President Donald Trump has canceled the North Korea summit, sending a bizarrely informal and personal letter. His stated reason — Kim Jong Un’s comments — seems implausible. Most likely, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo figured out the entire exercise was a ruse. North Korea is not contemplating giving up its nukes. But then any casual observer of North Korea would know that.
The Washington Post reports: “A close aide to Kim unleashed a torrent of invective against the Trump administration Thursday morning, calling Vice President Mike Pence a ‘political dummy’ for remarks he made Monday in a television interview that made reference to the downfall of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.”
It is hard to imagine that nasty rhetoric was the decisive factor. That said, Trump is famously thin-skinned, and his letter reflects his personal pique at the tongue-lashing his administration received. His letter spoke in highly personal terms, praising the “wonderful dialogue (that) was building up between you and me” and then thanking Kim for releasing the Americans he never should have detained (“a beautiful gesture”). To complete the unprofessional tone, he threw in a classic Trumpian boast that while Kim talks about his nukes “ours are so massive and powerful.”
Defenders who proclaimed his North Korea summitry brilliant now must declare its cancellation brilliant. Like clockwork, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas chimed in: “North Korea has a long history of demanding concessions merely to negotiate. While past administrations of both parties have fallen for this ruse, I commend the president for seeing through Kim Jong Un’s fraud..” But why did Trump fall for the ruse in the first place?
In coming days and weeks we will learn exactly what transpired. Perhaps there never was a real offer, only wishful thinking from the South Koreans, notorious for their wishful thinking. Maybe this is the triumph of national security adviser John Bolton — give the man his due — who never believed North Korea was interested in voluntary denuclearization. The failure of his first significant foreign policy endeavor may have serious consequences for Pompeo, who went from savvy hawk to hopeful diplomat. If this impairs his future credibility and influence, his success in releasing U.S. prisoners may be looked back upon as the high point of his career.
Former U.S. Ambassador Eric Edelman told me: “I am afraid that this cancellation was all too predictable — accepting an oral invitation conveyed by South Korean officials with their own agenda and without careful consideration by senior officials invited miscommunication and miscalculation. …A meeting without adequate preparation was probably worse than no meeting at all so we can breathe a little easier that the president, after praising Kim Jong Un as a gentleman, etc., has thought better of his initial impulse and canceled the meeting.”
The problem now — and this was among the most troubling aspects of an impulsive decision to hold a summit almost certain to fail (or never occur) — is where we go from here. It’s hard to imagine that lower-level diplomats can resume discussions if the president has thrown in the towel on diplomacy. Trump will no doubt begin banging the drums of war again, enjoying the credit from right-wingers who praised him for dropping his bellicose tone.
However, threats without action quickly diminish our credibility. Nevertheless, in this instance, military action would no doubt entail a massive operation with huge casualties and property destruction. While Bolton and Trump may consider this a viable option, sober members of Congress and the country at large show no enthusiasm for a replay of the first Korean War. The cancellation of the summit should therefore prompt Congress to assert its prerogative to declare war and speak with one voice that the president does not have the power to unilaterally order a first strike, which amounts to a declaration of war.
In short, Trump’s impulsive actions and the subsequent failure of his summitry amply demonstrate the limitations of a president who operates from the gut with virtually no understanding of the complex issues involved. Rather than win a Nobel Peace Prize, he once again has proved himself to be clownish and incompetent. How things proceed from here is anyone’s guess.