Opinion |

Trump's Abrupt New Romance With Kim Leaves Netanyahu Hurting, and Stranded

We’ll always have Jerusalem? North Korea would remain, even under any deal, a far greater imminent threat than Iran to the U.S. That's bad news for Netanyahu, and for U.S. - Israel relations

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf
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From Left: Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, Kim Jong-UnCredit: Marc Israel Sellem, AFP
David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

It was very nearly 50 years ago that Stephen Sills released his hit single containing the immortal line, "If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with."

That song could have been the sound-track for U.S.- Israel relations last week.

Because shortly after star-crossed bromancers Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu parted after their cozy interlude at the White House, Trump quickly turned his affections in another direction.

It was kind of sudden, and it would be hard to fault Netanyahu if he felt hurt by the whole thing.

But however hurt his feelings may have been when the Donald’s attentions abruptly shifted in the direction of a new suitor, this one in Pyongyang, it is quite possibly the long-term damage to the Jerusalem-Washington, D.C. relationship that could be even more significant.

That’s because although Trump’s sudden announcement of a summit with Kim Jong Un was as much a tribute to the U.S. president’s lack of impulse control as anything he ever may have done with "adult film actress" Stormy Daniels, it could ultimately lead in directions that could make it harder for Trump to go as hard as Bibi would like him to against the Iran nuclear deal.

After all, if Trump reaches an agreement with Kim to limit his nuclear program it is likely to provoke difficult comparisons with the Iran deal, one that it is very likely to be less onerous, rigorous or well-thought out than the P5+1 agreement with Tehran.

The most striking thing about Netanyahu’s visit to Washington was precisely how little news impact it made. American audiences have a serious bandwidth problem these days, with roughly one major crisis every 90 minutes or so.

So even the high-level meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president at a time of rising tensions in the Middle East and an escalating crisis in Syria could not make more than a dent in any hourly news cycle.

It’s not that they didn’t try. Trump and Netanyahu both warmly vouched for their very special relationship during their Oval Office meeting last week. Trump said he might travel to Israel for the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. And Bibi then happily reported to AIPAC that Trump might well be considering walking away from the Iran nuclear deal.

An Iranian girl holds up a caricature of U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally marking the 39th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran. Feb. 11, 2018Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

But then Trump, as he does, cheated on his not-so-nice Jewish boyfriend as soon as the first opportunity arose.

And it arose almost immediately, when the South Koreans sent a delegation to report on their meetings with the North Koreans. They were in the White House, briefing staff, when Trump heard they were there, asked them in for an unscheduled session, and when he heard about the invitation Kim Jong Un was extended to him, he spontaneously agreed to do it.

To say the president’s staff were shocked is an understatement.

Secretary of State Tillerson had just that morning said the U.S. was nowhere near negotiations with the North Koreans. He was then left scrambling to propose that there was a meaningful distinction between the "talks" that Trump announced, and real "negotiations." Some national security officials on the president’s team were very skeptical of the North Korean offer.

But in Trumpland, the motto is: Photo ops first, policies later. The president took the offer, in part, because it afforded a distraction from his worsening legal troubles and his scandal-plagued administration, and in part because he feels he is a master dealmaker who is just waiting for his Nobel Prize moment.

South Korean newspaper headline and cartoon on the planned summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump on a Seoul subway train in Seoul. March 10, 2018Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP

The fact that he took the deal without gaining any real concessions from the North, without coordinating with allies, without having a functioning policy process in his administration, with many key diplomatic positions unfulfilled, despite the long U.S. history of frustrated negotiations with the North and the North’s long history of broken promises, have all led to justifiable skepticism about whether the summit will be fruitful.

That said, the summit is now a high stakes gamble for which Trump’s chips have already been placed on the table. Further, his ego is such that he can’t help but tout his optimism that the process will have a good outcome.

Still, while "de-nuclearization" is the ultimate aim of the process from the U.S. perspective, it is unlikely to be achieved easily, immediately or at all.

Which means that if there is a deal, it is likely to leave North Korea with significant nuclear capacity for some time to come...in other words, it would remain, even under a deal as a greater - by far - imminent threat than Iran to the U.S. (Given its already-demonstrated capacity, Pyongyang will be the far greater threat for the foreseeable future in any event.)

A man watches a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump, left, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, March 9, 2018Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP

Further, should Trump invest his "brand" in a North Korea deal, he will be committed to defending the deal and the optics around it. He will have to sell it to consummately skeptical audiences, by falling back on his familiar "Obama deal bad, Trump deal good" logic.

That might well make it tough to pull out of the Iran deal unilaterally, as Trump has threatened to do. A recent report indicated that if Trump's demands for far more than cosmetic changes are not met, the U.S. would withdraw from the deal.

But there is no chance the Korea calculus won't impact this position. The summit with Kim will certainly distract the president and complicate the politics of an Iran pull-out. Which is likely to be sorely disappointing for Netanyahu (not to mention America’s Gulf allies, who also hoped for a tougher Trump stance on Iran.)

What’s a leader with deep legal and political problems to do, then? Well, on the positive side, if the Pyongyang flirtation works for Trump, perhaps Bibi himself might be inspired to go looking for a sworn enemy with whom he could suddenly sit down for negotiations.

David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is Great Questions of Tomorrow (Simon & Schuster/ TED, 2017). Twitter: @djrothkopf

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