Two weeks ago I commented that Trump bluffed a show of strength by attacking the al-Shairat airbase in Syria and was called by Putin. Now, that same story played out with North Korea and China.
Both times Trump talked or walked tough and both times had to back down.
Today’s joint statement by Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis highlights just how little leverage the U.S. has over the situation in North Korea.
Past efforts have failed to halt North Korea’s unlawful weapons programs and nuclear and ballistic missile tests. With each provocation, North Korea jeopardizes stability in Northeast Asia and poses a growing threat to our Allies and the U.S. homeland.
North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority. Upon assuming office, President Trump ordered a thorough review of U.S. policy pertaining to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.).
Today, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, we briefed Members of Congress on the review. The President’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our Allies and regional partners.
We are engaging responsible members of the international community to increase pressure on the D.P.R.K. in order to convince the regime to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue. We will maintain our close coordination and cooperation with our Allies, especially the Republic of Korea and Japan, as we work together to preserve stability and prosperity in the region.
The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our Allies. [bolded emphasis mine]
Note that there is not one single mention of a threshold for military action in the statement beyond defending ourselves and our allies. Does anyone doubt that the U.S. wouldn’t do exactly that?
Other than the military personnel involved in the decision, the military is not mentioned at all. The review from State and Defense is to simply continue doing exactly what we’ve been doing and hope that the situation changes in the future.
This is Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result. In this case, however, not changing the behavior was the exact right course of action. Because more aggressive behavior likely leads to tens of millions of dead people.
And that’s exactly what Premier Xi Jinping told Trump during their phone call on Sunday evening. The statements from China’s house organ and its Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, made it abundantly clear that Beijing would not brook any direct American intervention into the situation on the Korean peninsula.
And that brings us to the second thing the statement is lacking. China. One would think after all of this talk and bluster, the moving of ships into the region, the missile tests and stormy rhetoric coming from Trump there would have been some mention of China’s role in settling the matter.
Not one word. And that speaks volumes to the sum and substance of that phone call between Trump and Xinping on Sunday as well as to the reality of the geopolitics here.
None of the moves made by Trump in the past month have accomplished any of the ‘divide and rule’ goals they set out to achieve.
If anything, they have strengthened Russia, China and Iran’s resolve to formalize their partnerships. China launched its first aircraft carrier. The three issued statements strongly warning Trump against future missile strikes in Syria.
Because they now know that Trump is all big opening offer followed by endless back-pedaling and settling. You have to have leverage in a situation to do anything other than commit a full retreat and this statement by Mattis and Tillerson is a clear sign of folding after bluffing.
Some of that leverage was lost when Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte shrugged over its claims in the South China Sea. He came out bluntly and told the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that there was no point in pressuring China on the South China Sea. That any further provocation would lead to war.
With Duterte finally speaking pragmatic truth, as bitter as it may be, about China’s regional claims, it crushes any hope of continuing the U.S. strategy to bottle China up in its most important shipping lanes. The Philippines has been our proxy in this battle for years and our presence there is no longer welcome. Duterte finally spoke the words everyone else knew in their heart of hearts.
If Trump thought he was going to reverse that situation handed him by the Obama administration then he wasn’t paying attention to what’s been happening there for the past year. No wonder Vice-President Mike Pence bypassed Duterte and went straight to Jakarta, Indonesia on his trip.
This statement today reaffirms my position that with the missile strikes in Syria and the MOAB strike in Afghanistan that he traded short-term domestic relief from opposition for a time for showing his cards to both the Russians and the Chinese. Trump reminds me of a poker player that sits down at the table and begins aggressively pushing people off pots to establish dominance but doesn’t know when to change up.
Putin and Xinping saw this for what it was and simply waited him out. We haven’t escalated in Syria and have backed down completely over North Korea. And the only ones he’s impressing are the rubes who mistake bullying for strength.