as equals, affirming North Korea’s status as a great power, something both his father and grandfather long sought but never achieved. And he did it without offering anything in return beyond the same empty promises that Pyongyang has been repeating for more than twenty years.
In other words, he has played Donald Trump like a fiddle.
So much for the Art of the Deal.
Former Obama foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes noted that the DPRK’s state-run media will now be able to splice together the footage of the President of the United States smiling and reaching out to shake the Dear Leader’s hand—which he did no less than three times that I saw—and saying what an honor it was to meet him. (Whereas, as Rachel Maddow reminded us, Justin Trudeau belongs in “a special place in hell.”)
Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof described in greater detail how the summit will be portrayed in North Korea, where Kim of course has even more total control of the media than Trump does in the US:
Kim forced the American president, through his nuclear and missile tests, to accept North Korea as a nuclear equal, to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and to cancel war games with South Korea that the North has protested for decades. In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little. In a joint statement, Kim merely “reaffirmed” the same commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.
In other words, Singapore will only further entrench Kim’s standing at home, and allow him to press his boot down even harder on the collective neck of his beleaguered people. Trump will likewise try to spin the deal for his domestic audience, but unlike Kim, without benefit of the facts to back him up.
Kristof goes on:
The most remarkable aspect of the joint statement was what it didn’t contain. There was nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programs, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear program, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.
Kim seems to have completely out-negotiated Trump, and it’s scary that Trump doesn’t seem to realize this. For now Trump has much less to show than past negotiators who hammered out deals with North Korea like the 1994 Agreed Framework, which completely froze the country’s plutonium program with a rigorous monitoring system.
By the way, speaking of being out-negotiated, who wound up paying for Kim’s hotel room, which was reputed to cost $8000 a night? (Obviously, Scott Pruitt didn’t help him find it.) There was talk that the US was looking for a discreet way to pick up the tab, which was beyond the means of the impoverished DPRK. Again, imagine if Obama….
I’m told that Singapore stepped up to foot the bill, saving the Trump administration having that awkward detail thrown back in its face in 2020. Not that any of its voters would be bothered.
When Trump first accepted Kim’s invitation to meet last spring, a widely-circulated supercut by Now This News appeared online showing Fox News reporters viciously attacking Barack Obama over the years any time he even floated the possibility of a dialogue—not even a face to face meeting—with the leaders of North Korea or other dictatorships
Needless to say, now that Trump is in the Oval Office, Fox has changed its tune. (To be specific, they have changed it to the Russian national anthem.)
A Trump supporter might counter that liberals are engaged in the same hypocrisy: to wit, if Obama made these overtures to Kim, we would heap praise upon him. It’s an allegation that merits rebuttal, as it makes a fair point, but ultimately doesn’t hold water.
First of all, there is no analogous hypocrisy because the liberal community has not issued a wholesale rejection of the very idea of diplomacy, only held the Singapore summit up to legitimate scrutiny and expressed appropriate concerns about how this particular form of improvisational diplomacy has been ginned up.
Secondly, if these moves were made by an Obama, a Clinton, or even a George W. Bush, they would have had behind them the credibility of a coherent foregin policy team and a leader who had demonstrated some grasp of statecraft—however imperfect—as opposed to one who has presided over eighteen months of transactional foreign policy anarchy.
In both of our ongoing showdowns with aspiring nuclear powers—that is, with North Korea and Iran—I would feel much more confident in the administration’s moves and much more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt if I thought for a moment that those moves were informed by careful study and understanding of the history and dynamics of the situation, or were in any way coherent, and not driven by mere narcissistic impulsiveness.
Trump quite simply hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.
Speaking to MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle before Singapore took place, former CIA officer Ned Price succinctly summarized the danger at the heart of the White House’s “rush to summit.”
Price opined that Trump has a “diplomatic conflict of interest.” The US is seeking verifiable denuclearization by Pyongyang—a tall order under any circumstances. By contrast, Trump is seeking only a short term “win,” and was therefore likely to sign any piece of paper at all that he could subsequently wave around at a rally and get his fans to chant “Nobel!” That is indeed what has come to pass. Trump’s interests and those of the American people are at odds when it comes to North Korea, creating a situation in which he is likely to sell his country out for personal self-aggrandizement (hmmm).
Who doubts for a New York minute that he would do that?
HAVE I GOT A DEAL FOR YOU
Per above, the shadow of the shattered Iran deal looms over North Korea, and not only in the rampant dispartity in detail and rigor. As many have noted (me included, in a recent essay called Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal), how did Trump expect to shitcan the JCPOA and then turn around and negotiate a better deal in the infinitely more complicated Korean situation? More to the point, why would North Korea ever believe anything the US said in such negotiations after Trump petulantly pulled out of the Iran deal, largely just because he hates and envies Barack Obama? Why would Pyongyang ever think we would keep our word?
The answer is simple. They don’t. But the DPRK is more than willing to pretend to negotiate—as they long have, in bad faith—knowing that they are never going to denuclearize, that the US government with whom they are negotiating (or at least its head of state) can be played for a fool, and that by doing so they can burnish their own newfound image as a reasonable member of the international community—a member of the elite nuclear club, no less—rather than a nightmarish dystopian police state, and all at the United States’ expense. Pyongyang is already telling its citizens that the US is lifting economic sanctions, which is as untrue as Trump’s absurd claim that the DPRK is no longer a nuclear threat. Will Trump risk his newfound bromance with Kim to correct the record an call him a liar? More importantly, will the US media discover its long-lost balls and call Trump a liar?
This entire goatscrew can be laid at the feet of Trump’s delusional belief in his own superhuman powers as a dealmaker.
When questioned about his preparation for the summit, our famously lazy and intellectually incurious so-called leader engaged in a fascinating demonstration of what in quantum physics is known as superposition, saying: “I think I’m very well prepared. I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude, it’s about willingness to get things done, but I think I’ve been preparing for this summit for a long time.“
Everything in that statement is incredibly juvenile, of course, but the remarkable thing is that it is also completely contradictory. Like Schrödinger’s cat, Trump claimed to be simultaneously both supremely prepared and above the need to be prepared. That’s a mind-blowing post-Einsteinian paradox, and one I’m not sure I’m willing to buy into.
I do, however, support the idea of putting him in a steel box with a flask of poison acid.
Trump’s unearned overconfidence—his insistence that he would size up Kim in the first minute, for example—goes to the very heart of his self-image, which is his arrogant belief in his own allegedly masterly skills as a negotiator. It was a canard that convinced many a credulous voter in 2016, people who naively believed his claim that he would bring to politics the same acumen he had displayed in his business career. That might have been more plausible if Trump was in fact a good businessman. So far it is a promise he has kept only in the sense that he has brought to governance (cough, cough) the same chaos and dishonesty with which he operated in the private sector.
The truth is that Trump is possibly the worst dealmaker ever to sit in the Oval Office, and was no better in his previous career as heir to a real estate empire. What he lauds as “dealmaking” in his business career is more accurately descibed as “stiffing people,” which I hasten to point out, is not really “dealmaking” at all. When Trump had to negotiate for real, with partners he couldn’t wantonly cheat the way he did hordes of Atlantic City construction contractors, he typically got fleeced.
The early returns suggest the same thing just happened to him in Singapore.
THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED
As I watched Trump and Kim disappear behind closed doors with only a pair of translators to bear witness to what was about to transpire, I marveled at what we were witnessing. I marveled that we the American people—with a little help from our Russian friends—empowered Donald J. Trump, a lifelong pathological liar and con man-cum-game show host, to go into a room with Kim Jong Un, all alone, on behalf of the American people and the Western world, to haggle over the fate of millions of human lives. What could go wrong?
Writing in the Atlantic before the summit, Uri Friedman articulated the most optimistic view of all this (not counting the absurd aforementioned world of Fox, Breitbart, et al), which is that Trump is blazing a bold new means of attacking a heretofore intractable problem. You won’t be shocked that I don’t subscribe to this incredibly generous perspective.
It’s impossible to argue seriously that Trump is some kind of foreign policy mastermind who has—instinctively or otherwise, but probably instinctively, as it’s certainly not as a result of study or experience—figured out how to solve a problem that stumped every president before him. (Writing after the summit, Friedman tempered his earlier optimism a bit, concluding that “Trump got nearly nothing from Kim Jong Un.”)
But that said, I am williing to accept the possibility that Singapore could have positive consequences, if only accidentally. Call it the “idiot savant” scenario. As I wrote in Only Nixon, there is a chance—however slight—that something good will come out of this summit, despite its reckless, ad hoc genesis; despite Pyongyang’s well-established untrustworthiness; and despite Trump’s complete ignorance, lack of preparation, and dangerous and megalomaniacal overestimation of his own, ahem, skills. The mere opening of quasi-normalish diplomatic relations between the US and the DPRK by definition presents new possibilities—and new risks. Geopolitics is by its nature fickle and unpredictable. All human dynamics are, not to put too fine a point on it.
We may get lucky, butterfly effect style. Or, despite its shoddy, self-serving origins, Singapore may provide an opening for actual diplomacy by professionals. That, however, will likely require years of diligent, thoughtful, tireless follow-on efforts by US officials…..not exactly the sort of thing Team Trump is known for, particularly after systematically dismantling the US State Department and Foreign Service over the past year and a half. Perhaps a post-Trump administration can pick up the baton and carry out that work. In that case, Donald may deserve at least some credit for the inciting incident, whatever its motivation. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then.
Or it could lead nowhere, apart from a historic propaganda coup for Pyongyang, strategic neutralization of US interests in East Asia, a more dangerous situation for Tokyo and Seoul, and the further entrenchment of the Kim cult of personality at the expense of the long-suffering North Korean people. Arguably it has cost the United States and its allies on several of those counts already. Given historical precedent in dealing with the DPRK, and the nature of the people currently manning the American side, it’s hard to argue that the positive outcome is the more likely one.
On MSNBC, Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, offered a variation on the only-Nixon argument, saying that Trump’s greatest contribution here may have simply been to have opened the collective mind of the American right to the idea of talking to Pyongyang…..to have convinced them that a diplomatic approach to nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, as opposed to a Curt LeMay-like bombgasm, is acceptable.
But what makes anyone think that the right’s newfound willingness to talk rather than bomb will outlast Trump? Given the right’s propensity to excuse the most jawdropping hypocrisy—from Trump’s use of nonsecure email, to his penchant for golfing ten times more than Obama, to his shameless use of the presidency to enrich himself, to name just a couple examples—do we really expect them to extend this same logical consistency to any future president, especially a Democratic one? As soon Trump is out of the White House, any willingness to talk to the DPRK will be likely greeted with chants of “Munich ! Munich! Munich!” It is naïve to think otherwise.
HISTORY’S HARSH EYE
The long term effects of the Singapore debacle will take generations to play out. But in the short term, it offers a pointed case study in the hypocrisy and denial rife within the contemporary Republican Party and right wing America. Never a particularly clear-minded demographic, they are currently in the grip of an epic mass psychosis that is starting to resemble nothing so much as a religious hysteria, defying all reason, rationality, or common sense.
Needless to say, as Ned Price predicted, Trump is portraying Singapore as a great coup, his myrmidons are eager to believe it, and the GOP leadership is all too happy to advance that narrative, even though many of them surely realize it’s a farce. No doubt within Fox Nation this summit will go down as one or two of his greatest triumphs, neck and neck with Neil Gorsuch, which is precisely what Trump wanted.
But history will likely record it quite differently.
For in truth, it has been a cheap, cruel, and shameless charade, the sort of con that the man has long been known for, and the sort of snakeoil that only his least critical and most adoring minions would ever purchase.
Trump seized on the low-hanging public relations fruit of a photo op with the leader of North Korea, squandered invaluable diplomatic capital to do so, and came away with less than nothing in return. (Certainly far less than the JCPOA that he has long maligned, or the complex and hard-fought 1994 Agreed Framework, flawed though it was.) The only thing that distinguishes Singapore from previous “deals” with North Korea in any signficant way is the presence of a US president meeting face to face with the leader of the DPRK. But that is not a feather in Trump’s red baseball cap; on the contrary, it was a terrible concession that Donald made as he clumsily walked into Pyongyang’s trap out of sheer ego and overweening desire to make a splash.
So strike that: Trump did get something out of Singapore, something selfish and cynical, and at the expense of the American people whom he ostensibly serves. He traded away a commodity of great value to the US and the world—the opportunity to contain a dangerous pariah state and defuse nuclear tensions in East Asia—for the sake of his own glory and political advantage. That too is in character.
So I ask again, at risk of tedium, imagine what the right wing media would have said—and rightly so—if Barack Obama had engaged in this kind of empty, self-serving gesture.
In the shorthand of epic failures, there are only a few words that stand out in the pantheon of shame: Edsel, Ishtar, New Coke, and of course grimmest of all, that Bavarian capital. I would not be surprised if someday, when this mass psychosis is behind us and history looks back on the Trump era, “Singapore” too enters the lexicon, as a synonym not only for epically amateurish foreign policy blundering, but for shamelessly self-aggrandizing posturing at the expense of the common good, and over the highest stakes imaginable.
Res ipsa loquitur.