So far, the assumption that Trump is bungling or exacerbating the crisis with North Korea isn’t justified.
Ever since he came down the escalator at Trump Tower that fateful day in June 2015, President Trump’s critics have worried that his anger-management and impulse-control issues would be exposed in an international crisis. Everything we’ve learned about him tells us that he is temperamentally unsuited to diplomacy or putting forward the image of quiet strength and confidence that is synonymous with traditional ideas about good leadership. In other words, he is exactly the type of person you wouldn’t want in control of the nuclear codes, or leading the meeting when an American response to a foreign provocation is required.
Yet now that such a crisis has arrived in the form of North Korea’s nuclear escalation, the most interesting thing about the U.S. response is that President Trump has not proved to be the liability that his critics assumed he would be. As with everything else he does, Trump has not behaved the way any of his predecessors or election rivals would have done. He has tweeted and boasted and at times has demonstrated that his command of the issues is far from complete.
Nonetheless, the criticism that has rained down on him for this is off the mark.
For all of his flaws and unorthodox behavior, the president is listening to his advisers and actually sounding the right themes about the need for our allies to stand fast and for those who do business with North Korea to join the West in completely isolating the regime.
If that isn’t the impression one gets from most of the coverage of the North Korean crisis, it’s due in large measure to the way Trump has conditioned us to view him. He prides himself on being a “counterpuncher,” but a better description might be a vindictive, thin-skinned egotist who will lash out at anyone who criticizes or thwarts him. That’s why many jump to the conclusion that what Trump does or says about North Korea is as much a mad distraction from the real work of government as his unscripted rants on other issues have often been.
While every tweet Trump has issued on North Korea tends to produce howls of anger from the mainstream press, their content has actually been generally accurate and often quite helpful to the cause of restraining Pyongyang.
Even if one takes the most notorious of his statements, in which he threatened Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury,” that language (which echoed a statement once issued by President Harry Truman during the Korean War) merely articulated the same policy affirmed by every U.S. administration since the 1950s. Some criticized that line for being an empty boast, but after decades of weak responses to outrageous actions from the North Koreans, the problem with U.S. policy in the region is the very idea that there is something strange about an American president’s reminding a dictator that it is possible for him to go too far. To the extent that Trump impressed upon Kim and his Chinese enablers that if North Korean threats escalate, the U.S. has the power to endanger the survival of the Communist regime, it can only be helpful.
Nor is there anything wrong with Trump’s not treating the Chinese or the South Koreans with kid gloves.
The Chinese may hold the solution to this problem in their hands, since they are North Korea’s only allies and the key to its economic survival in isolation. But for too long, they too have been operating under the assumption that there is nothing that Kim Jong-un can’t get away with, even if his destabilizing actions threaten their interests as much as those of the U.S. and its allies.
There are no good options for the U.S. in dealing with a nation and a leader that think they have little to lose and much to gain by threatening war.
As for the South Koreans, their nervousness about North Korea’s ability to devastate their capital and kill countless citizens in the first moments of any military conflict with conventional weapons is understandable. But here again, mere deference to their fears won’t necessarily contribute to a diplomatic solution. Trump is correct that appeasement of the barbarous North Korean regime — and that is not too harsh a word to describe the instincts of the current government in Seoul — only makes Kim Jong-un believe that he can play nuclear chicken with the West and win.
There are no good options for the U.S. in dealing with a nation and a leader that think they have little to lose and much to gain by threatening war. But the critics’ assumption — that Trump’s attempts to impress upon Pyongyang that his administration will not be as easily cowed as those of Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama are a mistake — underestimates the damage done by previous unsuccessful efforts to bribe the North Koreans to behave.
Moreover, as much as Trump has given us good reason to question his temperament, the one real exception to his predilection for ill-considered actions has been in decisions involving the use of military force. Whatever else one can say about him, the president appears to have a commendable caution about ordering the military into action. Just as important, his conduct of the conflicts in Afghanistan and against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has demonstrated an equally commendable deference to the judgment of his commanders rather than the sort of White House micromanagement and second-guessing of the military that characterized Obama’s record as commander in chief. Which is to say that if the North Koreans were mad enough to actually seek to directly threaten the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, then what we’ve seen of Trump so far would indicate that he would listen to his military advisers rather than shoot from the hip.
Although the media have seized upon every Trump tweet as if it were a casus belli for more North Korean outrages, that instinct is the reverse of the truth. Trump may not be communicating in the ways we expect a president to speak, but he is not the problem here. We should all pray that he will never be put to the supreme test of leadership in a crisis; and, as with more-even-tempered presidents, worries about how he will handle himself then are not unreasonable.
But the effort to shift blame for the escalation in the Korean peninsula from Kim Jong-un to Trump is unfounded. To date, the president appears to understand that more urgency than has been applied to this problem in the last 20 years is necessary if the worst-case scenario is to be avoided. Like his able and articulate United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, Trump has, in his own unorthodox manner, been signaling the world and the North Koreans that a stronger stance is needed, rather than more of the futile bribery and hand-wringing that we got from Clinton, Bush, or Obama. You don’t have to be an admirer of the president to realize that at least in this case, Trump’s behavior is not the problem when it comes to North Korea.