Hellbent on besting Barack Obama at everything, Donald Trump began talking about his potential Nobel Peace Prize long before the date set for his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He heaped praise on the most repressive leader in the world -- "very honorable" were the words he used -- and the White House Military Office even issued a commemorative medal for the upcoming summit which, bizarrely, called Kim "Supreme Leader."
But Thursday, with a letter to Kim that is true to the cartoon nature of his personality, Trump cites "the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement" and canceled the peace talks in a fit of childish pique. This came after Vice President Mike Pence's threat that the North Korean government could be toppled as Libya's was if Kim didn't come to heel -- a threat that prompted a North Korean official to call Pence a "political dummy."
Rarely has a President shown himself to be more clueless than Trump in his handling of the Korean crisis. With his schoolboy taunts about "rocket man" and wild swings between threats and loving praise, Trump has acted true to form. To understand this one need only consider his previous record of negotiating in business.
As a New York real estate promoter, Trump habitually made outlandish statements and proposed projects he could never deliver. In one case he was going to build the tallest building in America on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In another he insisted the big convention center named after longtime Sen. Jacob Javits of New York be named after his father, Fred Trump. Neither folly came to pass.
In politics, Trump's early endeavors were marked by similar bluster. He feuded with Mayor Ed Koch and criticized every president who occupied the White House from 1976 forward. As a young man, he talked openly of the amounts required to purchase the loyalties of lawmakers and even New York Gov. Hugh Carey. And in my interviews with him in 2014, he disparaged politicians as almost as dishonest as the press.
Trump's methods worked when there was little more than a property development or the next day's headlines at stake. But as he approached North Korea with the same technique, it became obvious he was out of his depth. As other parties manipulated him, Trump looked like the monkey-in-the-middle in a game of keep-away played in a schoolyard.
First the North Koreans, who had obviously made a deep study of Trump, provoked him with nuclear tests and missile launches. Going further than they had ever gone before, they were able to goad a gullible Trump into juvenile taunts and threats of "fire and fury." This behavior appalled people around the world and made Trump into an outlier in the diplomatic realm.
Having captured Trump's attention, the North Koreans then played their hand perfectly, courting the South Koreans and demonstrating to the world at the Winter Olympics that they could be warm-hearted members of the international community. Thus lulled into over-confidence, Trump made what he must have believed to be a brilliant overture for peace talks that would finally give Kim the legitimacy he craved. To seal the plan, he even sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang.
As Trump took crude steps toward the North Koreans, he alienated China with threats of a trade war. He also invited super hawk John Bolton into the White House as his national security adviser. Joining the crowd that intended to play Trump for their own purposes, Bolton immediately talked of how Kim could have the same experience as Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his nuclear weapons program only to be hunted down and killed during the Arab Spring.
It was Bolton's theme that Pence took up. When he reiterated it, the North Koreans decided enough was enough. They called Pence's remark "ignorant and stupid," and then Trump responded with his cancellation letter. It reads like a note sent to a potential business partner at the end of a broken partnership. It concludes:
"If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write. The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth. This missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history."
Trumpian in every way, the letter caps many months of amateurish effort and seems to indicate a man looking for an easy way out of finishing a job he was never prepared to do. Bolton and Pence got what they wanted by tying Trump to a hawkish approach. Kim got what he wanted by showing he could stand toe-to-toe with the American President and be recognized as a true leader. The South Koreans who tried to broker the summit demonstrated to their people they were working for peace, and China showed the world it could nudge Kim into a less belligerent posture.
Who lost? That's easy. Peace-loving people all over the world lost a chance at progress and Trump lost his shot at the Nobel.
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