Baby boomers have their memories. Outside the window here, across the hills, there’s the Griffith Observatory in the distance. That’s where the iconic 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause starts, with a knife fight, and ends, with a shootout. James Dean was the rebel, playing a troubled teenager starting his first day in a new high school, again. There’s a class field trip to the observatory. Somehow James Dean gets in a fight, again. Why? A gang of “delinquents” led by “Buzz” Gunderson (Corey Allen) calls him “chicken” – and that’s enough. Buzz and our hero both pull knives, but a guard busts up the fight. Buzz then suggests stealing a couple of cars for a “Chicken Run” at a local cliff. Drive fast toward the edge – whoever jumps out first is “chicken” – and that doesn’t go well. Our hero actually jumps out of his car first. Buzz gets his sleeve caught on the door handle. He can’t jump out. He goes over the cliff and dies. Then everything really goes wrong. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.
A few years later, in 1962, it was the Cuban Missile Crisis – Kennedy and Khrushchev playing chicken about those Soviet missiles in Cuba. They had to go. That was a game of chicken too.
Who would blink first? We’d seen this movie before, but this wasn’t two stolen cars and a cliff – this was possible global thermonuclear war. It was the ultimate game of chicken – and then it wasn’t. It ended with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles from Cuba, matched by the withdrawal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy, and an agreement with the Soviet Union that the United States would never invade Cuba, without direct provocation, and the creation of a nuclear hotline between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides blinked. No one drove over a cliff. There’s a lesson there too.
Michael Dobbs wrote about this in One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War and now, with Trump and Kim Jong Un playing chicken, he sees the parallel:
The real risk of war arose not from the conscious designs of Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev or even Fidel Castro. It stemmed from the possibility that the opposing sides could trigger a nuclear conflict that nobody wanted through miscommunication and freak accidents, which became increasingly likely at higher levels of military alert. The same is almost certainly true of the present crisis with North Korea…
For a student of the Cuban missile crisis, the fact that our current Twitter-happy commander in chief is surrounded by sensible, highly competent generals is only partly reassuring.
So here we go again:
Given the explosive rhetoric of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un it is understandable that President Trump should be tempted to respond in kind. Classic game theory teaches us that you can gain an advantage over your opponent if you can convince him that you are madder than he is. In the game of chicken, with two cars heading for a frontal collision, the driver who swerves out of the way first loses.
Okay, there’s no cliff in that version of chicken, but there’s this:
During the Cuban missile crisis, the “crazy man” role was played to perfection by Castro, the only leading actor who was seriously prepared to risk a nuclear war. Patria o muerte – “fatherland or death” – was, after all, the slogan of the Cuban revolution. Assuming the role of madman has always been part of the arsenal of the weak against the strong, whether in the case of Cuba or North Korea or the Islamic State. It gives the weaker player an advantage it would not otherwise have.
Playing chicken is, however, a dangerous indulgence for the leader of a nuclear superpower. During the 1962 crisis, the two “rational” players – Kennedy and Khrushchev – ended up making common cause against the “madman” Castro. Despite everything that divided them, they had a sneaking sympathy for each other, an idea expressed most poignantly by Jackie Kennedy in a handwritten letter to the Soviet leader following her husband’s assassination.
“You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up,” she wrote Khrushchev. “The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.”
She probably didn’t like that James Dean movie either – teenage boys pretending to be big men – but wars are started by little men, and we are dealing with a little man:
President Trump’s aides knew he planned to deliver a tough message to North Korea on Tuesday, but they did not expect a threat that rivaled the apocalyptic taunts often used by his target, Kim Jong-un.
The president’s language – which aides say he had used in private – escalated the long-running dispute with North Korea to a new level and left members of the Trump administration scrambling on Wednesday to explain what he meant.
But the process, or lack of one, that led to the ad-libbed comments embodied Mr. Trump’s overall approach to foreign policy, an improvisational style that often leaves his national security team in the dark about what he is going to say or do, according to several people with direct knowledge of how the episode unfolded.
It seems this was no more than a little man in a bad mood:
The president was in a confrontational mood on Tuesday afternoon after The Washington Post reported that Pyongyang had developed nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on ballistic missiles. His team assumed that he would be asked about North Korea during a scheduled media appearance tied to a meeting the president was planning to hold at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., about the opioid epidemic.
But during a conference call beforehand that focused on North Korea, Mr. Trump did not offer a preview of what he planned to say – and aides did not press the president, who resists being told what to say, even on a tinderbox issue that has induced his predecessors to seek the safety of a script.
They knew better than to try to calm a little man in a bad mood, so this happened:
Mr. Trump’s aides braced as he began to speak at the opioid event – his arms folded, jaw set and eyes flitting on what appeared to be a single page of talking points set before him on the conference table where he was sitting. The piece of paper, as it turned out, was a fact sheet on the opioid crisis.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters in remarks aired on television and broadcast around the globe. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
No one expected that, so there was the usual damage control:
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Trump’s national security team was “well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery.”
“The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand,” she said. The words he used, she added, “were his own.”
And they revealed what some longtime associates of Mr. Trump say is a simmering frustration with the velvet handcuffs slapped on him by John F. Kelly, his new White House chief of staff, who has cracked down on walk-in visitors to the Oval Office and keeps tabs on some of the president’s after-hours phone calls to ensure that he is not being fed bad information or reckless advice.
Mr. Trump has embraced the new, more disciplined approach of the former Marine general, but he has made it clear that he will not cede control of what he says or tweets to anybody. If nothing else, Tuesday’s statement proved that he cannot be muzzled by his staff or decorous diplomatic protocol.
He will remain an angry little man, and Jonathan Chait says that this forced the United States into the unenviable position of either instigating a massive war with horrific casualties or surrendering its credibility:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have issued more normal-sounding statements intended to supersede the president’s improvised one. (Mattis’ statement redraws the red line, threatening reprisal in return for North Korean actions, rather than threats.) The message of this cleanup is that Trump’s statements do not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. government – a reality that most American political elites in both parties already recognize, but which needs to be made clear to other countries that are unaccustomed to treating their head of state like a random Twitter troll.
We do have a little man in charge:
It is humiliating for the world’s greatest superpower to disregard its president as a weird old man who wanders in front of microphones spouting off unpredictably and without consequence. But at this point, respect for Trump’s capabilities is a horse that’s already fled the barn. New chief of staff John Kelly has supposedly instilled military-style order and message discipline into the administration, but Trump is unteachable. Minimizing the havoc means getting everybody to pretend Trump isn’t really president.
Rich Lowry is a bit more specific about this:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson popped up to reassure everyone that no, the missiles weren’t about to fly and smooth everything over with a generous helping of diplo-speak.
Tillerson supported what Trump said, but at times took a tone of polite distance from the president for whom he works. “I think,” the secretary of state said, “Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.”
This particular rhetoric? It was his boss and the president of the United States speaking.
Tillerson seemed to leave a little opening for the possibility that he didn’t know what was happening within the government he serves, over a foreign crisis that should be directly in his purview: “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued his own, much tougher statement. So the administration has something for everyone. You can choose the president’s bellicosity, the secretary of defense’s firmness, or the secretary of state’s palaver. Which reflects the administration’s true posture? Who knows? Does the Trump administration?
No one knows:
One theory is that Trump and Tillerson are deliberately playing different roles. But there’s good cop-bad cop, and then there’s Keystone Kops. Some unpredictability at the top can be welcome, so long as it’s calculated unpredictability, not random popping off that catches a president’s own foreign-policy team off-guard.
The middle ground, between Trump’s saber-rattling and Tillerson’s diplomatic pleading, would be a comprehensive policy toward the goal of regime change. As former Bush administration official Robert Joseph argues, such a strategy would involve cutting off the North from the international financial system, interdicting its weapons trafficking, undertaking an intense information campaign publicizing its human-rights abuses, and perhaps shooting down its test missiles or instituting a blockade.
Such an approach would have its own risks – it wouldn’t be guaranteed to collapse the regime or to avoid military conflict. But at least it would be a strategy. If the Trump administration wants to really send a signal to Kim Jong Un, it should get itself together and pick one.
It seems that Donald Trump is a rebel without any cause at all, just like James Dean, sort of, maybe.
But this is a game of chicken:
North Korea said Thursday that it was drawing up plans to launch four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into waters near Guam in the Western Pacific to teach President Trump a lesson, a day after the president warned of “fire and fury” against the North if it persisted in threatening the United States.
If the North were to follow through on its threat to launch an “enveloping strike” in the vicinity of Guam, it would be the first time that a North Korean missile landed so close to an American territory. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that, according to the plan, four of the country’s Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles would fly over the three southern Japanese prefectures of Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi before hitting the ocean about 19 to 25 miles from the coast of Guam…
North Korea will fine tune its launching plans by the middle of this month and wait for a final order from its leader, Kim Jong-un, the North’s official news agency said, citing Gen. Kim Rak-gyom, commander of the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army.
And as with Buzz at the observatory, there were taunts:
“Sound dialogue” is not possible with someone “bereft of reason, and only absolute force can work on him,” General Kim said, accusing Mr. Trump of having spoken “a load of nonsense.” He said Mr. Trump, who he said was spending his time on the “golf links,” was failing to “grasp the ongoing grave situation.”
That’s bound to enrage Trump, but the odd thing is that General Kim is only saying what others say:
Even before the latest escalation of nuclear threats between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, senior diplomats and officials from the US’s European allies have been warning that the US president’s approach to world affairs is extremely dangerous – pointing to his apparent ignorance of other countries’ history, his unfiltered use of social media, and the lack of a strong, experienced team around him.
In interviews with BuzzFeed News, six top European government officials who’ve had firsthand dealings on the international stage with Trump and his administration describe a president regarded even by allies as erratic and limited, and whose perceived shortcomings are compounded by the ongoing chaos beneath him in the White House.
They agree with General Kim:
On one level, the officials said, he is something of a laughing stock among Europeans at international gatherings. One revealed that a small group of diplomats play a version of word bingo whenever the president speaks because they consider his vocabulary to be so limited. “Everything is ‘great’, ‘very, very great’, ‘amazing’,” the diplomat said.
But behind the mocking, there is growing fear among international governments that Trump is a serious threat to international peace and stability.
“He has no historical view. He is only dealing with these issues now, and seems to think the world started when he took office,” a diplomat told BuzzFeed News, pointing to Trump’s remarks and tweets about defense spending. “He thinks that NATO existed only to keep the communists out of Europe. He has a similar attitude in Asia-Pacific with Japan, ignoring that the US basically wrote their constitution.” During his presidential campaign, Trump called out Japan to pay more for the security US provides, including for hosting the US troops in the country. Japan’s constitution restricts its military options.
They also believe Trump’s foreign policy is chiefly driven by an obsession with unravelling Barack Obama’s policies. “It’s his only real position,” one European diplomat said. “He will ask: ‘Did Obama approve this?’ And if the answer is affirmative, he will say: ‘We don’t.’ He won’t even want to listen to the arguments or have a debate. He is obsessed with Obama.”
They know a little man when they see one:
The officials revealed that at international meetings, Trump has openly mocked his own aides, contradicting and arguing with them in front of other leaders. That has compounded the impression of an administration in chaos. “We can hear everything, it’s weird,” one diplomat said.
Officials also expressed concerns over the status of the State Department, and the lack of seasoned diplomats and experts within the White House. One diplomat suggested that US counterparts have privately lamented to Europeans about the number of roles in the administration that have yet to be filled resulting in a lack of clear positions on many policy areas.
“The White House lacks crucial expertise,” one said. “The State Department and others are isolated. You have the generals, the National Security Council, and then a void. There aren’t enough diplomats, experts etc. in the White House. Tillerson has a small team. Does Trump listen to Mattis, to McMaster, to the experts?”
The question answers itself.
But there’s another way to look at this, and Josh Marshall offers this:
In almost every discussion of the North Korea situation, I try to remind everyone that North Korea made its nuclear break out under George W. Bush – not under Bill Clinton and not under Barack Obama. A key part of that backstory is that over the course of the late 90s the US negotiated a series of agreements called the Agreed Framework which shuttered the North Koreans nuclear weapons program in exchange for a combination of commitments and aid. The Bush team argued that the agreement was ‘appeasement’ and that the US had caught the North Koreans cheating on the agreement during Bush’s first term.
Marshall says that may seem irrelevant now, but it isn’t:
The argument that the North Koreans were cheating on the Agreed Framework is questionable. The path the US was concerned about and which the Agreed Framework dealt with was a plutonium path to nuclear weapons. The cheating was allegedly about a uranium path. The North Koreans argued that the US hadn’t fulfilled key elements of the deal (with some reason). They denied cheating. Whether they were or not, I’m not really clear on. I’m not sure more informed people really know for certain either. What is clear though is that the Bush administration didn’t like the Agreed Framework and were looking for a reason to get out of it. The cheating allegation – which definitely may have been true – turned out to be that reason.
But the real reason wasn’t the cheating. It was the pretext. The Bush team didn’t like the concept of the deal itself. Giving things to the North Koreans to get them to do things we wanted was rewarding misbehavior, ‘appeasement’. The proper way to handle such a situation was to get them to fall in line by the threat of US power, which is to say US military power. This isn’t a crazy viewpoint. The North Koreans have used menacing or destabilizing actions to extract aid from great powers. In principle you should avoid rewarding ‘bad behavior’. Indeed, it was an unlovely arrangement. But even if there was some cheating in the background, the agreement demonstrably shuttered or at least stymied North Korea’s weapons development for years.
That agreement worked, but it wouldn’t do, and that should sound familiar:
The simple reality was that the Bush team didn’t like the deal but had nothing to replace it with. The threat of force wasn’t credible because of the costs of a military confrontation which the North Koreans were well aware of. So the US got to act tough (or rather feel tough) and not go in for ‘appeasement’ – and the result was that North Korea became a nuclear power. Might they have become a nuclear power anyway? Maybe, but it seems very hard to argue that they would have gotten there as quickly as they did or would even be there today if the US had continued with the quite minor amounts of aid the Agreed Framework required…
The real lesson I draw from this is that we should be extremely wary about actions which have the feeling or appearance of toughness but which are likely to have negative or even dire results because we have no viable, alternative policy. That seems very much like the situation we are moving toward with North Korea. Certainly it’s what President Trump was doing yesterday when he made wild threats he is highly, highly unlikely to follow through on. (Is President Trump really going to launch an all-out nuclear attack on North Korea with all the horror, death and destruction in both Koreas, nuclear fallout in nearby states in retaliation for more verbal threats? Please.)
And it’s not just North Korea:
No less important, I’m quite certain that it is almost exactly the situation and folly that President Trump and his nuttier advisors are moving toward with Iran. We allowed Iran to do this. We gave them this money. For all this, in the future they could go ahead and build a bomb anyway. We haven’t actually ‘solved’ the threat, just postponed it. There are good rejoinders to each of these arguments. But there are merits to them too.
But what’s the alternative? I would argue that in practice we have no real military alternative which is better than what we have now. And yet, we look likely to repeat the same mistake: taking the ego boost of feeling tough at the price of accepting negative or perhaps catastrophic results.
There is that ego boost of feeling tough at the price of accepting negative or perhaps catastrophic results – like Buzz going over the cliff in that old James Dean movie. Donald Trump isn’t that rebel without any cause at all, just like James Dean in that movie. He’s more like Buzz in that stolen car, with his sleeve caught on the door handle, unable to jump out now – a little man pretending to be a big man, about to die. We’re just along for the ride. How did that happen?