A Rolling Catastrophe in the Making

The title of Fred Kaplan’s piece here at the Washington Monthly about how the Bush administration allowed North Korea to get nuclear weapons could very easily be a description of Donald Trump’s presidency: “Rolling Blunder.” But it goes beyond the title. Here is Kaplan’s summary of what happened in the early 2000’s.

The pattern of decision making that led to this debacle…will sound familiar to anyone who has watched Bush and his cabinet in action. It is a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism, a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy, and a knee-jerk refusal to do anything the way the Clinton administration did it.

What we are dealing with now is delusional thinking, a hair-trigger temper, willful ignorance, triumphalism, a decimation of the apparatus of diplomacy and a knee-jerk reaction against anything the Obama administration accomplished. While the Bush administration took their eye off the ball of North Korea’s attempt to get nuclear weapons due to their obsession over whether Saddam Hussein had them, we are watching the Trump administration threaten nuclear war with North Korea and do everything possible to put Iran back on track to get them.

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you read Kaplan’s piece on North Korea. It is important to know that the Clinton administration made use of both this country’s hard and soft power to develop what was called the “Agreed Framework” in 1994, which halted North Korea’s work on obtaining nuclear weapons. As commitments to the framework faltered (on both sides, apparently) the administration was on the cusp of a renewed agreement in 2000 when the election was finally decided in favor of Bush. That is when the descriptor above came into play and the rest…as they say, is history. Kaplan sums it up with this:

What explains Bush’s inaction before North Korea crossed the red line–and its weak response afterward? Historians will surely debate that question for decades. Part of the answer probably lies in the administration’s all-consuming focus on Iraq. Military mobilization toward the Persian Gulf was in full swing; the invasion would start in March. It would have been a bit much–in money, matériel, and mental concentration–to start mobilizing for northeast Asia, too. In January, a senior administration official told The New York Times, “President Bush does not want to distract international attention from Iraq.”

In short, Bush took no serious military action because, in a sense, he couldn’t. And he took no serious diplomatic action because he didn’t want to.

After I tweeted out a link to that article, John Stoehr responded with this:

Bingo! The Obama administration worked with the P5+1 nations to negotiate a halt to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Trump doesn’t like it—because it’s working. So his plan is to drum up some excuse for the United States to withdraw from the agreement. Much like what happened in North Korea, that is very likely to lead to Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

Miller, Sokolsky and Malley explain how that loops back and undermines any chance of de-escalation with North Korea—leaving us with a nuclear crisis on two fronts.

…if the goal is to prevent Pyongyang from developing an accurate nuclear-tipped ICBM, then negotiating with Pyongyang may well be the only way to try to defuse a looming crisis.

Even under current conditions, such talks would be fraught, the odds tilted against success. But if the U.S. thrusts aside the nuclear deal with Iran—and uses contrived evidence to do so—the message to North Korea and others will be that America’s word is disposable and the U.S. cannot be trusted to honor its commitments. This would deal a possibly fatal blow to any chance of a diplomatic effort to, if not halt or reverse, at a minimum slow down North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Indeed, walking away from the Iran deal, or contriving circumstances that force Iran to do so, would not only open up a now dormant nuclear crisis with Tehran, it would also close down perhaps the only option that might prevent a far more dangerous crisis with North Korea.

Perhaps I should re-think my original assertion. If Bush was a rolling blunder when it came to North Korea, Trump has upped the ante and is a rolling catastrophe in the making.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.