Analysis

Trump’s Clash With North Korea: Good for Putin, Bad for Netanyahu

Reports of North Korea's nuclear capabilities unveiled the oversized role Israel holds in the White House war between Bannon and McMaster

Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump on TV in Seoul, South Korea.
Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump on TV in Seoul, South Korea. Ahn Young-joon/AP

The first American governor of Guam was Jewish. Commander Edward Taussig formally received the western Pacific island in 1899 from a local governor after America’s crushing victory in its war with Spain, which had ruled Guam for the preceding 350 years. Taussig didn’t stay long: He set up the local government and went on to become a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. He spawned three more generations of top Navy officers, including his son Joseph who, as a vice admiral, outranked him. The names of both Taussig admirals were commemorated on U.S. Navy destroyers; the one named after Edward participated in the Korean War.

>> Trump Adviser Sebastian Gorka Compares North Korea Nuclear Threats to Holocaust ■ Good for Iran, bad for Middle East | Analysis

Guam’s Jewish history also includes a massive Rosh Hashanah dinner in 1945 with over 1500 Jewish GIs, many of which took part in the liberation of the island from Japanese occupation in the bloody three week battle that cost 1,800 American and 18,000 Japanese lives. Guam, which is home to 160,000 local U.S. citizens, has served ever since as a forward outpost for the U.S. military in the western Pacific. Nearly a third of its 210 square miles are taken up by the Guam Naval Base, which is home to four nuclear-armed submarines and to Andersen Air Force base, which hosts B-52, B-1B and stealth B-2 bombers. If war breaks out between the U.S. and North Korea, the Andersen bombers will be sent to demolish Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities and to destroy Kim Jong-Un’s regime.

This is just one of the reasons for Kim’s threat this week to launch four Hwasong-12 missiles at Guam which would surround it with “enveloping fire,” whatever that is. This is not the first time the North Korean despot has made direct threats against Guam: In 2013, the U.S. hurried a battery of THAAD anti-missile missiles to the island after he made similar boasts. But Kim is also zeroing in on Guam, rather than his South Korean neighbor or his Japanese enemy, in order to cast it as a symbol of American imperialism in the Pacific. Kim opted to threaten the U.S. territory from which U.S. bombers had taken off to buzz North Korea in recent days and as a direct and personal challenge to Donald Trump, in the same way little boys taunt their friends by waving their fingers in their eyes and proclaiming, “the air belongs to everyone.” He wants to show his people that he is not afraid of the U.S. president or of his threat to rain down “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Daenerys Targaryen.
/AP

It’s hard to know where Trump got the inspiration for his bombastic warning, which yielded instant analogies between two leaders who are leading their people and rest of the world to disaster. As Stephen Colbert showed this week, Trump often uses the words “like the world has never seen” to tout his miraculous-but-often-imaginary achievements, but the unfamiliar “fire and fury” part sounded as if it was lifted from one of those fiery speeches made by Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen in the latest season of Game of Thrones. And while the world recoiled from Trump’s hyperventilating rhetoric, the tone is a familiar one for most Israelis, albeit not from American presidents: Egyptian radio known as the Voice of the United Arab Republic expressed similar unhinged threats against Israel on the eve of the Six-Day War, as did Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War when he promised to “incinerate half of Israel with fire.” Enthusiastic Christians awaiting the End of Days, on the other hand, pointed to Isaiah 66:15 “For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire,” a verse that has also been interpreted as a warning to Jews who deny Jesus, as Trump’s inspiration. Isaiah, then, corroborates the inside-information fatwa put out by Evangelical White House adviser Robert Jeffress by which God himself has given Trump the authority to attack North Korea.

Some of Trump’s supporters linked his inflammatory words to a more relevant but more disturbing precedent. They cited the August 6, 1945 statement issued by President Harry Truman after the bombing of Hiroshima in which he warned Japan that if it did not accept U.S. conditions for surrender “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Truman didn’t give the Japanese too much time to think it over, because three days later another bomb was thrown on Nagasaki, with devastating consequences, a decision that remains in dispute today.

Even though Trump’s advisers tried to frame his words as part of some coherent master plan, he did not coordinate his statement with his advisers in advance just as he didn’t consult with them before he tweeted, with no basis in fact, that America’s nuclear arsenal is stronger and more modern than ever. Secretary of State Tillerson tried to spin it as part of a double-edged strategy in which Trump, in contrast to Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition to talk softly, warns Kim “in the only language he understands” as international sanctions and diplomacy will convince him to come down from the tall tree he’s climbed and to reach an accommodation with Washington.

Given that Kim is an unguided missile himself, one can’t discount the possibility that Tillerson’s effort to put lipstick on a pig might actually be borne out in the end. But for the time being, Trump’s ill-conceived statements have violated the very same international consensus that produced a unanimous UN Security Council decision last week to impose new sanctions on North Korea. They have also backed China into a corner because Beijing cannot be seen as succumbing to Trump’s bluster.

Trump’s damaging outspokenness point to a failure of his new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to rein the president in. Trump’s statements were seen as yet another outburst of dangerous nonsense from an impulsive and narcissistic president who can’t stand to be out of the media limelight for more than a few hours. Trump had complained that the media wasn’t paying enough attention to the Security Council decision, which was indeed an achievement for Ambassador Nikki Haley and for U.S. diplomacy, but then he turned around and stole its thunder for himself.

Nonetheless, Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric is not the only or even main issue. He only poured high octane fuel on an already smoldering fire that has turned into a far more clear and present danger because, contrary to most expert predictions, North Korea is quickly attaining the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles and to arm them, according to a bombshell Washington Post report this week, with nuclear warheads. This report sparked a sense of panic in Washington and sent the Pentagon and the U.S. military to update their plans for preemptive operations and contingency attacks. It also unveiled another aspect of the White House war of the titans, in which Israel is playing an oversize role, between National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and general adviser Steve Bannon.

Kelly’s arrival was supposed to ease the battle, but the opposite seems to be the case. By backing McMaster from the outset, Kelly stopped an ongoing campaign, spurred by Trump’s expressions of displeasure, to have him replaced by someone more favorable to Bannon. With Kelly’s backing, McMaster proceeded to sack three National Security Council officials who were identified with Bannon and the far right. The right-wing media that worships Bannon immediately launched an all-out assault against McMaster, aided and abetted, for some reasons, by social media accounts identified with the Kremlin and by Jews identified with the far right, including Jerusalem Post columnist Carolyn Glick and the Zionist Organization of America, often seen as reflecting the views of Sheldon Adelson. They savaged McMaster by providing proof, as it were, of his opposition to the abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal and his continued support for a two-state solution.

Although the White House feud is often seen, in Israel at least, as one that pits nationalist hawks led by Bannon against middle of the road pragmatists such as Kelly and McMaster, it’s only an optical illusion. As far as North Korea is concerned, the opposite is true. McMaster is far more aggressive on Pyongyang, repeatedly describing its nuclear armament as intolerable and reportedly urging some kind of preemptive move. Bannon, on the other hand, wants to push Trump away from a confrontation with Kim Jong Un as part of his isolationist world view and his insistence that the U.S. not squander the energy it needs to confront the far bigger danger emanating from China. Bannon may talk the talk of cancelling the Iran deal in order to curry favor with the Jewish right, but in his view Tehran poses even less of a threat to U.S. security than North Korea and therefore merits even less American intervention.

Some point to the 1994 Agreed Framework worked out between North Korea and the Clinton administration as a precedent that highlights the inadequacy of the nuclear deal with Iran, ignoring fundamental differences between the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang as well as the GOP sabotage of the deal, first in Congress and later by the Bush administration. In fact, the counterclaim can also be made that North Korea is behaving much like any other fanatic regime with nuclear ambitions and no treaty-imposed restrictions and supervision in the face of what it views as a hostile world.

One way or another, there can be no doubt that the North Korea crisis could have direct and possibly dramatic ramifications for the future of the Iran nuclear deal, but none of the scenarios bode well for the more aggressive approach favored by Benjamin Netanyahu. If Trump intends to regroup the international community in order to pressure North Korea, he cannot afford to enrage it by unilaterally reneging on the agreement with Iran. Taking Kim on militarily might send a deterrent message to Iran, but could also divert Washington’s attention away from Iran. And if North Korea responds in force and Kim lights up the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. will forget about Iran altogether.

The chief beneficiary of the North Korean mess, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been Moscow. Vladimir Putin has been content to sit back and watch America get drawn into a conflict it cannot afford to have, to see its outreach towards Beijing hit a serious snag, and to witness the fear and loathing that Trump is inspiring throughout the world. Russia’s role in sparking suspicions about Trump’s motivation, on the other hand, is at center stage. Trump’s critics can’t decide if his behavior is the result of his usual mix of arrogance and ignorance or perhaps an attempt to divert attention, wag the dog style, away from the ongoing and ever-tightening investigation of his alleged collusion with Russia during the elections. Such suspicions will only grow if Trump gets drawn into conflict in the Far East, a point that is also relevant for his BFF in the Middle East, Netanyahu - who is normally more cautious than Trump - but as his speech in Tel Aviv this week showed, is no less consumed by paranoia, self-victimization and strange sense of hubris.