Wednesday 18 September 2019

Rookie mistakes have made US president a disaster on world stage

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Mary Fitzgerald

The notion that Donald Trump's blunderbuss approach could somehow pull off one of the world's trickiest diplomatic challenges - a deal with North Korea - was always wide of the mark. That didn't stop all the wishful thinking in certain quarters in recent weeks, with some of Trump's supporters - plus the likes of British foreign secretary Boris Johnson - even going as far as to talk of a Nobel Peace Prize for the blundering and blustering US president.

Such speculation evaporated for now with Trump's announcement on Thursday - in a brash White House-headed letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that read like an extended version of Trump's ever provocative tweets - that he was cancelling the much ballyhooed summit that had been planned for mid-June. But even before that letter - with its blunt threats of escalation if Kim engages in any "foolish or reckless acts" - was drafted, Pyongyang had stopped picking up the phone from Washington. "We got a lot of dial tones," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been key to the June talks plan, told a congressional hearing on Thursday.

The entire episode was littered with rookie diplomatic missteps and no small amount of clear hubris. Trump boasted he was on the brink of forging a historic deal which had eluded so many for so long, an agreement that would see Pyongyang give up its nuclear arsenal and possibly lead some day to American forces withdrawing from the Korean Peninsula. He prematurely lauded Kim's decision to release three American nationals as a major breakthrough. He lapped up all the talk of a possible Nobel prize.

Not only did he promise more than he could deliver, his administration kept sending very mixed signals reflecting the disagreements over what Washington actually wanted to get from the talks.

Pompeo and John Bolton, a long-time proponent of regime change in North Korea who now serves as Trump's national security adviser, were at loggerheads over what would be demanded of Pyongyang. "America's interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into LA or Denver or to the very place we are sitting here," Pompeo said earlier this month.

At the same time, however, Bolton was telling media that the objective was "getting rid of all [North Korea's] nuclear weapons" and speaking of the so-called "Libya model" - a reference to the deal then-US president George W Bush agreed with Gaddafi to give up his nuclear programme. Trump, meanwhile, insisted he didn't have the "Libya model" in mind - no doubt aware that the Libyan leader's eventual demise in 2011 at the hands of rebel forces who had been aided by a Nato-led intervention was not exactly a reassuring example for Kim. US vice president Mike Pence appeared to lean more towards Bolton's position, with both of them engaging in thinly veiled threats aimed at Kim.

With so much mixed messaging indicating a clear lack of cohesion in the Trump administration over objectives or tactics, no wonder Pyongyang started baulking and throwing back some sharp barbs of its own.

The debacle - topped with the crudeness of Trump's missive to Kim this week, a fit of pique in letter form - may mean a rare opportunity to bring Pyongyang in from the cold could now be gone.

It also creates further uncertainty in the wider region and summons again the spectre of nuclear war.

But then - judging from past form - Trump could change his mind all over again and revert to his pally overtures to Kim; indeed his statement yesterday was conciliatory. The North Koreans, for their part, have said they are still willing to meet Trump.

The North Korea episode is just the latest in a long list of Trump's unpredictable - and in many cases dangerous - diplomatic misadventures. The Middle East is still feeling the impact of - and fearing further fallout from - both Trump's torpedoing of the US role in the Iran nuclear deal and his controversial decision to upend decades of US policy by moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The climate change accord forged to global acclaim in Paris three years ago has been almost fatally undermined by Trump's decision to withdraw. Almost everywhere Trump turns on the world stage, catastrophe follows. And the end of his presidency is still two-and-a-half years away.

Irish Independent

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