The Sensible People Elsewhere

Work on the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961 – the German Democratic Republic built their Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart (Antifaschistischer Schutzwall) cutting off West Berlin from East Germany and East Berlin, protecting its citizens from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the “will of the people” in building a socialist state in East Germany – but everyone wanted to leave. Demolition of that wall officially began on June 13, 1990, and by 1992 all of it was gone. Unofficially, the East German government announced that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin in 1989, and that led to crowds of East Germans crossing and climbing onto the Wall, and West Germans on the other side cheering them on. Then souvenir-hunters started chipping away parts of the wall and on the night of November 9, 1989, folks on both sides were taking sledgehammers to the thing. This was freedom. This was joy. That’s what the world saw on television. The wall wasn’t gone, really, but it was as good as gone.

And then the Soviet Union was gone. And then the world changed. Francis Fukuyama said this was The End of History – “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” – but Fukuyama would come to regret saying that, after Bush and Iraq and everything else Bush tried in the Middle East. No one over there seems to believe that Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government. They weren’t buying that. They still aren’t buying that – but the fall of the Berlin Wall was still a big deal. Sensible people decided the whole thing had been a monumentally bad idea – and German reunification came on October 3, 1990 – two Germanys had also been a monumentally bad idea. They decided a Western liberal democracy would do just fine. They’d work things out.

Sensible people work things out, and as David Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun report, this is happening again:

Kim Jong-un on Friday became the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korean-controlled territory, starting a historic summit meeting with the South’s president that will test Mr. Kim’s willingness to bargain away his nuclear weapons.

Mr. Kim’s decision to cross into the world’s most heavily armed border zone, a prospect that seemed unthinkable just a few months ago, was broadcast live in South Korea, where a riveted nation sought to discern the intentions of the North’s 34-year-old leader.

Yes, they cheered, but there is a lot to work out:

For South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has placed himself at the center of diplomacy to end the nuclear standoff with the North, the meeting presents a formidable task: finding a middle ground between a cunning enemy to the North and an impulsive ally in the United States.

The historic encounter at the Peace House, a conference building on the South Korean side of the border village of Panmunjom, could set the tone for an even more critical meeting planned between Mr. Kim and President Trump.

That’s when Kim, the sensible person now, meets our president, who gets angry and defies doing what others say is the sensible thing, because he knows better, somehow. No one knows how he knows better – good genes or lots of money – but Kim and Moon carried on without him:

On Friday morning, Mr. Kim emerged from a North Korean administrative building inside Panmunjom, and walked toward the border line, where Mr. Moon was waiting. The two leaders smiled and shook hands across a concrete slab that marks the border bisecting Panmunjom.

Then, Mr. Kim stepped across the border.

After the two leaders posed for photos, they crossed briefly into the North’s territory at Mr. Kim’s suggestion, another highly symbolic moment. They then stepped back into South Korean territory, holding hands, and walked down a red carpet to inspect a South Korean military honor guard and enter the Peace House.

This was November 9, 1989, all over again, or not:

While Mr. Moon’s meeting with Mr. Kim on Friday – their first face-to-face talk – is rich with symbolism, Mr. Kim is not expected to capitulate on Mr. Trump’s key demand: total and immediate nuclear disarmament.

That’s the problem here:

The South Korean president favors an “action for action” strategy in which the North takes steps to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and is rewarded for each move with economic benefits and security guarantees. South Korean officials said that the entire process could take about two years.

Mr. Trump’s national security team, by contrast, has insisted that North Korea must scrap its weapons programs before any relief from the sanctions that isolate the nation can be granted. And they say that “substantial dismantlement” should be completed much more quickly, perhaps in six months.

Trump’s position is to punish them until they give in – offer them nothing and humiliate them and they’ll have to come around – they’ll have no choice and they’ll bow to our manly dominance. We get to preen. We win. Moon’s position is to offer economic benefits and security guarantees incrementally, based on one small agreement after another, until both sides are comfortable. In short, be sensible. No one needs to be humiliated. No one has to win. No one has to lose. Deal with issues one by one. Don’t refuse to talk about anything at all. Talk. That’s what sensible people do.

That’s what Obama tried to do with Cuba, after almost sixty years of no talk and no trade and embargoes and whatnot, all of it designed to bring Cuba to its knees, which would lead to the Cubans tossing Fidel Castro out on his ear, and then we would win, big time, which never happened. Obama offered an end to the embargoes and offered economic benefits, incrementally, based on one agreement after another that Cuba would stop doing this bad thing and then that bad thing. Obama restored formal diplomatic relations with Cuba. Sensible people can work things out, even awful things.

Donald Trump put an end to that. Once again, Cuba will be punished, and humiliated, and will get no talk and no trade and no nothing, until they give in on everything, all at once, and we win. It’s the same with Iran. That multinational nuclear deal does keep Iran from building nukes, and Iran is playing by the rules, but Trump says we’re dropping out of that. There will be no talk and no trade and no nothing until Iran gives in on everything else – their missiles and their politics and maybe their religion too. The other parties to the deal will just have to deal with that. Trump wants to win, big time – and no one can ignore America, the most important country in the world, and thus the only important country in the world.

That may be true, in its way, but that sort of thinking puts South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, in an awkward position:

Mr. Moon hopes to emerge from Friday’s summit meeting with a formal but vague denuclearization commitment from Mr. Kim and perhaps a path to negotiating a peace treaty or a plan to reduce military tensions. Some have suggested a pullback of troops from the Demilitarized Zone between the North and the South is possible.

But Mr. Moon has acknowledged that there is a limit to what the two Koreas can agree on without American involvement. “Peace on the Korean Peninsula cannot be achieved by agreements between South and North Korea alone,” he said last month. “It has to have American endorsement.”

That is a fact now, but this American president is a bit unpredictable:

Some who have tried and failed to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program worry that Mr. Trump, having threatened the North with nuclear annihilation, has now swung too far to the other side and may be too eager to make a deal. Having derided Mr. Kim previously as “Little Rocket Man,” Mr. Trump described the North Korean leader as “very honorable” this week.

“I find it impossible to believe that Kim is prepared to give up what his father and his grandfather bequeathed to him,” said Gary Samore, a veteran of negotiations with North Korea as the top arms control aide in the Clinton and Obama administrations, speaking at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

One possibility that causes consternation in the region is that Mr. Trump will settle for dismantling North Korea’s small fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles, eliminating its ability to strike the United States – but leaving South Korea and Japan vulnerable. “It would be the ‘America First’ way,” Mr. Samore said, referring to Mr. Trump’s campaign slogan.

No one knows what Trump will do, partly because of the chaos over here:

South Korean officials say they have spent far more time and energy coordinating with the Trump administration before the Friday summit meeting than with the North Koreans, an effort complicated by the White House shake-up that included the departure of Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster as national security adviser and the firing of Rex W. Tillerson as secretary of state.

The focus on Washington also reflects concern about General McMaster’s successor, John R. Bolton, who joined the administration after arguing for military strikes to destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, ridiculing South Korean leaders as “putty in North Korea’s hands,” and calling North Koreans “the biggest con men in the world.”

This is not good:

There have been hints of friction between the Trump administration and Mr. Moon’s team over the issue, with local news outlets in South Korea reporting that Mr. Bolton had pressed Seoul “not to move too far ahead” in its talks with Mr. Kim. A senior aide to Mr. Moon firmly denied the reports.

This isn’t going to be easy, when all the sensible people seem to be over there, not here, and the Washington Post tag-team of Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker cover the current chaos well enough:

The final week of April was designed to be a triumphant one for President Trump.

He hosted his closest foreign counterpart, French President Emmanuel Macron, for a state visit, complete with a 21-gun salute. He may be on the cusp of a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea for the rogue state to abandon its nuclear weapons program. And he is set to put an exclamation point on it all where he feels most at home: onstage Saturday night in Michigan, riffing and ripping the elites at a rally of his fervent supporters.

But instead, it became yet another week in which the Trump administration was convulsed by chaos and contradiction.

The list of that chaos and contradiction is depressing:

A darkening cloud hung over Trump’s Cabinet on Thursday, as he had to abruptly withdraw his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ronny L. Jackson, amid explosive allegations of poor conduct and negligence as the president’s personal physician. Jackson said the allegations were false, but still took his name out of consideration for the VA job.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt also struggled Thursday before a Senate committee to answer for his ethical lapses and profligate spending. Two days earlier, Mick Mulvaney, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well as directing the Office of Management and Budget, told banking executives that as a South Carolina congressman he prioritized meetings with lobbyists who gave him campaign contributions…

Gina Haspel’s nomination to become CIA director is imperiled because senators are protesting her work overseeing enhanced interrogation on CIA prisoners, including techniques critics liken to torture. To get confirmed, a senior administration official said, she will have to have “a near perfect performance.”

Haspel is in line to succeed Mike Pompeo, whose nomination to become secretary of state was so uncertain that on Monday Trump had to personally lobby Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to table his objections and vote to approve Pompeo.

Nothing is going right:

There is some concern among Republican strategists that the converging controversies could weigh down GOP candidates in November’s midterm elections.

“We’re living in a season of corruption the likes of which we haven’t seen but in a banana republic,” said Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican Party operative and Trump critic. “Everywhere you look you see incompetence, malfeasance, self-dealing and corruption.”

Schmidt did use the magic words – banana republic – but that may fit the circumstances:

Inside the White House, the responses to this week’s convulsions were being personally directed by Trump, who has been acting as his own strategist and making decisions unilaterally – sometimes to the surprise of his senior staffers.

“It’s starting to feel like the early days again, with everyone running around red-faced, trying to keep up with this president,” said a Republican strategist close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.

Moon Jae-in should be worried – Trump could say or do anything – and it won’t be sensible:

Whereas the Jackson scandal came and went in the span of three days, the Pruitt saga has been unfolding steadily for more than a month, in a cascade of damaging headlines about the administrator’s ethical blunders, security regimen and reliance on taxpayer money and government perks to support his lifestyle.

Another president might have fired Pruitt by now, but not Trump, who has become convinced that the EPA chief is a singular warrior for his deregulation agenda. While other Cabinet officials caught in ethical peccadilloes have apologized and promised to do better, Pruitt has been defiant and has told the president he did nothing wrong, officials said.

Though Pruitt has maintained the president’s affection, officials said, he has become estranged from most of the senior White House staff. Stories about tension between Pruitt and the West Wing were described by one White House official as “brutal,” and senior aides have grown exasperated by Pruitt and fearful that even more damaging information may come out about his profligate behavior.

There’s much more, but Jonathan Chait is on the other big story of the day:

While many reporters have described President Trump’s aggrieved psychology, his phone call this morning on Fox & Friends gave outsiders unfiltered access to the sorts of rants he routinely imposes upon his staff. In the interview, Trump’s sense of persecution was so acute he was barely able to concentrate on an open invitation to tout his own success, the thing he does best. Asked to grade his presidency to date, Trump began by denouncing the “phony cloud” placed over his head by the deep state, briefly regained his balance to give himself an A+, and then returned to the calumnies inflicted upon him by his enemies in the media and the justice system. “A horrible group of deep-seated people,” he insisted, “are coming up with all sorts of phony charges against me and they’re not bringing up real charges against the other side.”

Trump’s belief that his enemies, not he himself, should be the subject of legal investigation overwhelmed even his ability to boast about his great success.

He was angry. He was venting. Kim and Moon were solving problems, and changing history. Donald Trump was nearly incoherent, which his base has always found refreshingly authentic, but Chait saw something else here:

The most disturbing moment came at the very end, when Trump threatened to force the Department of Justice to adopt his own chosen priorities, ignoring the “phony” charges against him, and prosecuting the “real” ones against his opponents:

“You look at the corruption at the top of the FBI, it’s a disgrace. And our Justice Department – which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t – our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia. There is no collusion with me and everyone knows it.”

At this point – astonishingly – the embarrassed hosts ushered Trump off the phone, insisting he must be busy – likely the only time in memory a “journalist” has cut short an interview with the president of the United States.

Now everyone is worried, and especially Chait:

Trump is making his intentions perfectly clear. He wants the Department of Justice to lock up his political opponents and witnesses to his misbehavior. And he wants it to stop investigating his own misdeeds.

The Department of Justice is constructed around restraints designed to prevent any such interference, because the power to use federal law enforcement as a weapon to protect the president and his party, and to harass the opposition, is so terrifying it has to be prevented at all costs. Trump is, on national television, making existential threats to the rule of law.

Francis Fukuyama once talked about the end of history. Jonathan Chait sees the end of America, and new polling shows he’s not alone:

Americans see their democracy afflicted by numerous maladies, and a new study finds a majority think fundamental change is needed to make the U.S. government work again, according to a study released Thursday.

The Pew Research Center probed Americans about the U.S. political system in unique depth, and results across many questions show a chasm between ideals and reality.

While 84 percent say it’s very important that the “rights and freedoms of all people are respected,” less than half say this trait describes the United States very well or somewhat well (47 percent). And 3 in 10 rates the political system positively for ensuring “elected officials face serious consequences for misconduct,” a trait that more than 8 in 10 say is very important.

Across 23 traits of democracy tested in the Pew survey, majorities of Americans rate their country positively on eight.

This may be a banana republic now, and fundamentally ungovernable too:

Democrats and Republicans mirror each other’s criticisms of how democracy is faring on several fronts. Fewer than 4 in 10 within each party say that “people agree on basic facts even if they disagree on politics,” and ratings are similarly low for government transparency and the level of respect in political debates. Just about 4 in 10 Democrats and Republicans alike say “voters are knowledgeable,” despite nearly 8 in 10 of each group who say this is very important in U.S. elections. The worst ratings for each group came on cross-party cooperation, with just about 2 in 10 saying Democrats and Republicans work together on issues.

And there’s this:

The Pew survey also found steep, if unsurprising, partisan divisions on whether President Trump has respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions. Overall, 45 percent say Trump has “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of respect for the country’s democratic system, while a 54 percent majority say he has “not too much” respect or “none at all.”

That’s why the Trump administration is convulsed by chaos and contradiction. There is the country’s democratic system, and all the sensible people are elsewhere. And if they are sensible, ending old feuds without us, perhaps we should let them do that, without us. The people, not Ronald Reagan, tore down that Berlin Wall after all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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