The Morning Jolt

National Security & Defense

President Trump and Kim Jong-un to Meet: Peace in Our Time?

The current dictator in the North (Damir Sagolj / Reuters)

The good news about President Trump accepting an invitation to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un:

  • The North Koreans are willing to stop nuclear testing and test-launching missiles while we’re talking.
  • The North Koreans say they’re willing to discuss denuclearization. If they actually mean it, this would be a giant breakthrough, and yes, this is the sort of thing that gets a president a Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Our military exercises with the South Koreans will go on as scheduled.
  • The term “win-win” gets thrown around too often, but this summit is what both Trump and Kim Jong-un want. Trump wants a bold move that creates a long-term solution to a major foreign-policy problem. He likes surprising critics, and he likes to think of himself as a great dealmaker. Kim Jong-un will be able to boast that his combination of provocations, threats, and outreach brought the president of the United States to the negotiating table.
  • Tom Nichols, a pretty intense Trump critic, writes in USA Today that he can envision a milder negotiation victory: “One positive outcome would be if North Korea tries a bait-and-switch, in which they backtrack from denuclearization but agree to halt, indefinitely, all testing and production of an ICBM in exchange for sanctions relief. If the president manages even this much, his gamble might pay off, at least for a while.”

The bad news about Trump and Kim meeting:

  • Remember how much we condemned then-senator Barack Obama’s pledge to “meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” That wasn’t wrong. A meeting with a U.S. president is something a foreign regime wants; when dealing with a hostile regime, we should use that carrot to get a concession. That’s what made the “without precondition” part of Obama’s pledge so dangerous. (He eventually backtracked and said he meant with “preparations,” but not preconditions.)
  • Not only is the Trump administration agreeing to a meeting, this administration may very well end up inviting North Korea’s leader to Washington: “By day’s end, dazed White House officials were discussing whether Mr. Trump would invite Mr. Kim to come to the United States. That seemed entirely likely, the senior administration official said, though American officials doubt the North Korean leader would accept.”
  • You may recall further back, in 2000, Secretary of State Madeline Albright traveled to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il and declared the Clinton administration no longer considered North Korea to be a “rogue state.” She told an interviewer, “we are now calling these states ‘states of concern.’” That “state of concern was cheating on its nuclear deal all along. In a long history of naïve foreign-policy decisions and deals, the Clinton administration’s approach to North Korea ranks as one of the worst.
  • Despite Trump’s perception of himself as the ultimate dealmaker, he’s a terrible negotiator. This is the president who walked into a live, televised White House meeting with congressional leaders on gun control and gave away all of his allies’ priorities and got nothing in return, and then he dismissed the concept of due process and endorsed gun confiscation. When Trump sits down at the negotiating table, absolutely no one knows what concessions he’ll make.
  • Nichols points out that the North Koreans love to bait-and-switch and then blame the opposition: “After the summit, Pyongyang will then dig in on further talks. When those talks fail, Kim will blame Trump, leaving the president bewildered and angry. Trump will go back to his insulting ways, which will pave the way for Kim to exit any preliminary agreements. The whole business will fall apart, and North Korea will look like the sure winner: the co-equal of a United States president who has been humbled in front of America’s allies and embarrassed in front of its enemies. The unveiling of a functional, nuclear-armed North Korean ICBM will follow.”

Maybe we should start with the question, “What do we want regarding North Korea?” To eliminate its nuclear program? To topple the regime? To liberate its people? Or is it merely to avoid what would probably be a devastating war?

Nicholas Grossman, international-relations professor at the University of Illinois, offers three bold ideas for Trump on today: Offer a withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea; normalize U.S. relations with North Korea as a nuclear state (like with China or Russia); or be prepared to walk away from the table and accept the status quo.

Is this a good idea? It all depends upon whether it works. If, six months from now, after some high-profile meetings we’re in the same situation, then it means we gave the North Koreans something they wanted, only to get conned again. But if, by some miracle, they are willing to give up the nukes — and allow inspections to ensure compliance! — then the Trump administration will be able to point to a jaw-dropping diplomatic accomplishment.

The Left and the Right, and How Trolling Gets Rewarded

Katherine Mangu-Ward, editor in chief of Reason magazine, with a good op-ed in the New York Times about why our modern politics feels so nasty and yet devoid of ideas:

For many on the right, the real lesson of the [Jon] Stewart-[Tucker] Carlson [in 2004] exchange was “Do as I say, not as I do.” Mr. Stewart urged sincerity and good-faith efforts at dialogue when lecturing Mr. Carlson but practiced the opposite when it suited him. Mr. Stewart’s smugness was itself a form of trolling. And conservatives, no matter what liberals might think of them, are not stupid. The clear lesson was that if you want to win, stop being the debate team kid in the bow tie and start being the class clown who gives that guy a wedgie.

Mr. Stewart has since retired from the ring, having successfully replicated himself a dozen times over on every channel, each copy smugger than the last. But Mr. Carlson, too, has triumphed. He now hosts one of the top-rated shows on Fox News, where he has become a shouty populist version of his former mini William F. Buckley Jr. persona — much closer to the trollish partisan Mr. Stewart accused him of being than he ever was in his “Crossfire” days.

Whatever you think of Carlson’s Fox News persona, his rise in the world of the television screen has meant he writes much less often, which is a considerable loss. Back in the 1990s, he was a really good columnist, interviewer, and writer for the Weekly Standard. (Check out this analysis of the psychodrama in the relationship between Bill Clinton and Al Gore.) It’s really bizarre to see William Kristol and Carlson sniping at each other in today’s political environment — it would be like if ten years from now, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady denounced each other.

Here’s a section of a column from 2000:

I attended a discussion of The Slate Diaries at Politics & Prose, a lefty bookseller on upper Connecticut Avenue.

The Slate Diaries is just what it sounds like: a collection of diary entries compiled by Slate magazine and published in book form. (I am one of the contributors.) The people who came to discuss the book were just what you would imagine, too. The men were thin. The women had long earrings and complicated sweaters. Some had children in tow. Others, clearly, did not. Generally they were friendly but awkward, the sort of people who have read about manners, but aren’t quite sure how to use them.

In other words, they were living stereotypes: Volvo-driving, sandal-wearing, NPR-listening, arms-are-for-hugging liberals. I liked them.

I liked the idea of them, anyway. It’s hard to knock people who are interested in books, or even people who only pretend to be interested in books. In college, I would have mocked these sandal-wearers as phony and pretentious. The meaner part of me still does, silently. But at this point in the digital-cable-wireless-infotainment revolution, even literary pretense is a welcome improvement.

Yes, that’s the same Tucker Carlson, now the fired-up populist who denounces Washington elites as being deeply corrupt and destructive every weeknight in prime-time on Fox News. Don’t blame Carlson too much; he’s merely responding to incentives.

ADDENDA: I used to call mid-October the “Great Sports Equinox.” College-football and NFL seasons were in full swing, Major League Baseball had the World Series, and the National Basketball Association, college basketball, and the National Hockey League began their seasons.

March is turning into an adjunct equinox. If you like college basketball, the NCAA Tournament and March Madness is right around the corner. If you like the NBA or NHL, the playoff push is beginning. Spring training is in full swing for baseball. Now circle March 14 on your calendars: The NFL Free Agency signing period begins. For a Jets fan, this is arguably the best part of the year.

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