Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Joining the League of Ordinary Nations...

This past week has been one of great historical and political contrasts.

The passing of former First Lady, Barbara Pierce Bush, provided a stark comparison between the comportment of the American Presidency past and present. I was reminded of my own small role in the Bush Campaign in 1988, as a College Republican campaign coordinator at the University of Wisconsin.  The Bush/Quayle campaign was the first time I was actively involved in a Presidential campaign.

I have vivid memories of meeting both President Bush and Barbara Bush and how I was struck by their sense of duty over self-interest.  History has, and will continue to debate the Bush legacy but that is a different discussion. 

Even those who take strong issue with the actions of the George HW Bush Administration can admire the way he and the first lady conducted themselves and the dignity they brought to the White House.

There was a fundamental doctrine of Presidential stewardship, that was clearly articulated by Bush in his inaugural address in 1989;

"Great nations like great men must keep their word. When America says something, America means it, whether a treaty or an agreement or a vow made on marble steps."

For most of the 20th century, an abiding belief most Americans have had is that we, the United States stood for freedom, and for fundamental human rights. Even when that belief was imperfect in its expression or application. At the end of the day. The United States was the force that stood against tyrants. Be they Imperialists, Fascists, Communists behind the Iron Curtain, drug kingpins and the corrupt politicians they controlled in Central and South America, or Terrorists in the Middle East.

We were (or at least honesty tried to be,) the good guys. Putting the collective interest of Humanity ahead of our own domestic politics, and backing it up with our national will and when needed, our military might.

How things have changed.

I have watched the Trump Administration's approach to dealing with the issue of North Korea with a growing mixture of dismay and alarm. Alarm at the eagerness that many in the Administration have expressed for military conflict on Korean Peninsula, and dismay with the extent to which Donald Trump is willing to completely abdicate American moral leadership, in a desperate attempt to score what he sees as a foreign policy "win" that he can boast about on Twitter.

The regime that rules North Korea is a brutal, viscous tyrannical dictatorship on par with Stalinist Russia in terms of human rights atrocities. The rule of three generations of the Kim Family, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un, has resulted in the murder of countless North Koreans. The Torture and imprisonment of countless more, and a web international crime that boggles the mind.

Those few defectors who do make it out, tell of the horrors of life inside North Korea and their extraordinary journeys to escape the country.

In addition North Korea is the number one global source for counterfeit US currency, mass producing fake $100 Dollar bills to finance both the North Korean military and the Kim Family's personal lifestyle. This current reality is, no country or bank will lend North Korea money. Because that the last time anyone did, they just refused to pay it back. So North Korea is a country that is desperate for hard currency to finance the regime's ambitions, and ensure its survival.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. Less than two years into his Presidency Trump is desperate for a "win". He couldn't kill the Affordable Care Act, his tax cuts are exploding the US Budget Deficit and National Debt. and his entire administration is mired in massive scandal involving Russian meddling in the 2016 Election.

At first Trump saw North Korea as a potential way to shift focus away from his own problems Tweet a few insults at the North Korean leader, threaten a preemptive nuclear strike and voila! You have changed the news cycle, at least for a few days.

One side effect of that, is China decided enough was enough. Faced with a President of the United States who did not seem to understand the basic truth that any military conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be catastrophic for everyone involved, earlier this month, China summoned Kim to Beijing, and made it clear that it was time cool things down.

Suddenly we all are talking about a Kim-Trump Summit. Giving Trump the chance to Tweet gleefully about it. Implying that he, the great negotiator, was on the verge of achieving what none of his predecessors have been able to. The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. All it will take is for him to sit down with Kim face to face and Trump the dealmaker will get it done.

I wouldn't hold your breath... Oh, you can safely bet that North Korea is serious about wanting to sit down and talk. Not change, not disarm, just talk.

Christopher Hill, the former US ambassador who led the negotiations in George W. Bush‘s second term, said at the time, ”The idea that North Korea will abandon its weapons programs in exchange for the promise of security and regime survival has failed whenever it has been tested.“

If you remember, the previous North Korean Leader, Kim Jong-il made a very similar offer. Making the US think we could woo North Korea into a deal by giving back frozen assets and removing the regime from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It was all just a show. In the end, North Korean balked at even basic verifications to prove they had disarmed. And just like every other time before, Pyongyang pocketed the up-front concessions and used the talks to stall for time.

What IS different this time around, is North Korea knows Trump is desperate to use this situation to shift focus from his domestic problems. Donald Trump will put domestic political distraction ahead America's national interest, and that of our allies.

Donald Trump is right about one thing, he certainly is on track to do something none of his predecessors have; That is, to give the North Korean regime the international legitimacy it has craved, and up until now, has rightly been denied by every American President since Harry Truman.

By meeting with Kim, Trump is putting a petty murderous thug, guilty of heinous human rights crimes, on par with President of the United States. All because he thinks it gives him a "one up" on Barack Obama. Donald Trump has demonstrated a total lack of understanding of why that is bad, and what it would mean. Even going so far as to say that the Dictator of North Korea is an honorable guy.

The only nation that has ANY real influence with North Korea, is China. North Korea is completely dependent on China who for the most part, has been happy to let North Korea get away with being a thorn in the side of the United States. This is because that is something that benefits China.

China is quite happy to have North Korea keep Trump (and the U.S). focused on the Korean peninsula, instead of  China’s aggressive militarization of pretty much the entire South China Sea. The only way North Korea is really going to give up their nuclear weapons is if China makes them do so. And right now, China has no incentive to do that..

North Korea is never going to nuke South Korea or attack Japan, and no, North Korea is not going to launch an ICBM at the US. China would never allow a military conflict on their back porch. The real threat is that North Korea will SELL a nuke, or parts of a nuke to somebody who would use it.  ISIS, Al-Qaeda , Hezbollah, Boko Haram or who knows who else. THAT is the real risk, one that only China is in a position to mitigate.

Meeting with Kim, does nothing. but give him legitimacy. More sanctions on North Korea does nothing but make them ramp up their counterfeiting operations. It is China that needs to feel the pressure to fix this.

But to achieve that, America needs influence, and in year two of the Trump Presidency the United States has next to none. Trump is seen as a toddler to be managed and re-directed. American soft power (diplomatic, strategic and economic) has been decimated by this Administration.

The United States no longer has sufficient influence with our Allies let alone our adversaries, to exert the kind of diplomatic pressure on China needed to truly move the ball in terms of North Korea.

 The majority of the ASEAN countries are still without a current US ambassador. American influence in the Region is now clearly second to that of China.

Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and even Australia, New Zealand and South Korea are all looking to China for  leadership, in terms of the stability of the region.   Who can blame them?  It is region that The United States, as a pacific rim nation is part of, but is no longer sitting at the table. Our voice, and our influence have been muted, by the Trump Administration itself.

An administration led by a President who thinks he is going to win a Poker game with people who are clearly playing Chess.

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