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Iran, North Korea and the Dangers of Trumpian Diplomacy

President Trump addresses the nation after authorizing a missile strike in response to a chemical attack in Syria in April 2017. (The White House / YouTube)

This planet just became a more perilous place to live.

It may not have seemed so last week, when Donald Trump agreed to meet Kim Jong Un for negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Trump’s abrupt diplomatic offer was certainly an improvement on his jeering, boasting and threatening on Twitter—even if he doesn’t understand that he gave away exactly what the dictator wanted most, without getting anything in return. The prospect of talks is almost always preferable to the possibility of war, which is why previous presidents consistently sought ways to engage the hereditary despots in Pyongyang.

The difference is that those presidents also knew enough not to approve any discussion without adequate preparation, let alone the total absence of rational planning and knowledgeable staff. Only a figure as arrogantly stupid as Trump would assume that he can handle such a complex and delicate situation on his own, without the military and diplomatic expertise that is at every president’s disposal.

Unfortunately, the margin for error in dealing with a regime like Kim’s is very, very small—and the stakes in a nuclear negotiation are unimaginably big. Any mistake can make a bad situation much, much worse.

That was why the State Department and the National Security Council spent many hours secretly preparing former president Bill Clinton and his companions for their August 2009 trip to bring home two American journalists imprisoned by the North Korean government.

Although the Obama administration publicly pretended to keep the rescue mission at arm’s length, its officials informed and oversaw everything that the Clinton party did, down to their deadpan facial expressions in the official photograph taken after their encounter with Kim Jong Il, the late father of Kim Jong Un.

Every word was scripted with absolute precision. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were released, as were several South Korean prisoners. More important, Clinton’s discussion with Kim led directly to the resumption of talks with the United States, which delayed the North’s acquisition of nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles for years.

The results of the 2009 mission were a testament to the 42nd president’s own skills, yet he would be the first to admit that the weeks of instruction and preparation—not to mention the knowledge about North Korea acquired during his presidency—had been crucial to a happy outcome.

Flash forward to a new president who starts off knowing nothing, who refuses to read anything longer than a page or two, and whose hostile belligerence has led to the rapid dismantling of the State Department. As Trump contemplates meeting with Kim in just two months, he has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, further destabilizing the apparatus needed to support his diplomatic adventure. And he has replaced Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas who has been running the CIA.

Pompeo’s appointment is not a promising development.

While it is hard to imagine him making matters worse for the deeply demoralized Foreign Service, Pompeo clearly shares the blustering, foolhardy attitudes toward nuclear negotiation voiced by Trump himself. He has hinted that the solution to our problems with North Korea may lie in military action, and even joked about assassinating Kim.

More troubling still is that Pompeo, like Trump, believes the United States should scuttle the nuclear agreement with Iran that was achieved after years of negotiation supported by our European allies, Russia, and China. Although the Trump administration certifies that the Iranians have lived up to its requirements in every respect, Pompeo has said, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal.” Which would free the Iranians to resume their own nuclear program—and increase the likelihood of another disastrous war in the Middle East.

Indeed, Trump appears prepared to reinstate sanctions on Iran, in violation of that agreement, on May 12—just around the time he is expecting to sit down with Kim to forge a similar agreement with North Korea. Evidently, neither he nor Pompeo nor any of the strutting hawks in the White House realize that the chances of a deal with Pyongyang are unlikely to survive a rupture with Tehran.

Nobody will accept the word of an American president after Trump violates the agreement that his predecessor reached with Iran. Even if North Korea signs an agreement, its erratic leader will hardly feel obligated to honor the deal when the United States so casually discards its own commitments.

Let’s hope someone can explain all this to Trump, in two pages or less, before it is too late.

Joe Conason
Columnist
Joe Conason has written his popular political column for The New York Observer since 1992. He served as the Manhattan Weekly's executive editor from 1992 to 1997. Since 1998, he has also written a column that…
Joe Conason

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