Pretty Illusions

It’s Biarritz in the twenties, shortly after the War to End all Wars ended nothing, or ended everything. The Great War had created a Lost Generation – those who survived who would never believe anything ever again, but would do their best, even if they knew that their best would mean nothing. That was the one last honorable thing to do, and Ernest Hemingway wrote about nothing else. That’s what The Sun Also Rises is all about – from Paris to Pamplona to San Sebastian and then, at the end, across the border to Biarritz, ending with this:

A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Hemingway’s Jake Barnes knew better. Illusions are pretty. So are delusions. They’re not real, but they are pretty, for what that’s worth, which is nothing. And what did Donald Trump say to those who voted for him? “We could have had such a damned good time together!” What did those who voted for him say back to him? “We could have had such a damned good time together!”

That was the idea. He was going to fix everything. He was going to drain the swamp, whatever that meant. He was going to build that wall. He was going to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that would be far better and far cheaper and would cover absolutely everyone. He was going to tax the rich, even himself, and give everyone else a big tax break – and he’d put Hillary Clinton in jail. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would settle everything between Israel and the Palestinians, for the first time since 1948 or so – and Trump himself would stick it to China, and even our allies, on trade. TPP was gone and NAFTA would follow and maybe NATO too. No one would take advantage of us ever again, and he’d tear up that nuclear deal with Iran – which he did, along with the Paris climate accord. All the other presidents before him had been “stupid” but he’d be smart, and he’d sit down with that Kim fellow and make him give up his nukes, and win the Nobel Peace Prize for doing that. Only he could do all of this – no one else – and America would have a damned good time.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Donald Trump may have created another Lost Generation. The car slowed suddenly:

President Trump on Thursday pulled out of a highly anticipated summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, accusing the North Koreans of bad faith and lamenting that “this missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.”

The president made his announcement in a remarkably personal, at times mournful-sounding letter to Mr. Kim, North Korea’s leader, in which he cited the North’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” in recent public statements as the specific reason for canceling the meeting.

The letter wasn’t mournful-sounding. It was mawkish. “Oh, Kim, we could have had such a damned good time together!”

Trump dictated the letter himself – no diplomats or national security advisors involved at all – and in it he hinted that if Kim didn’t do the right thing now – if Kim misbehaved – we’d wipe him and his stupid little country off the face of earth, because our nukes are awesome and his are tiny little things. Trump said that would be a shame. He’d hate to do that, but he could, but Kim could make it all better and love him again.

The letter was a bit of an embarrassment – sentimentality mixed with threats of nuclear war – and remarkably adolescent. High school boys write this sort of thing all the time, to that girl that got away – but without threats of nuclear war. Call me. Write. Trump actually said that.

But things were not going to work out:

The mixed messages were in keeping with a diplomatic gambit that had an air of unreality from the start, when, in early March, Mr. Trump spontaneously accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation to meet – an acceptance that North Korea did not even publicly acknowledge for several days.

As the date for the meeting drew closer, American and North Korean officials staked out deeply divergent positions on how quickly the North should surrender its nuclear arsenal. North Korean officials failed to show up for a planning meeting last week in Singapore, snubbing a White House advance team led by the deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin.

The White House, which seemed ill-prepared for a long negotiation, began to have second thoughts. By Thursday, after a North Korean official labeled Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy” and threatened a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown,” there seemed little rationale for the encounter, beyond Mr. Trump’s desire to make history.

“I believe that this is a tremendous setback for North Korea and, indeed, for the world,” a resigned-sounding president said at a bill-signing ceremony. But he added, “If and when Kim Jong-un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting.”

He might get the girl, and his Nobel Peace Prize, back. North Korea declared that it was willing to give him the “time and opportunity” to reconsider his decision. They were toying with the moony teenager in the White House, but this was a mess:

South Korea, which was caught off guard by Mr. Trump’s decision, may opt to continue its own diplomacy with Mr. Kim, opening a rift with its ally. Mr. Trump did not warn South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, of his decision, even though the two leaders met in Washington on Tuesday… The cancellation creates a crisis for Mr. Moon of South Korea, who said it was “disconcerting and very regrettable.”

China, the linchpin of any sanctions campaign, may relax its pressure on the North, particularly because it was Mr. Trump, not Mr. Kim, who pulled the plug on this effort. Moreover, threats of military action against the North may be harder to justify at a time when Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon are talking about a new era of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

There’s much more detail – Trump decided to cancel the summit because he thought Kim was going to cancel first and that would be an embarrassment – John Bolton and Mike Pence hated the whole idea they were the ones that torpedoed the whole thing on purpose, saying nasty things about Kim – and so on and so forth.

No one on the administration would ever openly admit any of that. Those who leak such things to the press, even if they are true, have their own agendas – knocking off rivals or whatever – but Matthew Yglesias gets to the heart of the matter:

Why did so much of the media and the political system insist on taking President Trump’s Korean nuclear diplomacy so seriously in the first place?

The factors that led to the collapse of the summit were there from the beginning. The only thing that ever seemed remotely promising about it was Trump’s say-so, but Trump’s say-so is meaningless. Not only is he a person who makes factual misstatements and lies, but he’s a person who has gotten ahead in life through extensive use of bullshit, leaving in his wake a trail of broken promises.

From his unpaid bills to contractors to his scam university to his brief period ripping off the shareholders of his eponymous company, this is what Trump does: He exploits normal human nature to sucker people into trusting him, and then he exploits his own ever-growing fame and power to get away with breaking the rules.

In fact, Donald Trump may have created another Lost Generation that will never believe anything ever again:

He never delivered his much-promised plan to release a “terrific” Obamacare alternative that would cover everyone. Instead, he backtracked on his promise to protect Medicaid from cuts. He never took on the National Rifle Association. He never delivered a solution for DREAMers, and, of course, Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall.

He’s dropped the promise to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare. He dropped the promise to break up big banks. He dropped the promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. He dropped the promise to develop a tax program that would leave the rich paying more. And, of course, his version of “draining the swamp” has brought a level of corruption to official Washington that would have embarrassed the congressional barons of the Gilded Age.

This is not controversial. Everyone in the Washington and media elite knew this but set aside all the evidence to believe that Trump is someone else and might actually take negotiations seriously and usher in a major diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.

Yglesias says that everyone should have known better:

A good clue that we were being set up is that not only is the Trump administration’s North Korea policy being headed up by Donald Trump, but it has been conducted so far like you would expect a bullshitter to conduct policy.

The key turnabout in the region, after all, has come from the fact that Trump decided to make a large, unilateral concession to the North Koreans. As Josh Smith and David Brunnstrom reported for Reuters in March, “for at least two decades, leaders in North Korea have been seeking a personal meeting with an American president,” and across all that time, American presidents have been saying no.

“North Korea has said these things before,” Mark Dubowitz of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies told them. “Kim Jong Il wanted to meet with President Clinton.”

That’s all Kim wanted and Trump took the bait:

Trump, perhaps wisely and likely under the influence of South Korea’s new progressive leader Moon Jae-in, decided to reverse longstanding US policy and make this concession to Pyongyang. They planned to meet in Singapore on June 12. It wasn’t an absurd thing to try, and it’s certainly a good deal less absurd than Trump’s previous policy of berating the North Koreans with inflammatory tweets. Republicans would, of course, normally slam a Democratic president who decided to do this. But there are worse sins than hypocrisy in this world, and the Nixon-to-China dynamic could be beneficial here.

Except rather than defend the president’s dovish new direction, Republicans – including the White House itself – spun the meeting as a concession by the North Koreans.

“Trump’s Tough on North Korea Approach Is Working,” according to a press release from the Republican National Committee, and this kind of spin got picked up everywhere from Fox News to local television stations.

When a notorious liar does something dramatic and new and immediately tries (poorly) to cover up what it is that he’s doing, a sensible reaction would have been to become alarmed and suspicious – not to suddenly become credulous and naive.

It was pretty to think so, so they thought so:

Much of the US national security establishment decided to simply block out everything they have learned from everything Trump has ever done in his career in business and politics.

Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the US foreign service who capped his career with a stint as the No. 3 person at the State Department under George W. Bush, for example, told CNBC when the meeting was announced that “President Trump has kept Kim Jong Un off balance” and “I think this is positive that the president and Kim Jong Un are going to turn toward diplomacy because we were headed for a collision with North Korea.”

Back in the real world, meanwhile, Trump wasn’t a master strategist keeping the North Koreans off balance. He’s an erratic guy with poor impulse control and little understanding of issues who does things like blurt out that Americans held captive in North Korea and sentenced to serve in labor camps received “excellent” treatment from the regime that used them as hostages.

Yglesias, however, is fine with what happened:

It’s good that Trump gave up the ghost here rather than trying to fake his way through a summit. But it’s critical that the country’s political and media establishment try to actually learn its lesson here. Trump lies about a lot of things. He talks nonsense constantly. And while those of us who don’t work in the White House can’t stop him from doing those things, we can certainly cover him as a habitual liar and bullshitter rather than waking up each morning like we’ve never seen Trump in action before.

Now we know better, and David Sanger seems to agree:

Mr. Trump approached Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, as if he were a competing property developer haggling over a prized asset – and assumed that, in the end, Mr. Kim would be willing to give it all up for the promise of future prosperity. So he started with threats of “fire and fury,” then turned to surprise initiatives, then gratuitous flattery of one of the world’s more brutal dictators.

“He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich,” Mr. Trump said of the North Korean leader on Tuesday, as he met again with Moon Jae-in, the over-optimistic South Korean president whose national security adviser predicted, that same day, it was “99.9 percent” sure that the summit meeting in Singapore would go ahead.

But it was already becoming clear to Mr. Trump and his team that the techniques involved in negotiating real estate do not translate easily into negotiations over nuclear weapons.

This is a different thing:

Mr. Kim needs money, investment and technology, for sure. But more than that, he needs to convince North Korea’s elites that he has not traded away the only form of security in his sole control – the nuclear patrimony of his father and his grandfather.

“For them, ‘getting rich’ is a secondary consideration,” said William Perry, the former secretary of defense and one of the last people to negotiate with the North over peace treaties, nuclear disarmament and missiles – in 1999, when he was sent out as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy. “If I learned anything dealing with them, it’s that their security is pre-eminent. They know we have the capability to defeat them, and they believe we have the intent to do so.”

“And the only way to address that,” Mr. Perry, now 90, said this week in Palo Alto, Calif., as the North Koreans were issuing their latest threats, “is with a step-by-step process, exactly the approach Trump said he did not want to take.”

All the other presidents before Trump had been “stupid” but he’d be smart, but he wasn’t smart enough:

Other complications prevented the talks from making it far enough to even discuss those issues. As the two leaders circled each other over what long-range goals they would agree to in Singapore, it became increasingly clear there were forces at work in both capitals that had a strong interest in failure.

The creators of North Korea’s nuclear and missile forces are the country’s true elite, celebrated as the heroes who keep America at bay. To lose their arsenal is to lose their status and influence.

Trump, however, has a different view of status and influence:

Even before he came to office, Mr. Trump complained – accurately – that the incremental approaches pursued by his predecessors had failed.

He inherited a North Korea that had exploited the United States’ distraction during Iraq, Afghanistan and the Iran negotiations, and managed to build 20 to 60 nuclear weapons. The North had paid almost no price. So Mr. Trump did what he learned to do in the New York real estate market: Make maximalist demands, inflict pain and then begin a negotiation.

But his “fire and fury” approach resulted in reactions he had never seen in the private market.

Sanger and Yglesias agree. This was never going to work, and then there’s Slate’s Fred Kaplan:

Trump may think that Kim will now come crawling back to the table, but this is a dubious proposition. First, Kim’s negotiator had already threatened to pull out, saying that there was no point talking if Trump endorsed John Bolton’s public comparison of North Korea to Libya, a country whose voluntary surrender of its nuclear program led to a Western-backed ouster of its leader, followed by his brutal murder.

Second, Kim doesn’t need this summit. He has already, deceptively or not, cultivated the image of a peace-seeker, through a charm offensive that began with his New Year’s Day message and continued through the Winter Olympics, his own summits in China and South Korea (the first meetings with those countries’ leaders on their territory), his offer to meet with Trump, his suspension of nuclear and missile tests (though only after announcing that he now had a viable nuclear arsenal), and proposing “denuclearization” (though with a vague timetable and the usual caveats).

Imagine if Trump had gone ahead with the summit, which was scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, and Kim hadn’t shown up, still protesting Bolton’s remarks. Trump could have touted himself as the real peace-seeker. He could have invited the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and perhaps China to come along and, in lieu of the scheduled summit, held a security conference, to discuss further steps to contain and isolate Kim’s regime. It would have been a double win for Trump.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Sure, but forget that:

Trump’s big mistake was accepting Kim’s invitation to a summit without first discussing its potential risks and opportunities with people who know something about these things. His second, bigger mistake was hyping expectations, tweeting that a peace treaty was on the horizon and that he should win the Nobel Peace Prize simply for agreeing to meet. These absurd remarks only heightened his own stake in the summit’s success – and Kim’s leverage in the negotiations.

Many observers, especially in Japan, may have heaved a sigh of relief Thursday morning, as they feared that Trump was so eager for a deal that he might accept a bad one.

That won’t happen now, but this might:

Trump cannot resume his “fire and fury” campaign to pressure Kim to disarm through military threats – at least as long as Kim continues to suspend tests and persuades his neighbors that, hey, he tried to make peace but these dangerous, unreasonable Americans backed off. Moon – who is very keen on promoting North-South détente – may now move toward a separate peace, independent of whatever Washington wants. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who fears both Pyongyang’s aggression and Trump’s isolationism, may feel compelled to find his own way through the shoals as well, possibly building his own nuclear deterrent. Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose relations with Trump had begun to fray, may have mixed feelings – pleased at the shrinking of U.S. influence in the region, nervous about Kim’s ambitions, which he may have hoped the summit’s outcome would help contain.

Kaplan is not impressed with Trump:

By canceling his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Donald Trump has proved his lack of skill as a negotiator, handed the world’s most brutal dictator a win, and further isolated the United States as a world power…

First, he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which had been working quite well, thus alienating the United States from its European allies, whose leaders had co-signed the deal, and whom he is now also threatening with economic sanctions if they try to keep the deal going. Now he cancels a summit, which never had the slightest chance of producing the results he hoped for (North Korean disarmament, a peace treaty, and gobs of contracts for U.S. firms to turn the communist dictatorship into a capitalist paradise) but which could have resulted in modest, useful steps toward a relaxation of tensions.

Trump, however, is not into modest, useful steps toward anything at all. He’s bold. He doesn’t play be the rules. That’s a good thing. “We could have had such a damned good time together!”

Hemingway’s Jake Barnes knew better. Everyone should know better now.


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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