Jay Bookman: President Trump has set himself up for a massive, perhaps humiliating failure in his upcoming summit with North Korea. Hundreds of thousands of lives -- at a minimum -- will depend on how maturely he deals with that failure.
Other than that, though, we have no cause to worry.
Let’s start with the basics:
1. Trump has set the bar for success so high as to be unattainable. What he wants out of these upcoming negotiations is a total abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, with highly intrusive international monitoring to ensure those commitments are kept. And at times, he even seems to think that North Korea has agreed to that goal going into the negotiations.
That is wrong. Wishful thinking aside, Kim Jong Un is simply not going to surrender a nuclear capability that he and his family have starved generations of their people to achieve. At a meeting of the North Korean Communist Party over the weekend, Kim made that crystal clear to those willing to hear that message.
Thanks to its nuclear weapons program, Kim bragged to his North Korean leadership, “a fresh climate of détente and peace is being created on the Korean peninsula and the region, and dramatic changes are being made in the international political landscape.” He called its nuclear capacity “a powerful treasured sword for defending peace” that offered North Korea a “firm guarantee by which our descendants can enjoy the most dignified and happiest life in the world.”
A man talking in terms of a guarantee for his descendants has no intention of surrendering that guarantee anytime soon. Furthermore, when Kim did speak about an openness to nuclear disarmament, it came cloaked in terms of “the building of the world free from nuclear weapons” and “worldwide disarmament.” In other words, “we’ll give up ours when you give up yours.”
There is progress to be made in these talks; there are mutual steps that can be taken to slowly, incrementally lower the threat levels while potentially easing North Korea’s isolation. But Trump’s approach would appear to foreclose such progress.
2.) Then there’s the matter of Iran and the nuclear deal signed under the Obama administration, which Trump has attacked as “the worst deal ever.” Such rhetoric aside, if Trump could convince North Korea to take the identical deal that Iran accepted -- and again, it won’t -- the deal would be hailed by most of the world as a massive if unexpected triumph for Trump, something that could significantly alter his image worldwide. Yet by Trump’s own definition, he would refuse to agree to those terms.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now Trump’s nominee as secretary of state, has been a strong voice urging the United States to abandon the Iran deal. So it was notable that during his confirmation hearings last week, Pompeo was forced to acknowledge that “I’ve seen no evidence that (Iran is) not in compliance.” In short, he and Trump want to pull the United States out of a nuclear deal that it itself led and negotiated, and that the other side is honoring in full.
By May 12, the Trump administration will have to announce whether it will continue to abide by the terms of the Iran deal. A few weeks later, Trump will supposedly meet Kim to discuss their own nuclear deal. It would seem impossible for Trump to claim to negotiate with Kim in good faith right after abandoning a U.S. commitment to do the same with Iran, a reality that French President Emmanuel Macron will try to drive home to Trump during his state visit this week.
3.) The Iran deal was the culmination of six years of patient, diligent negotiation. It required close, ongoing consultation and compromise with Russia, China, France, Germany and Great Britain to ensure that they and the United States spoke with a united voice to Iran. It required consistency and expert staff work, with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, an MIT physics professor, leading the technical effort.
To put it mildly, there is no sign whatsoever that the Trump administration is capable of pulling off that kind of sustained, disciplined effort. As Nikki Haley can attest after the Russia sanctions debacle, this White House can’t sustain a consistent internal strategy from hour to hour, let alone do so over a period of years on a subject far more complicated.
4.) The wild card in this case -- in more ways than one -- is supposed to be Trump and his self-proclaimed genius at cutting a deal. He supposedly doesn’t need the staff work, he doesn’t need years of preparation, he doesn’t need to coordinate with Japan, South Korea, China and Russia. All he needs to do is get in a room with Kim across the table and they’ll work it all out, through sheer force of personality and persuasion.
Yet since taking office, we have seen no example, international or domestic, in which this Trumpian magic has been evident. He hasn’t renegotiated NAFTA, he hasn’t renegotiated the Paris climate accords, he hasn’t worked out deals on health-insurance reform, gun control or the fate of the Dreamers. Sure, he has summoned congressional Republicans and Democrats to the White House for high-profile media events where Trump could seem “presidential,” but in each case, he has never once come close to closing a deal.
Admittedly, those are difficult, complex subjects in which failure was a more likely outcome than success. But more than repeated failure itself, it is the way in which Trump has failed that provides cause for deep concern as we look ahead to North Korea negotiations.
He has failed because he likes the pageantry and media attention that come with such high-stakes negotiation; he doesn’t like the tedious work required to make them successful. He has failed because he enters a negotiation with no real idea of what he hopes to attain, and indeed no firm grasp on the policy questions involved. Seemingly on a whim, he grants huge concessions to the other side, horrifies his own side, then pretends it never happened.
One moment he’s bragging about taking on the National Rifle Association, and urging others to do so as well. The next moment he’s back to kissing Wayne LaPierre’s ring. He abandons the Trans Pacific Partnership, then he wants to rejoin it, then he doesn’t. He wants to ban assault weapons, then he doesn’t. He wants a solution to the Dreamers, then he doesn’t.
And here’s what really worries me. In the aftermath of each of those negotiating failures, Trump has responded by angrily lashing out and attempting to punish those whom he holds responsible for not giving him the success that he thinks he deserves. That cheap and punitive petulance, applied to the militarily dangerous situation that exists on the Korean Peninsula, would prove disastrous. – MyAJC