Every football season some cocky running back or wide receiver starts his end zone celebration just short of the goal line, and winds up in a “viral” sports blooper video. Something similar seems to have happened to President Donald Trump with his much-ballyhooed but now-cancelled summit with North Korea’s tyrannical dictatorship regarding its increasingly threatening nuclear program, but that might yet prove a good thing.
When Trump accepted an oral offer for a face-to-face meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un he immediately started making his usual grandiose promises about how it would turn out. He publicly anticipated he would talk Kim into abandoning the nuclear ambitions his family had pursued for decades, that Kim would be “very happy about it,” and he would achieve an historic breakthrough that every previous president for more than the past half-century had failed to pull off, and the White House gift shop even started selling a commemorative coin. When the crowds at his never-ending campaign rallies stated chanting “Nobel” he clearly basked in the praise, and when a reporter asked if he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize he modestly declined to say so but with more characteristic immodesty added that “everybody else says so.”
Not everybody was saying so, of course, as the more seasoned and sober-minded foreign policy thinkers on both the left and right thought the promises were unrealistic and the ad hoc process of keeping them fraught with danger. They had to admit that Trump won a small but significant victory when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo negotiated the release of three Americans that North Korea had been holding hostage, but that was quickly diminished by Trump praising the “honorable” Kim for being so “nice,” and since then all the critics’ doubts have seemingly been vindicated.
Pretty much everybody had to admit that Trump’s attempts at diplomacy were an improvement on his rhetoric when North Korea started some unsettlingly successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach the west coast of the United States. Trump’s immediate reaction to that was threatening to “annihilate” every inch of North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and to taunt Kim on “twitter” as “Little Rocket Man,” along with some sightly veiled but very obvious jabs about Kim being short and fat. Kim responded with threats and “tweets” of his own that called Trump a “dotard,” proving that his translators have a far better English vocabulary and more sophisticated wit than the American president, and only the die-hard fans at the campaign rallies expected that to work out well.
The die-hard fans credited such untraditional diplomatic rhetoric when Kim moderated his own rhetoric, invited the international press to witness the demolition of a nuclear testing plant, released those three American hostages, and agreed to a time and place for a face-to-face meeting to discuss further steps, but since then things haven’t gone smoothly.
The unraveling is mostly a result of the irreconcilable differences that the friendlier diplomatic language could not mask, but the North Koreans are blaming it on some undeniably clumsy administration rhetoric on the cable news. National security advisor John Bolton told an interviewer that he was hoping for a agreement based on the “Libyan model,” an apparent reference to the 2003 agreement by Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to verifiably relinquish his weapons of mass destruction programs to President George W. Bush, who had recently toppled the dictatorship of the eventually-hanged dictator of Saddam Hussein. The North Koreans took it as a reference to the 2011 toppling of Qaddafi and his brutal death at the rough hands his own people in the wake of a multinational air strike led by President Barack Obama, and the next day Trump seemed to make the same mistake.
Trump said that he didn’t have the “Libyan model” in mind because “we totally decimated that country,” and misused various variations of the word “decimate” several more times before insisting he wouldn’t do that to North Korea “unless we don’t get a deal.”
By now even Obama admits that the 2011 toppling of Qaddafi was a bad idea, as it left the country in a state of anarchy that led to the tragic deaths of an American ambassador and three unusually brave Americans at a far-flung consulate in the now infamous but formerly obscure outpost of Benghazi, which in turn led to the toppling of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s inevitable first woman presidency. It also sent a message to every tinpot dictator on the globe that America can’t be trusted to honor any agreements it might make to relinquish their weapons of mass destruction, which even such seasoned foreign policy hands as ourselves noted at the time. Trump likes to brag that he was against the Libyan coup from the outset, but there’s still a Youtube video from the time where he’s decrying Obama’s weakness for not yet toppling Qaddafi and even now he’s threatening to out-tough Obama if he doesn’t get a deal.
The next day Vice President Mike Pence gave a similarly confusing statement about the “Libyan model” on cable news, and the North Korean dictator then issued a statement calling Pence a “political dummy” and insisting America now faced a choice between a face-to-face summit or “a nuclear confrontation.” Shortly after that, Trump sent a letter to Kim which announced that “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in” North Korea’s “most recent statement,” and that he now felt it “inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”
The letter was addressed to “His Excellency Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the People’s Republic of Korea Pyongyang,” rather than “Little Rocket Man,” and gushed about Kim’s “time, patience, and effort with respect to recent negotiations and discussions relative to a summit long sought by both parties,” mentioned Trump “felt a wonderful dialogue was building up” between him and Kim, and seemed to hold out hope a future a summit might yet wind up winning them both a Nobel Peace Prize It also included some tough talk about America’s superior military arsenal, though, and that was what he emphasized on cable news to his domestic audience.
For now, though, despite his prodigious powers of bluster and fawning and artful real estate deal-making, Trump is still facing the same irreconcilable differences that every previous American president of more than half-a-century has faced. Trump has the same advantage in nuclear weaponry, but the same disadvantage of North Korea’s formidable conventional military forces proximity to the populous capital of our key allies in South Korea, and despite his bluster and flattery Trump doesn’t seem to be having any more luck than usual with North Korea’s more muscular and nuclear big brother in China, which also seems to be winning Trump’s promised trade war.
Trump is more unhindered than the past more-than-half-a-century of Republican and Democratic presidents by any bleeding-heart concerns about the human rights of the tyrannized people of North Korea, and more willing to taunt the dictator as short and fat and more willing to praise him as honorable and nice and a “smart cookie” who’s tough enough to kill his own kinfolk to stay in power, but that doesn’t seem the stuff of Nobel Peace Prizes. There’s still hope this will all work out well enough, though, at least as well as it has for more than a half-century of previous presidents.
For more than half-a-century of the atomic age the Korean peninsula has somehow been free of mushroom clouds, and for now that seems the best we can hope for and what both Trump and Kim seem stuck with. The truly historic treaties always happened after plenty of painstaking diplomatic preparations done the old fashioned way, and there’s no telling what might have happened if “Little Rocket Man” and the “Dotard” had sat down to an ad hoc face-to-face summit between two of the world’s most dangerously shallow and self-interested and nuclear-armed heads of state, so the current resumption of familiar hostilities is somehow reassuring. There’s still a a chance, too, that the more seasoned and sober-minded foreign policy types in both countries might work something out that truly is historic..
— Bud Norman