At the year’s start, I called a good friend in Europe who I haven’t talked to for a while. Toward the end of the conversation, I asked him if he would come visit me in D.C., but he declined to come to America again. So we talked politics a bit; I told him how the 45th is tearing down the country. My friend, who is informed but not as passionate about politics as I am, did not want to follow when I tried to explain the consequence of Trump’s politics: the U.S. drowning in international isolation. “I do not care what Trump does in the U.S. as long as he would let us live in peace,” my friend said. We did not pronounce the word, but it was apparent that we were talking about war.
After the call, I continued to think about my friend’s words and realized how toxic I have become just in sharing Trump’s world. I am thinking about the possibility of war–most probably in Asia–as a mere extension of the folly of the U.S. president. As an act that may allow him to cling to his power–that which serves the unprecedented pursuit of his and his family’s interests–war is an opportunity to distract Americans from, firstly, Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Trump’s campaign ties to the Russians, among innumerable controversies. Trying to enter the President’s fragmented mindset, my thoughts too became toxic as I forgot to think about the reality of the war and its detriment. It bounced back to me only because of the worries of my distant friend.
Unfortunately, my friend and I can do nothing about this prospect. The war drums are beating, The Atlantic reports:
There are sounds, for those who can hear them, of the preliminary and muffled drumbeats of war. The Chinese are said to be preparing refugee camps along the North Korean border. Resources are being shifted to observe and analyze the North Korean military. Mundane logistical processes of moving, stockpiling, and updating crucial items and preparing military personnel are underway. Only the biggest indicator—the evacuation of American dependents from South Korea—has yet to flash red, but, in the interest of surprise, that may not happen. America’s circumspect and statesmanlike secretary of defense, James Mattis, talks ominously of storm clouds gathering over Korea, while the commandant of the Marine Corps simply says, “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming.”
Once on the march, the military machine is hard to stop. The Atlantic’s piece was written before the Trump tweet that will echo in the historical records as the initial, crescendoing drumbeats of war: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,’” Trump wrote. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime, please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his and my Button works!”
In more normal times this kind of screaming could only be heard from the kids playing in the sandbox. But these are not normal times; the President of the country with the most potent military machine in the world is playing childish games with the young heir of what a year ago was considered a rogue regime. Trump takes the dispute between him and Kim Jong Un to a personal level, calling him “short and fat,” saying that he is s a “sick puppy” and calling him “Little Rocket Man” before the United Nations.
With President Trump in the White House, America is as if returning to the wild, and disappearing into the darkness. Think of all the 45th has unplugged, so to speak, in the past year. He nixed the TPP which was America’s singular strategy for power-balancing in the Far East; he exited the Paris Climate Agreement, placing America squarely against the whole world; he has disparaged member-countries of the North Atlantic Alliance, sidelining the relationship with a crucial partner, the EU and disrespecting the entire international community. Statistics show that the military engagement of the U.S. is covered by the noise of the President’s everyday quibbles, an incredibly effective method of distraction. Foreign Policy reports:
Within eight months of assuming office, Trump — with the announcement of six “precision airstrikes” in Libya — had bombed every country that former President Barack Obama had in eight years. One month after that, the United States surpassed the 26,172 bombs that had been dropped in 2016. Through the end of December 2017, Trump had authorized more airstrikes in Somalia in one year (33), than George W. Bush and Obama had since the United States first began intervening there in early 2007 (30).
The growth in airstrikes was accompanied by a more than proportional increase in civilian deaths, which Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal documented in the most impressive work of investigative journalism that I read this year, as well as the killing of militant fighters. In July, Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, claimed “in conservative estimates 60,000 to 70,000” Islamic State fighters had been killed in Iraq and Syria. In 2014, just after the war began, the CIA claimed that the Islamic State could “muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters.” The fact that the United States more than doubled the size of its enemy in pursuit of defeating it on the battlefield — for the time being should lead to a re-examination of U.S. counterterrorism strategies.
As time goes by, President Trump is increasing American military presence in the world, the opposite of what he promised to do when he was running for office. That does not only worry my European friends, but it freaks out Kim Jong Un, a man we’d all prefer not to be freaked out. Nevertheless, no matter how insane it looks, the North Korean regime is seemingly more coherent than the present U.S. administration.
After the November 28 launch of the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which took place after a two and a half month pause in missile testing, Pyongyang immediately published a statement which said that the country had finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear arsenal. A week later, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told his American counterpart Rex Tillerson in Vienna that North Korea is now willing to engage in negotiations with the United States.
But as usual, and honestly similarly to what was happening during Obama’s administration, Washington did not want to listen, did not pick up on the message. Occasionally, during Trump’s first year in the White House, which coincides with the North Korean escalation of missile tests, Washington and Beijing hinted to shared interests and a strategy on how to tame Pyongyang. These only to be denied a moment later when it came to the implementation of the sanctions, or any other action to directly deal with the young dictator. There is little to be surprised about in this game; the North Korean crisis is nothing but a proxy war between China and the U.S. Or better, a rehearsal for the inevitable final confrontation about the division of interests in the Pacific and the rest of the world.
There is much nonsense said about the present state of things in the Far East. How can one believe that Beijing would let America deal with Pyongyang, which China considers its own turf? The Chinese would never allow the U.S. meddle with North Korea; they want to deal with Kim, and in their way. If the world forgot what the Korean War was about, Beijing has not. It would be a denial of its history to retreat and allow North Korea to go its own way, so China defends the status quo on the Korean peninsula, opposing the already very difficult unification of two Koreas. The U.S. has finally understood that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is impossible as long as Kim’s regime is in power. But Kim is no Gaddafi, and Beijing will never allow America to replace the regime in Pyongyang.
It is, in my opinion, much more possible that Beijing will try to consolidate its expansion strategy with the integration of Taiwan to the mainland. China needs to do that not only because of its nationalist zeal but in the interest of its territorial control. Only when the Taiwanese problem is resolved for goodwill China to be legitimized in dealing with Korea. This, at least, is how I understand the Beijing mindset. This is also why I think that the allegedly leaked Communist Party of China memo, which suggests Beijing will continue to allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons and receive economic assistance, might be verifiable. However, regardless of the fact that Beijing denies it and calls the leaked document fake, it fits its Korea-related strategy.
On the other hand, the U.S.-China relationship is not progressing for the better. You might remember that Trump, as president-elect, spoke to the Taiwanese president announcing tougher–much tougher–attitudes towards Beijing. Well, Evan Osnos, a former longtime correspondent for the New Yorker, reconstructed how the Chinese have been playing Trump throughout his visit to China. Osnos’ piece, full of good quotes, is a little encyclopedia of how this president is delivering the U.S. to China, without his knowledge.
The excerpts of the book Fire and Fury, which will be on sale next week, reveal the insider story of Trump’s White House, confirming what Americans have observed in the last year. No matter what one might think about the book and the resulting and ferocious denial of the President, it was written on the basis of many interviews and over many hours, days, and weeks spent in the West Wing of the White House:
He is temperamentally unstable. Most of what he says in public is at odds with provable fact, from “biggest inaugural crowd in history” onward. Whether he is aware of it or not, much of what he asserts is a lie. His functional vocabulary is markedly smaller than it was 20 years ago; the oldest person ever to begin service in the White House, he is increasingly prone to repeat anecdotes and phrases. He is aswirl in foreign and financial complications. He has ignored countless norms of modern governance, from the expectation of financial disclosure to the importance of remaining separate from law-enforcement activities. He relies on immediate family members to an unusual degree; he has an exceptionally thin roster of experienced advisers and assistants; his White House staff operations have more in common with an episode of The Apprentice than with any real-world counterpart. He has a shallower reserve of historical or functional information than previous presidents, and a more restricted supply of ongoing information than many citizens. He views all events through the prism of whether they make him look strong and famous, and thus he is laughably susceptible to flattering treatment from the likes of Putin and Xi Jinping abroad or courtiers at home.
Laid out so squarely, it’s a shocking portrayal of the current state of leadership in the United States, and therefore the world. With regard the announced meeting between North and South Korea, I think of it as a Pyongyang tactic and not at all as the ping-pong diplomacy that preceded Nixon’s visit to China and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. I call it deception, except that it is still hard to see who is making the moves, and who is being deceived.