A few hours ago, Donald Trump became the first sitting president to set foot in North Korea, where he was greeted at the border inside the Demilitarized Zone by North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Both were surrounded by cameras as they shook hands over a low concrete border marker. “Would you like me to step across?” Trump asked Kim, who officially welcomed him into the country. They walked together, patting each other on the back, for about 20 paces and spent about a minute on North Korean soil. They then walked back to the South Korean side and spent about an hour behind closed doors. When the two emerged, they announced that they had agreed to resume talks in the next few weeks and designate official negotiators. Trump also said he would invite Kim to the White House.
Democratic presidential candidates are already issuing critiques. Senator Amy Klobuchar told CNN, “We want to see a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a reduction in these missiles but it’s not as easy as just going and, you know, bringing a hot dish over the fence to the dictator next door … This is a ruthless dictator and when you go forward, you have to have [a] clear focus and a clear mission and clear goals.” Julian Castro told ABC that Trump is “raising the profile … of a dictator” and that the meeting was “all for show.”
These are familiar lines that will likely be repeated with little variation during the week, and not just by Democrats and liberal talking heads. After Trump’s first summit with Kim in 2018, Republican Senator Bob Corker, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “It is difficult to determine what of concrete nature has occurred.” Then House Speaker Paul Ryan dared to say, “We must always be clear that we are dealing with a brutal regime with a long history of deceit.”
So the next few days will likely be nice ones for bipartisanship. The foreign policy consensus that has ruled D.C. for decades—and is currently in the unfamiliar position of not holding full sway in the White House—will make itself heard on television and on Twitter. Liberal and never-Trump conservative pundits will gleefully quote and retweet former military commanders, anonymous agents of the national security state, or ex-presidential advisers, to add gravitas to their critiques. They will use words like “credibility” and mention the “interagency process” and America’s “standing” in the world.
This has been a major genre of criticism against the president. A recent example is an Atlantic piece by Kori Schake, a national security staffer during the Bush administration. She argued that Trump’s decision not to attack Iran after it shot down a U.S. drone was “worse than” Barack Obama’s “red line” moment, when he chose not to strike Syria after the regime used chemical weapons on its own people. Furthermore, Trump’s “reprehensible behavior makes it virtually impossible for him to bring the country together, convince it that war is necessary, and, on the basis of that support, persuade America’s allies to join the fight,” Schake writes. She goes on:
America’s adversaries everywhere will detect the pattern of tough talk coupled with agitated appeals for negotiation. The problem with the Trump administration’s policy on Iran isn’t that it won’t go to war. It’s that it keeps constructing policies that require the use of military force to achieve objectives, when the president has repeatedly made clear he’s unwilling to take that step. The administration points a gun, but won’t pull the trigger, and that will encourage other adversaries to challenge America in other theaters.
Schake may be right that Trump’s policy toward Iran is confused and self-defeating. (His decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal was a blunder from which U.S.-Iran relations under his administration will probably never recover, which is what war-mongers like John Bolton most want.) But notice that the logic of her concern with meta-optics—with America’s “credibility” and “standing”—leads her to advocate for committing an outright act of war against a country over a very minor dispute (drones, unlike human beings, are replaceable, which is part of why we use them).
I quote Schake not to single her out, but to show that her habits of analysis are those of the foreign policy establishment. It’s their apprehension with things like “saving face” that leads them to, say, rationalize lying to the American public while sending young men and women to die in shambolic wars. Nonetheless, the establishment’s intonements are what pass for wisdom. Ostensibly progressive pundits have been uncritically parroting the establishment in their campaign to tar an otherwise awful president. There are 28,000 U.S. military personnel in South Korea, which is a monument to the failure of American foreign policy under “normal” presidencies.
Trump’s aggressive ignorance is less noteworthy than the fact that he’s a one-trick pony. He only knows one way of doing things: first insult, bash, or otherwise provoke (e.g., threaten North Korea with “fire and fury,” withdraw from the Iran agreement and ratchet up sanctions); then pull them in close with sycophancy (e.g. exchange “beautiful” letters with Kim Jong Un and publicly praise him and his leadership); repeat as needed.
This trick has, so far, definitively not worked with Iran. But with North Korea, it may yield more progress toward sustainable peace and stability than any previous administration, full stop. Trump is accurately described as having the instincts of an authoritarian strongman. Those instincts aren’t to be desired in the leader of a democratic republic. But, at least with one adversary, they’ve proven eminently useful. Those who are interested in finding lasting peace on the Korean peninsula—and finally withdrawing our troops from there—should encourage moments like the one we witnessed Sunday.