“I Know A Lot About Airplanes”: The Mostly Pointless Abandonment of South Korea

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Donald Trump is objectively the much better person here. Weird, right? 

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on North Korea, or East Asia at all. You’ve already seen a lot of pop-up experts the last few days, and will see a lot more today. (“What matters to Kim most of all is regime stability, Wolf.”)

I also certainly don’t want to pretend that what happened overnight was worse or comparable to nuclear war. It was much better! If I had to choose between a preening Donald Trump and the melting annihilation of human life, I’d choose the former, at least seven or eight times out of ten.

But let’s also not pretend that yesterday was anything more than preening. I can’t say for certain that this was a huge victory for Kim, or that the optics of him meeting with a world leader solidifed his standing in his country or around the world. That Donald Trump basically abdicated America’s historic alliances over the weekend undercuts that a bit, though I suppose Kim might be able to convince the North Korean media to portray it as a historic victory.

(Though to be honest, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. From what I understand, the North Korean propaganda machine portrays America as weak and decadent and crumbling, so why is meeting with its leader a victory? I know that contradiction is the heart of totalitarianism, but I’m still curious about how that circle is squared.)

This summit was optics, which is not nothing in international relations, but is also far from everything. You knew it was going to be optics when they announced that Trump was leaving a little early and that he only had 45 minutes of one-and-one scheduled. You knew it was optics when the Department of Energy wasn’t included in the summit. You knew it was optics, honestly, the second Trump got involved.

This isn’t how summits work. They don’t begin with the President off-handedly announcing he wants to meet. There is months and years of prep work, negotiations and agreements, painful discussions about language as both sides test and push limits. Then the leaders get together and wrangle over the end.

In a way, I get why Trump’s approach is appealing. He’ll cut through all that bluster and just get the job done because he’s a master negotiator. He’ll size Kim up within a minute and figure it out. That’s a fun thought! If you like Donald Trump, that sounds cool.

The problem is that Trump the actual human being has little to nothing in common with Trump the Image. He’s not a good negotiator, is wildly susceptible to flattery, and goes into talks with nothing more than half-baked notions he gets from half-watching Fox and Friends. None of this is an exaggeration. When he said he’s been preparing for these talks his whole life, he just means that he likes haggling with people. It also means he literally hasn’t been preparing at all.

He knew what he wanted out of this. He wanted Kim to say denuclearization, and as soon as he got that, he was gold. He could talk about Kim being a great and wonderful guy who “really loves his country.” And he got that. Throughout his press conference, which by Trump standards was relatively lucid, he talked about how this time Kim’s promise meant something because he “wants to get stuff done.”

Again though, I’m skeptical, because nothing in the signed documents indicates any different pressures or timetables than any other accord ever signed, or even North Korea’s official position (which is they truly and sincerely and why won’t you believe us don’t want nukes, but dream first of a nuke-free world, so you go first). Instead, Trump got a vague pledge and a can kicked down the road.

As Trump kept saying, though, this was just the beginning. But I don’t know. This is his chance to say something went great and then ignore it, and if Kim doesn’t follow through, shrug his shoulders and say he tried. It’s hard to take Trump’s pledges of follow-through seriously. All he does is promise something will happen down the road in order to claim victory, and then do it all again down the road.

He also got Kim to agree to return the remains of American POWs, which is certainly a good thing, but that’s also the kind of good-faith gesture that should be the prerequisite of any meeting.

And what did we give up? Well, for one thing, Trump continuously reiterated his desire to bring home all our troops from South Korea, which is, I guess, fine, except for two points. 1) Saying you really want to do something super badly is not exactly a common tool for a great negotiator, and 2) doing so just because Kim promises to denuclearize still leaves South Korea entirely vulnerable to NK’s conventional forces. Even before the regime went nuclear, the fear was that any conflict could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people n Seoul just from artillery strikes alone.

Indeed, I think the big outcome of these talks was that Trump agreed to stop us military exercises with South Korea. Here’s the full transcript of that.

We have done exercises working with South Korea for a long time. We call them war games. I call them war games. They are tremendously expensive. The amount of money we spend on that is incredible. South Korea contributes, but not 100 percent which is a subject that we have to talk to them about also. That has to do with the military expense and also the trade. We actually have a new deal with South Korea. We have to talk to them. We have to talk to countries about treating us fairly. We pay for a big majority of them.

We fly in bombers from Guam. I said where do the bombers come from? Guam. Nearby. I said great. Where is nearby. Six and a half hours. That’s a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and drop bombs all over the place and go back to Guam. I know a lot about airplanes. Very expensive. I didn’t like it.

What I did say is and I think it is provocative. I have to tell you, Jennifer, it is a provocative situation. When I see that and you have a country right next door. Under the circumstances we are negotiating a comprehensive and complete deal. It is inappropriate to have war games. Number one, we save money. A lot. Number two, it is really something they very much appreciated.

I’m glad North Korea appreciated that! And I’m glad you gave us a deep dive into your tremendous knowledge about airplanes, to let us know that flying them is expensive. You know who wasn’t totally on-board with this plan? Our allies in South Korea, whose military didn’t know that you were canceling these. And neither did ours. 

US forces in Korea said they had not received updated guidance on military exercises.

“In coordination with our ROK [Republic of Korea] partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance,” a spokesperson told Reuters

The South Korean military issued a statement to NBC News saying: “Regarding President Trump’s comment regarding ending of the combined military drills … we need to find out the exact meaning or intention behind his comments at this point.”

This is classic Trump. He’s been all rankled and wrinkly about having to pay for joint military exercises, because all he sees is money and not value, and has no understanding about how these things work or why we do these exercises. So Kim can just say “these are really expensive” and “we’d appreciate it if you stopped” while whispering about nuclearization, and Trump gave up the store.

By “gave up the store” here I mean he sold out our allies. This is a disaster for South Korea, and I think people are just realizing that now. He values Kim’s smiles more than Moon’s security. And you know who else loves that Trump looked at the price tag (though not the value) of exercises in the region and gave them up? China. So this is a huge victory for China and North Korea, and a loss for South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. You might recognize that as a general inversion of American policy.

But that’s what he’s been doing. In the press conference, he is asked about the G7, and goes off on Trudeau for paragraphs at a time (calling him “Justin”), and doing a play-by-play of his own imagined version of events. So to recap, he spent the last few days severing alliances with our friends and strengthening our rivals, if not openly advancing the interests of geopolitical enemies.

That’s why this whole thing struck me as sort of a farce. Obviously, anything Trump is involved in is at least partly farce. That’s part of why I wonder how much of a triumph this is for Kim: there was hardly more dignity in yesterday’s meeting than in his palling around with Rodman. Trump might have been elevated, but he’s still a tacky casino operator and reality show star.

But what really struck me as false and horrible was when a CNN anchor said that it was a victory for Kim to be “meeting with the leader of the free world.” When that leader openly sides with Russia and China over Canada and Germany and the UK, when that leader officially closes our doors to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, when that leader tweets out praise for the Supreme Court allowing voter rolls to be purged, then he’s not the leader of the free world. He’s just a member of a much darker and crueler world. Maybe that’s why they got along so well.

 

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North Korea, White Nationalism, and Reality TV: The Key To the Fake King

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Look, I’m sorry, I love this image.

In Deadspin today, Burneko talks about why he doesn’t think Trump is a real ideological Nazi or Confederate or even an actual white supremacist. I sort of disagree, but this is a solid point.

Honestly, even his white supremacism is a second-order thing, an artifact of the coincidence that he, himself, is white, and cannot tolerate less than personal supremacy. He likes the things in the world that gratify him, and those things happen to be good for preserving the power of white people, men in particular, literally any of whom he’d run over with a combine harvester in a moment if it got the New York Times to treat him like a True New York Big Shot.

There’s a lot to that, I think, especially about how he’d uncaringly destroy the people who for whatever reason adore him. He has no problem crushing the people closest to him, his advisors and staff and defenders. Indeed, he likes cruelty, probably because it reminds him that, despite being a mush-headed coward, he still has unearned power.

He clearly doesn’t care about any of his voters. As Burneko puts it, ““Nazi” and “Republican” and “fork” and “war” and “hello”: For Donald Trump these are just noises you make with your mouth. You make the ones that get people to look at you; if they also smile, fine, but if their eyes widen in shock or horror or disgust, that’s fine too, so long as they don’t look away.” I do think he’s a pretty old-school Queens/Staten Island racist, but he played it up more to get the people cheering. He’s a wrestling heel and a reality show savant (that’s not a compliment). He knows how to gin up conflict for the cheap seats.

Indeed, that’s confirmed by a post late yesterday in the Times.

The president’s top advisers described themselves as stunned, despondent and numb. Several said they were unable to see how Mr. Trump’s presidency would recover, and others expressed doubts about his capacity to do the job.

In contrast, the president told close aides that he felt liberated by his news conference. Aides said he seemed to bask afterward in his remarks, and viewed them as the latest retort to the political establishment that he sees as trying to tame his impulses.

First off, people who are stunned: you’re idiots. This is who he has always been. It isn’t like he somehow became a different man over the 200 days of his Presidency. Everyone knew this was exactly how it would go, so don’t act surprised. When Gary Cohn resigns because his conscience was rocked, don’t treat him as a hero. He’s a goddamn dope if he ever thought differently.

But it’s the last line that’s key. The political establishment is trying to “tame his impulses”, and that’s why he feels great. It doesn’t matter what he said, it doesn’t matter how divisive it was, it doesn’t matter that he broke up his precious CEO conclaves or emboldened Nazis or hurt his chances of passing policies. He was able to be Trump.

That’s what it is all about. That’s what it has always been about. He wants to be the swaggering anti-PC cowboy he envisioned back in his old draft-dodging days, and wants to be seen as the big man who tells it like it is because he’s the only one smart enough to know that George Washington owned slaves, and because all he really wants is attention.

The key to this is his reality show days, which are the main reason he is now President, as terrible an indictment of the United States as that is. On his show, he pretended to be the titan of business and the guy in charge, deciding on the fates of supplicants depending on if they pleased him or not. In reality, producers decided who came and went. At least, according to Clay Aiken, but come on: does Trump seem like the guy who makes real decisions?

He doesn’t. He just likes the trappings of power and fame. A perfect example of this was the North Korea showdown. Trump blustered and blathered, but the DoD played it straight, and Nikki Haley did her job, and we didn’t move to DefCon 1 or anything. Indeed, Trump’s statements seemed outside the process. He was the fake President.

The problem is that he is still the real President, and he made the situation more tense, and could have made it catastrophic. On TV, he could pretend to be the boss and say stupid shit, and it didn’t matter. But here, all you have is people trying to do their jobs under a guy who has no concern for protocol or the right way to do things, because they constrain Trump from being “Trump”.  He doesn’t know anything, doesn’t make actual decisions, doesn’t care to handle things, but wants to be seen as the boss. Wants to be seen as the swaggering tough. And that’s enormously dangerous.

When he adopts the language of white nationalism because he likes to be seen as anti-PC, it is dangerous. When he threatens North Korea because he likes to be seen as bold, it is dangerous. When he is willing to say anything because he can’t stand being anything other than his own stupid caricature, it is dangerous.

The entire Donald Trump candidacy and presidency has been about serving this empty ego. It’s about propping up his fraud. Maybe that’s the only way to get through to his most stubborn supporters. Just keep pointing out that at no way, in no form, has this ever been about them. It never will be.

“Fire and Fury”: With North Korea, Trump Plays To The Brink In A Game He Doesn’t Understand

 

First 30 Cities To Be Nuked

The Badlands seem nice this time of year

 

It is hard to say the world has been peaceful over the last 6 months, but it has more or less maintained the status quo. That’s been the only sigh of relief in the Trump Administration. The terror has been his rampage against our democracy, both by who he is and the actions of his administration, namely the DOJ. He hasn’t, as we say, been “tested”.

That’s over now.

North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment.

That Washington Post story was just the first terrifying news of the day. The second was the reaction of Donald Trump.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Now. North Korea having the capability to launch nuclear missiles is not Donald Trump’s fault, despite his belligerence and incompetence. It was not Barack Obama’s fault. It wasn’t even absolutely the fault of George W. Bush, who pulled out of a treaty and essentially ignored NK while they developed their first weapon.

In some ways, this was inevitable. There is a limit to the force the international community can put on a country that is content to be lawless and ignore, when needed, the basic needs of its citizens. The regime calculates exactly what pressure it can withstand internally and externally. It knows China doesn’t want it to collapse, and the military might it projects, no matter how briefly, onto Seoul makes the thought of war nearly unbearable.

That isn’t to say it had to play out this way, and I am sure that actual NK experts could have gamed out other scenarios. But what happened, with NK consistently pushing the envelope and withstanding sanctions, was probably the most likely one. Options were very few.

To say that Donald Trump doesn’t understand this is redundant; he doesn’t understand anything. He knows nothing about North Korea except that he could maybe get a better deal there, whatever that means. And he knows nothing about history or military strategy. He just knows that he needs to sound tough.

In a way, there is a case to be made for his rhetoric today. Right now, we are playing a very delicate game, where the regime needs to be appeased, and hopefully back down. In order to do that, they have to be convinced that they have crossed a very dangerous line and that they are in existential danger. Because Kim Jong Un isn’t a madman. He’s done an incredible job of maintaining and consolidating power despite being seen as a weak poof when entering office. And he’s not suicidal.

So the trick is to convince him that he needs that pushing this further would be suicidal while hoping that new sanctions, including by Russia and China, work (getting them on–board with sanctions is more a matter of North Korean intransigence and menace, but if the Trump admin wants to claim a diplomatic victory, I’m happy to give it to them. It isn’t entirely unearned). But you want to do this without stumbling into war.

That’s what frightens me. Going to the brink only works if you think the other guy is going to blink. It only works if you know the exact level of menace you can enact without crossing the line into actual nuclear war. You have to understand your enemy, and you have to act with a level head while pretending not to.

Both sides are doing this. One is led by a child dictator (who while not a madman can’t be seen as a genius, either). The other is led by a monomaniacal know-nothing who thinks he’s tough. This is very delicate, and I don’t know if Un has the ability to play it right. I know Trump doesn’t.

There are a few mitigating factors. One is that, despite some hysteria, I do think Trump knows that nuclear war is bad. He’s not eloquent about it, and he sometimes likes to talk about it like it is NBD, but that’s just to seem tough. I think he’d be too scared to pursue things. I also think he’s too lazy to really want to do anything other than issue tough-sounding statements. He wants to outsource actual problems to other people.  that Kelly, Mattis, McMaster, et al have a protocol to keep him from doing something

And, if I am wrong on that, I’m banking (hoping, even praying) that Kelly, Mattis, McMaster, et al have a protocol to keep him from doing something catastrophic.

But even these comforts are really very cold. He is the President, and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He has to be taken seriously, even if he shouldn’t be. What he says and does matters, and he doesn’t know anything, refuses to learn anything, and acts entirely based on how he thinks it will make him look.

This is the real horror of the idiot Presidency. That nuclear war depends, to a large or small extent, but inarguably to some extent, on the most shallow, vain, and ignorant man in American public life, and maybe overall. This is the terror wrought because some people want to piss off liberals.

They’ll cheer for him with this. They’ll think this ridiculous baby is tough. I hope it works, obviously. I hope that the new sanctions force Un to back down while saving face. But Trump is making it nearly impossible for him to have a face-saving out. And that’s when things start to explode.