“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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Anti-JCPOA Arguments: Should The US Violate Treaties?

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The President of the United States of America

Trust me: I’d much rather be talking about Michael Cohen getting millions of dollars from Russian billionaires and huge corporations in some kind of slush fund. I can’t wait to see the explanations for this. The dude has three clients! Were they hoping to buy face time with Sean fucking Hannity?

But, as fast as the news moves (and don’t get me wrong, this might be huge), the top story of the day is still the United States President, former reality TV host and failed casino owner Donald Trump, announcing that the US would violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The fallout of this is already beginning to take shape, although its outcome is very far from certain. Iran has announced that they are staying in the treaty, condemning the US for violating its agreements, and explicitly tying it to the Paris Accords. But at the same time, they also announced that they would prepare to ramp up their nuclear program is the other signatories followed suit.

This is pretty smart, I think, even if it is super predictable. The upshot is that the European countries in the JCPOA have to choose between an Iran acting all pious and responsible, and the United States, which Iran is painting as essentially a rogue state. That Iran, itself a very, very bad actor, is able to do this is because, between this and the Paris Accords and a million other pointless acts of dumbshow hostility, Trump is handing them a brush and the paints, and saying “I am a rogue state. Paint me like you do your French girls.”

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Iran Deal is Peak Trump: Reality Show Engineering, Fake Toughness, and Bone-Deep Ignorance

Spoiler! It won’t be the correct decision.

President Trump is expected to announce Tuesday that he will not continue a waiver of sanctions against Iran, according to current and former U.S. and foreign officials, a major step toward ending the nuclear agreement he has called an “insane” deal that “never, ever should have been made.”

The decision follows the failure of last-ditch efforts by the three European signatories to the agreement to convince Trump that his concerns about “flaws” in the 2015 accord could be addressed without violating its terms or ending it altogether.

In this one decision, a monumental decision, portentous in every way, we have the essence of the Trump administration boiled down.

Manufactured reality show drama. While other Presidents have made it clear when they are going to give a speech, only Trump likes to tease out his decisions, with the weight of a commercial break. He still sees himself as a reality show judge, sitting on the high chair, with supplicants having their fate decided. And in a way, he’s correct. There’s no doubt that he’s brought the language of the genre to our politics, with its phony drama, heightened personal confrontations, and (most importantly), the wholly false idea of Himself being a man to whom people need to listen. That it has become, well, reality, is our nightmare. The tweet tease is small in the grand scope of things, but demonstrates the essential seriousness with which he approaches his job (which is to say: none at all).

Fake tough guy New York style negotiating, you understand? The essence of Trump is that he’s a fake tough guy. His entire persona, which he doesn’t try to hide, is that if you go after him, he’ll sue you. If you insult him, he’ll sue you. It’s maddening, because being able to afford high-priced lawyers is not actually tough! It’s hard-nosed, or whatever, and works really well in the world of New York real estate, I guess, where everyone thinks they’re some kind of street thug. Trump is part of this, Kushner definitely is, as is Rudy, and Cohen, and a ton of other people around him, who are beginning to realize that manipulating tabloids isn’t the same as life-or-death decisions with nowhere to hide.

This is painfully clear in Iran, where Trump brings his one negotiating idea- that you can walk away- to the table. That’s all he knows! It’s his one trick, because it makes him seem tough, but it has backed him into a corner. The other partners, especially Russia and China, aren’t about to back out of the JCPOA. In fact, those two are probably pretty glad America is, because it undermines US leadership even more (and that had little ground beneath its feet anyway), and forces Iran to turn more toward Eurasia.

There are times when this tactic works, even perhaps on the international stage. One could argue that being willing to go nuclear was a from of “walking away” in the Koreas. I personally think that it might have played a part, though once Kim had reliable ICBMs the game was essentially over. But even if you think it worked with North Korea, even if you think it was the only factor that has led to these historic times, you have to recognize that it doesn’t always work.

But these are essentially parochial dummies with one trick. And it isn’t going to work with Iran. Good luck telling Trump that, though, because of Point #3.

Essential bone-deep ignorance. The Iran deal was a masterwork of diplomacy, retroactive justification for Obama’s Nobel Prize. He (and John Kerry, and a host of others, but we have an auteur vision of geopolitics) convinced Russia and China to levy punishing sanctions on Iran, when neither of them particularly wanted to. In exchange, Iran essentially gave up its nuclear program, the one guarantee of non-interference, and agreed to the most invasive inspection regime in human history.

But Trump is clear this was the worst deal ever made, because Iran also got some things out of it.

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To Arms, Teachers! Trumpism as Totalitarianism

I just finished Masha Gessen’s truly great The Future is History, her story of “how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia”. It was hard to read, not just because of the grey bleakness that choked out all Russian political space throughout the book, but because of the vast parallels between Russia and the United States…especially, of course, between the rise of Trump and the Reign of Putin.

I don’t mean, right now at least, in the strictly legal or political sense. The book doesn’t at all touch on potential collusion, or cooperation between the parties. Trump is really only mentioned a couple of times at the end, once where Gessen is talking about the growing global influence of Alexander Dugin, the philosopher of Putinism and Russia’s aggressive revanchism, with its white nationalism, hatred of modernity, anti-gay hysteria, political oppression, and swaggering love of upsetting norms.

In the epilogue, she writes of his growing international fame: “With the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the neo-Nazi movement known as the ‘alt-right’ gained public prominence, as did its leader Richard Spencer, an American married to Nina Kouprianova, a Russian woman who served as Dugin’s English translator and American promoter.”

This, I think, is part of the key. The philosophy behind Putinism, especially once his second terms started, has been aggressive and deeply conservative, almost atavistic. And that movement, which I’ve lumped as “white suprenationalism“, has been the driving moral force behind Trump.

This isn’t a full review of the book, nor is it trying to tease out the enormity of the Russian connection, in a spiritual, legal, and economic sense (indeed, every time I try to, I get lost in the vastness of the details, which might be the point). I hope to do a full review this week, and hope to bring out more connections as we go along.

But there was one passage that struck me, and that clarified a lot of what I have been thinking about when we talk about arming teachers.

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Bibi as Trump; Trump As Bibi: How Netanyahu Is The Most Republican Politican In the World

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In 2015, facing yet another tough re-election campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu posted a short video on his Facebook page, warning his voters about a unique threat to their political system, their way of life, and indeed, the fate of their country: different voters.

“The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

This was in March of 2015, a few short months before Trump brought racism back into the mainstream of American politics, but it wasn’t like this sort of rhetoric was unfamiliar. Republicans in the United States have been using the same sort of rhetoric for years.

They’d been warning us of hordes of illegal immigrants voting, and massive conspiracies to have the wrong voters vote illegally. One of their conjuring words was “ACORN”, a voter registration service which they shut down after taking part in wild, absurdist conspiracies.

But to Republican supporters, alt-right loons, and out-and-out racists, it was an unmitigated Good Thing. After all, what ACORN was doing was registering the wrong people to vote. That’s echoed in Bibi’s message. It smacks of conspiracy, international meddling, some kind of nefarious scheme to overturn the rightful heir to the Israeli throne, when really it was just voter mobilization against a candidate who had made lives on the margin even more precarious.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Bibi Netanyahu has for years been not just celebrated by the Republican Party, but has essentially been a Republican. They use the same tactics, the same tone, and have shared beliefs.

Trump, though not a Netanyahu-like figure, is still the apotheosis of this. Through their rank insecurity, their demagogic bigotry, and most of all, their massive corruption, it is pretty clear that Trump and Bibi are cut from the same cloth.

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Trump’s Military Parade Not Un-American, But A Different America

Recently, Allison and I have been rewatching Parks and Rec. It’s not a proper binge, as we just put it on here and there. There wasn’t really a reason for starting it, other than that I think one day I just wanted to watch something enjoyable, and the theme song is basically my happy place.

We didn’t have a strictly political reason to watch, even though nearly all decisions made now have a political patina to them, and that the specter of our idiot leader looms over everything. But as we watched it, there has been happiness at being in that world, where good people work together to do good things, and to be at a time when we weren’t in an open kakistocracy.

It’s more than the show being about nice people, of course (although their fundamental decency is a huge part of the appeal). It’s what the show is actually about: it is a celebration of the common good, and the idea that the government is a collection of who we are, and not an alien enemy.  That it can be frustrating and maddening and prone to charlatans manipulating it and dummies hijacking it, but at the end, it is us.

We happened to watch the Debate episode, where Leslie Knope is running for city council. This is her closing statement, after he opponent, a rich scion (who is actually just an amiable dope) said that his daddy would pull the one big factory out of town if he lost. (I can’t seem to find a video)

I’m very angry. Angry Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage & threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. Its despicable. Corporations are not allowed to dictate what a city needs. That power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to think it belongs to them. I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your City Councilman, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. If i seem too passionate, it’s because i care. If I come on too strong, its because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home, you are my family, and I promise you, I’m not going anywhere.”

You put it first. That’s the ethos: that we come together, despite everything, and fight for something other than our own short-term glory.

Needless to say, we aren’t living in that world.

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