The sensational news of an imminent meeting between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took humanity by surprise, providing several hours of elated anticipation for impending world peace. Here is a grandiose, game-changing gesture, on a scale of Nixon to China and Sadat in Jerusalem, that will frustrate the experts and confound the diplomats. But given that it’s Trump we’re dealing with here, within a very short time, hope was replaced by anxiety and the vision of swords into ploughshares gave way to Comedy Hour. The Kim and Donald show could bring success or failure, but will certainly end with a bang.
Of course the very fact that Washington is negotiating with Pyongyang over the proposed powwow, even if it does so in fits, starts and self-contradictions, is eminently preferable to the kind of wild insults and naked threats that Trump and Kim were trading only a few months ago, which seemed to be a prelude to war. And it’s always possible that the weird chemistry between the two self-centered and some would say megalomaniacal leaders – aka as “dotard” Donald and “Rocket Man” Kim – could actually launch a chain reaction that ultimately yields an agreement. According to his scenario, which many in Israel would like to see as analogous to Iran, Trump’s doomsday warnings and the imposition of tougher sanctions on Pyongyang subdued Kim and achieved the desired results, contrary to the fake analyses of dedicated scare mongers and habitual Trump haters.
The other possibility – this one backed unfortunately by historical experience – is that North Korea has no intention of abandoning its nuclear and ballistic missile programs or its ambition to be regarded as a regional East Asian superpower. Kim understands Trump’s weaknesses and is toying with the U.S. President with vague promises he has no intention of keeping. In this bad plotline, Kim is following in the footsteps of his father Kim Jong Il, who used to give U.S. presidents heartburn. He will mock Trump and string him along, embarrass America and leave it seething, and if he doesn’t play his cards right, lead the Korean Peninsula to a destructive war.
By agreeing to meet, Trump has already given Kim valuable gifts that previous presidents denied North Korea: legitimacy and recognition. From Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, North Korean leaders have agreed to meet U.S. presidents, but were all rebuffed. Trump’s predecessors realized – some at the very last minute – that Pyongyang is deceiving them, in both words and written agreements. Trump is the first not to demand ironclad guarantees about a summit’s aftermath. He seems willing to make do with Kim’s pledges to freeze nuclear and ballistic testing before it takes place. Departing from normal diplomatic practice, Trump is winging it, confident that what he considers his superior intelligence and winning personality will ultimately conquer all.
Perhaps cooler heads in the White House are trying to put some brakes on Trump’s reckless run. A few hours after the first announcement of the meeting, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders suddenly stipulated that Kim would need to take “concrete steps and concrete actions” before Trump would actually agree to set a time and place. She threw cold water on the hyperventilating world media, raising doubts whether the summit was on after all. The White House later clarified that it was not setting any new preconditions, but at this point most of the viewers were left irreparably confused.
The contradictions, which surely aren’t the last, may reflect an internal debate in Washington not only between North Korea hawks and doves but also between veteran and therefore cautious diplomats, experts and even White House officials and hot-to-trot Trump supporters who are certain his unorthodox methods are about to bring results, big time. At the same time political reactions highlighted the immense hypocrisy that has gripped the United States as well as other Western democracies, in this era of rampant polarization.
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It may have become a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true that many of the people now applauding Trump for engaging with Kim would have demanded Barack Obama’s head on a platter had he agreed to meet the North Korean leader with no binding concessions in advance. This is the same American right wing that accused Obama of capitulating to Vladimir Putin and is now turning a blind eye to the Russian dictator’s naked assault on U.S. democracy – which he now blames on "Jews with Russian citizenship” – in which Trump is a witting or unwitting agent. It is the same kind of two-facedness which is enveloping the Israeli right, a champion of law, order and honest government when Ehud Olmert was accused of corruption which now conducts itself like a mafia on the mattresses, in which Netanyahu is the Don and Omerta keeps the ranks loyal and silent.
Trump’s numerous Israeli admirers, from Netanyahu on down, will try to draw favorable analogies to his Middle East policies. According to this rationale, Trump’s willingness to break the mold set by decades of U.S. diplomacy – his recognition of Jerusalem, lust for Saudi Arabia and eagerness to risk war with Tehran – will only empower Israel and the U.S. and deter its enemies. Naturally, however, perceptions of the North Korea situation are in the eyes of the beholder. If Trump can now cozy up to the North Korean despot, who he once described as “a maniac”, what guarantees are there that he won’t wake up one morning impressed by Iranian overtures and suddenly decree that Ayatollahs are OK and Bibi is the loser? If Trump can curse Kim and then cuddle him, if he can kowtow to the NRA but propose confiscating guns “without due process”, if he can launch a global trade war without so much as a courtesy note to his own advisers – as he did in the case of North Korea as well – what guarantees are there that he won’t turn on Israel in the end?
Never mind the fact that while Trump rails against the Iran nuclear deal, he and his advisers would be overjoyed if they could get North Korean to accept even a fraction of the self-imposed limitations and international supervision that Tehran accepted in the Iran nuclear deal. With Trump invested in North Korea, perhaps the much-maligned nuclear accord will morph in a role model? Netanyahu has described Trump as an unflinching friend who would never abandon Israel, but his foreign policy often seems to be managed from a roulette table. Over the weekend, Trump was already being mentioned as potential candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize but also as a punk playing with matches near powder kegs drenched with fuel. Even if the blowup is postponed, its time will surely come.