The Art of Really Wanting a Deal

President Donald Trump’s vanity appears to be getting the better of his judgment. No surprise in that, since the president has a surplus of the former and a deficit of the latter. But, when his vanity clashes with his judgment regarding the still-expected June 12 summit with a nuclear-armed North Korea, the outcome could be dangerous.

Like any sensible person, I hope the summit takes place as scheduled. I also hope the two sides reach an amicable agreement resulting in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. If the price to pay for that is, in Trump’s words, a “very, very happy” Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictatorial ruler, so be it. And, if an agreement results in Trump winning the Nobel Peace Prize, while the image of the presidential bully receiving his award in Oslo, Norway, may cause many to gag, a denuclearized North Korea will be more than worth it.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspecting what North Korea calls an H-bomb.

But, call me skeptical. Trump aides reportedly believe the president has sent too many signals that he wants the summit, regardless of the results. Perhaps, all that Nobel talk — and chants at Trumpian rallies — has gone to his head. Maybe, the president believes a successful U.S.-North Korea summit will expand his popularity, inoculating him against further revelations in the scandals plaguing his administration. Or, Trump’s fondness for strong rulers may make meeting Kim attractive. After all, if Kim agrees to give up his nuclear weapons, and if he honors the agreement, no one in North Korea likely will object, and Trump will have scored a huge foreign policy triumph.

Trump needs to play a little harder to get. His apparent eagerness for the summit only encourages Kim to make an agreement that either he does not intend to keep or is difficult to enforce. The danger of Trump making a bad deal is enhanced by concerns that the president does not understand the details, according to aides, of the North Korean nuclear program nor does he grasp the meaning of denuclearization. Trump notoriously does not have the patience to sit through briefings. His aides fear he does not have a grasp of the features — such as enrichment capability and plutonium reprocessing — that were second nature to his predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who listened to the experts and read the briefing papers. 

Iran shipping heavy water to Oman in 2016, as part of its deal on nuclear weapons.

Pulling out of the Iran agreement has created problems for the president. Trump can rail all he wants about the Iran nuclear deal reached under Obama, but the facts are clear: Tehran verifiably has shipped 97 percent of its stockpile of nuclear fuel out of Iran. If Trump gets less with North Korea, only the most ardent Trumpistas will be convinced he negotiated a good deal.

Both sides to the proposed summit have been sending mixed signals in recent weeks. North Korea has dampened the euphoria generated by the earlier meeting between Kim and South Korea’s president. Last week, a high-ranking North Korean official warned the Trump administration to stop insisting that Pyongyang must “unilaterally” abandon its nuclear program. “If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such a dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit,” the official said, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name. North Korea has also protested joint U.S.-South Korean military drills.

Libyan centrifuges, 2003

North Korea particularly objected to new national security advisor John Bolton’s citing of a “Libya model” of nuclear abandonment as the model for how North Korea should denuclearize. Bolton was the architect of a deal by which Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi agreed, in talks with Britain and the United States, to voluntarily hand over the country’s nuclear equipment. At the time, President George W. Bush said, “I hope other leaders will find an example” in Libya’s action. What happened next is what Kim fears. In 2011, during the Arab Spring uprising, the United States and its European allies undertook military action to prevent Qaddafi’s threatened massacre of his countrymen. The intervention — made easier since the Libyan dictator no longer had nuclear weapons — led to Qaddafi’s death at the hands of insurgents and resulted in today’s dysfunctional Libya. North Korea has noticed what happens when a small nation gives up its nuclear insurance.

The president and his national security adviser, John Bolton.

North Korea may also be confused. Shortly after Bolton spoke about the “Libya model,” Trump said, “The Libya model isn’t the model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea.” Referring to Qaddafi’s overthrow, Trump added, “In Libya, we decimated that country. That country was decimated.” And, in case Kim missed the point, Trump cautioned that the fate of Libya shows “what will happen if we don’t make a deal.” 

The Trump-Bolton disagreement may be an example of a deliberate good cop-bad cop routine, with Bolton, a noted hardliner, threatening Pyongyang and Trump playing the good guy reassuring Kim, but noting what could happen if Kim backs down from an agreement. Or, it may be that the administration is confused, a common occurrence in Washington these days. Trump and Bolton may not have been referring to the same thing when they cited Libya. Trump clearly referred to the toppling of Qaddafi in 2011; Bolton was more obscure, but he probably was discussing the 2003 nuclear agreement with Libya. Still, from Kim’s perspective, Bolton’s comments sounded “awfully sinister,” and Trump was not much more reassuring about not seeking Kim’s ouster.

For now, Trump remains committed to the summit. He meets this week with South Korea’s president — who met Kim last month — to discuss the summit. The two leaders also spoke for 30 minutes by phone over the weekend. The flurry of diplomatic activity is an indication of how much Trump wants the meeting to go off as planned — and to succeed. Perhaps, he wants it too much.

Posted May 22, 2018Donald

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