This isn’t Donald Trump’s penthouse with gold-plated everything high above Fifth Avenue. There are old copies of Foreign Affairs scattered around the apartment here in Hollywood. They’re depressing reading. There’s classical music on the radio all day – out of USC down near South Central, where the Watts Riots started long ago – and that helps a bit. But then there’s the History Channel, or the American Heroes Channel or whatever they’ve decided to call themselves now. It’s always a mistake to turn that on. Mussolini is still strutting around in his finely tailored military uniform with the riding boots. He postures and poses. His gestures are Donald Trump’s gestures. That’s depressing too. There’s too much history. Donald Trump will ditch the business suits one day. John McCain isn’t a hero, he was captured, and Donald Trump is the commander-in-chief after all. Expect the uniform, perhaps at America’s first Stalinesque massive military parade later this year. His base will love it.
There’s too much history. It happened in Italy long ago. It happened in Germany long ago. It happened here. Just enough Americans decided a blustering authoritarian was just what America needed – to slap our enemies around, and to slap our allies around too, to settle all domestic matters too – an unfettered strongman who would cut through all the bullshit – the niceties of government and the law – and just do what he said he’d do. Donald Trump did say “only he could fix it” – whatever “it” there might be – and that sounded wonderful to just enough Americans to get him elected. Americans chose this.
But maybe Germany is the wrong model:
President Donald Trump’s latest round of attacks on the FBI has left morale at the Justice Department at a new low, with officials bemoaning what they view as a full-frontal assault on their institution.
“It’s a deliberate campaign to delegitimize institutions where the people who are inside those institutions are professionals and giving up lots of money for the jobs that they’re doing and it’s extremely demoralizing,” said one current federal prosecutor.
“As my father used to say, history goes forward and backward. And things go backward when the trust in bedrock institutions – which are trustworthy, by the way – is diminished for the benefit of a few. It accelerates, and you wake up one day and we’re in Venezuela.”
Venezuela will do too. Dana Milbank agrees with that:
Right now the fear of the United States going totalitarian doesn’t feel quite right. This crowd is too clownish to be Stalinist. Rather, the United States is turning into a banana republic.
The president of the United States orders the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents. The Justice Department complies.
The president personally urged the postmaster general to double the rate it charges Amazon, apparently because he doesn’t like the coverage by the Washington Post, owned by Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos.
Trump settles a trade dispute with China on terms even his allies say are too favorable to the Chinese. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that a Chinese state-owned bank asked clients to pay $150,000 to attend a fundraiser with Trump.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatens to impose the “strongest sanctions in history” on Iran. The French economy minister proposes that Europe fight the U.S. sanctions by compensating European businesses hurt by the sanctions.
Trump, only days after saying “everyone” thinks he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his North Korea negotiations, receives a message from Pyongyang saying it would not give up its nuclear weapons and citing national security adviser John Bolton’s “repugnance.”
Milbank’s list goes on and on from there. It’s all banana-republic posturing and posing, without the snazzy military uniform, so far, but CNN reports on the limitations of that:
Administration aides have grown increasingly skeptical the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will come to fruition amid harsh rhetoric from Pyongyang and concerns over the meeting’s agenda, officials and other people familiar with the matter said.
Even as teams of advance staffers survey ornate hotel ballrooms in Singapore for the June 12 encounter, some of the President’s advisers privately say the chances of the talks occurring grew slimmer after North Korea adopted a harsher tone toward the US last week and raised questions about Kim’s commitment to, and definition of, denuclearization.
Trump himself remains committed to meeting Kim, and there has not been any indication he is preparing to call off the meeting himself, the officials said. But the new developments have led to a renewed impression that the audacious diplomatic meeting may not be as likely to occur as it once seemed.
Kim is the problem, but so is Trump:
Trump administration officials have grown concerned that the President is overly eager for the summit to take place, increasing Kim’s leverage should the talks take place, US officials and a source close to the administration said.
South Korean President Moon said Trump should get the Nobel Peace Prize. Senator Lindsey Graham said so too, as did everyone on Fox News. Trump really wants that Nobel Peace Prize. Kim said the summit was off if the United States went through with its annual joint military exercises with South Korea. Trump called off the part where our B-52 bombers fly around. Trump now calls the guy “Supreme Leader Kim” not “Little Rocket Man” – because Trump really wants that Nobel Peace Prize. Kim is laughing his ass off, so of course Trump administration officials are concerned, or in despair, as this is next:
The recent pangs of anxiety will come to a head on Tuesday when Trump meets in the Oval Office with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who some US officials believe oversold North Korea’s willingness to negotiate away its nuclear program. In March, Moon’s envoy told reporters in the White House driveway that Kim is “committed to denuclearization” and understood that joint US-South Korea military exercises “must continue.”
But statements last week from North Korea indicated otherwise.
No good will come of this:
If the summit is scrapped, the only alternative the President and his allies have floated is military action.
Late last week, Trump warned North Korea it could go the way of Libya and Iraq and be “decimated” if it refuses to strike a deal. The President’s allies parroted those warnings in recent days.
“President Trump told me three days ago that he wants to end this in a win-win way. He thinks that’s possible, but if they pull out, they play him, that we’re going to end North Korea’s threat to the American homeland in his first term and I’ll let you surmise as to what that might look like,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, an outspoken North Korea hawk, on Fox News Sunday.
If Trump doesn’t get his Nobel Peace Prize everyone in North Korea is as good as dead.
The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg adds more:
In March, Trump spontaneously accepted an offer, conveyed to him by a South Korean envoy, to meet directly with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea has sought a one-on-one meeting with a sitting American president for years, believing it would legitimate it as a global power, but previous administrations have refused. “No American president has ever agreed to meet a North Korean leader before because that is a huge concession in and of itself,” Robert Kelly, a political science professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, told me.
Nevertheless, credulous commentators praised Trump for bringing North Korea to the table, as if a seat at the table wasn’t what North Korea wanted all along. And pundits, including some who are broadly critical of the president, hectored us to give him credit.
In The Daily Beast, Rory Cooper asked us to entertain “the possibility that Trump actually is on the precipice of this type of geopolitical achievement.” Jeff Greenfield wrote an essay in Politico Magazine headlined, “Thinking the Unthinkable: What if Trump succeeds?” He urged those of us appalled by the president to “to consider seriously the proposition that this misbegotten president has somehow achieved an honest-to-God diplomatic success.”
What success? Kim already got what he wanted – a seat at the “adult” table – but Goldberg wonders who the adult here is:
Due to Trump’s ignorance and vanity, South Korea’s dovish leader, Moon Jae-in, has been able to manipulate him into a position where he might make concessions to North Korea that no other president would dare. Given the risk of war, Moon’s maneuvering has been admirable. “In South Korea, it’s basically an open secret that this whole thing is flattering Trump,” Kelly said. “It kind of amazes me that Trump’s staff hasn’t picked up on this.”
That’s all that Mussolini ever wanted too – he had to prove that he wasn’t a clown – and now Trump wants this summit meeting far too much
The U.S. government has even issued a commemorative coin about the summit featuring Trump and “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un face-to-face, signaling to the world that it’s now the American president who craves legitimation from the North Korean dictator.
Goldberg then points out the obvious:
Even a casual newspaper reader – which, of course, Trump is not – knows that when North Korea talks about “denuclearization,” it doesn’t mean unilaterally giving up all its nuclear weapons. A hastily arranged meeting between two bellicose egomaniacs, premised on a basic misunderstanding, is unlikely to resolve one of the world’s most intractable geopolitical conflicts; a flimsy agreement that roughly preserves the status quo seems like a best-case scenario.
Goldberg is not impressed with that:
Of course, we all have a motive in playing along with the fiction that Trump has achieved a Korean breakthrough – it might stop him from starting a war. But it’s one thing to humor our idiot president, and another to let the gravitational pull of presidential power, and the deep desire for a minimally competent leader, warp reality. We all want to be open-minded, but con men should never be given the benefit of the doubt.
Goldberg sees two con men, but Richard Cohen sees a third, that “repugnant” one, and the word fits:
John Bolton is now President Trump’s national security adviser. He sits at Trump’s elbow. Bolton has restructured the National Security Council to match his views. He has laid out strategies to eliminate North Korea’s missile capacity and its nuclear program, including a preemptive strike. Bolton thinks North Korea inevitably lies. North Korea thinks Bolton is “human scum and a bloodsucker.”
I think it’s time to worry.
Of course it is:
How could anyone believe that the United States, the nicest of nations, would strike North Korea unprovoked? But Bolton has suggested there are ways to do that. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in August, Bolton outlined various military approaches, starting with a preemptive “strike at Pyongyang’s known nuclear facilities, ballistic missile factories and launch sites, and submarine bases.” In other words, war.
Bolton recognizes what would happen to South Korea as a result – and he’s sorry for that. But elsewhere he has written that the United States has to do what the United States has to do and cannot be constrained even by an ally. With Seoul within range of North Korean artillery – and the likelihood of taking out all its nuclear armed missiles uncertain – we are talking about huge casualties and immense devastation. Such a consequence ought to be out of the question.
It isn’t, and that’s a problem:
Bolton’s plans for North Korea have an underlying theme: The regime is illegitimate. Even his most benign plan, the wish that China ends the North’s misery and unites the two Koreas, means that Kim has to go, probably feet first. In other words, Kim would be fighting for his very life, not to mention the existence of a regime that has been in the family since his grandfather’s day. This approach is not going to encourage Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.
That’s the problem with posturing and posing, but that’s what Trump prefers:
Trump has cleaned house of moderates. Rex Tillerson is gone from the State Department, H.R. McMaster from the National Security Council, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is no longer phone monitor and Bolton now influences the flow of intelligence to Trump. In certain circles, Bolton has a reputation as a straight shooter. But retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, once Colin Powell’s chief of staff, has a different view of Bolton from their time together at the State Department. “He lied repeatedly during his time at State,” he says in the current New Yorker magazine.
Or he was posturing and posing repeatedly, which isn’t quite the same as lying. It’s worse, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did threaten to impose the “strongest sanctions in history” on Iran. And the French economy minister did propose that Europe fight these strongest sanctions in history by compensating European businesses hurt by the sanctions. Pompeo did say he hoped that they would do that, but seems to be saying they’d pay the price if they did – no more trade or tourism with France or Germany, or maybe the end of NATO or something. He wasn’t saying, just yet.
He too was posturing and posing:
He insisted that Iran end all nuclear enrichment programs and close its heavy water reactor, saying it did not have the right to such a program. He also appealed directly to the Iranian people, suggesting they should reject the clerical government in Tehran, the capital.
“What has the Iranian revolution given to the Iranian people?” Mr. Pompeo asked at one point, and then offered an answer: “The hard grip of repression is all that millions of Iranians have ever known.”
Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is debatable. More than a dozen countries in the world enrich uranium, with several doing so solely for civilian purposes, such as energy generation and medical uses.
But Mr. Pompeo’s speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation was intended to throw down the gauntlet against Tehran, piling on after President Trump’s withdrawal earlier this month from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated with world powers in 2015. While he did not directly threaten the use of military force, Mr. Pompeo said that if Iran restarts its nuclear program “we will respond.”
He also demanded that Iran admit to the military purposes of its now-moribund nuclear weapons program, end its support of Hezbollah, Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis, and withdraw all of its forces from Syria.
“You know, the list is pretty long,” Mr. Pompeo conceded. But, he added, “We didn’t create the list. They did.”
And then he folded his arms across his chest, raised his chin and sneered, nodding his head, thinking he was on a balcony in Rome in 1937, in a well-tailored uniform.
Martin Longman sees that too:
These demands have their merits (although Iran does retain the right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes) but they amount to asking the Iranian revolutionary regime to abandon all its foreign policy objectives which no government would ever do. It’s not going too far to interpret that Pompeo is saying that sanctions will remain in effect until there is a change of regime.
To put this in other words, the point of the sanctions is no longer to contain Iran or to prevent them from building nuclear weapons or proliferating nuclear technology. The point is to force a collapse of the government.
Longman knows posturing and posing when he sees it:
If the Iranian people rose up and were willing to die in substantial numbers, this strategy could conceivably work without the U.S. or U.K. having to step in militarily. Of course, the regime survived an eight-year war with Iraq and it has survived isolation and sanctions in the past. It has easily quelled domestic uprisings.
Unfortunately, if we create the logic that only regime change can eliminate sanctions then we’re setting ourselves up to do the regime change ourselves. And I’m not convinced that killing a lot of people is the best way to free them from tyranny.
What’s even more problematic is that we have a tendency to ignore the fact that any truly democratic government in Iran would still have many of the same foreign policy objectives as the present government. A government truly responsive to the people would still cater to national pride and still see uranium enrichment as a national right. It would still be opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and still concerned to promote the interests of the global community of Shiites, whether they live in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Lebanon.
That leaves war, shock and awe and then sending in our troops, again, with the same result:
I don’t care for religious fundamentalists regardless of where they live, whom they govern, or what sect they belong to, so I have no love for Iranian regime and would be pleased to see them removed from power. I feel the same way about the Saudi Royal Family and the American Republican Party.
That I’d like to see something happen doesn’t entitle me to kill hundreds of thousands of people, however, and we should have learned by now that often what follows the fall of a terrible regime is worse.
Jennifer Rubin feels the same way:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was supposed to announce the Plan B for Iran – how we were going to fix the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by exiting the deal without our allies. Instead we got bluster and a wish list unattached to a coherent strategy for attaining our goal. The speech was mislabeled as “a new Iran strategy.” It was missing the strategy – a cogent explanation as to how we will unilaterally obtain what we could not when we had a united front.
This really was empty posturing and posing:
Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress was blunt. “It is delusional – the triumph of naive bluster over the hard-won experience of the unified effort it took with the rest of the world’s leading powers to get the 2015 deal,” he said. “There was a better pathway to strengthening the deal – one that strengthened support internationally and at home as well. But the formula Team Trump is using will weaken America’s hand on the nuclear issue and also will likely put us in a less advantageous position to deal with Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region and its support for terrorism.”
Why is that? Katulis argues that the all-or-nothing-with-no-leverage approach “further fragments political support at home for U.S. engagement overseas and created unnecessary ruptures with allies at a time when we need to build coalitions at home and overseas to get real results.”
Instead, we’ll get this:
In the short run, we can expect the European Union to negotiate with Iran to increase investment and support in order to keep Iran in the deal. The administration will then need to contemplate whether it is really willing to declare economic warfare on our own allies to force them out of a deal which, for now, Iran is in compliance with.
We’ve gone from a unified front against Iran to a unified front against President Trump’s harebrained scheme. One wonders how a future president is going to repair the wreckage of American foreign policy this president will leave behind.
But that’s what America chose. It happened in Italy long ago. It happened in Germany long ago. It happened here. There’s too much history.