Donald Trump Wags the Dog

Recently we have been stunned and frightened by Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea, a thinly veiled reference to using nuclear weapons. Coming several days after an important diplomatic victory, involving a rare unanimous UN Security Council vote to intensify sanctions against North Korea, there was no justification to escalate the public rhetoric at this particular moment. And given the fact that Trump unleashed his initial verbal assault at a scheduled event about the opioid epidemic, it appears his hostile remarks were improvised. Or were they?

While everyone agrees North Korea should not become a nuclear power, let’s remember why its regime expends precious economic resources to develop a nuclear arsenal at great sacrifice to its people, including widespread famine. The North Korean leadership believes the only way to stave off the existential threat of an American invasion is by developing nuclear weapons. In their view, history supports this claim. Both Iraq and Libya gave up nuclear weapons programs and Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi were eventually overthrown and killed. While regime change in Iraq and Libya was not linked to the termination of WMD programs, the North Koreans believe otherwise. Their leaders remain convinced that the only way to avoid a similar fate is by developing atomic weapons.

So how should we respond to North Korea’s provocative ballistic tests and aggressive statements? In the minds of many, all reasonable diplomatic efforts have reached an impasse, leaving us to contemplate taking military action against North Korea, even as most experts concluded long ago this would entail a catastrophic loss of life in both South and North Korea and perhaps elsewhere too. Given the unimaginable stakes, we must never conclude there are no diplomatic solutions. It is imperative that American and North Korean foreign ministers meet immediately to pave the way for direct contact between the leaders of these two countries. It is nothing short of remarkable that neither the foreign ministers nor the leaders of these two countries have ever met. Even at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the US pointed thousands of nuclear warheads at one another, we made an effort to maintain strong diplomatic contact and engaged in disarmament talks and ratified treaties reducing the nuclear arsenal of both sides.

What could a meeting between North Korea and the US achieve? First, the United States must unconditionally renounce any and all interest in launching a preemptive military strike against North Korea and/or engaging in regime change. Second, the US should pledge its support to modernize the North Korea economy. This would involve a detailed list of concrete proposals regarding international private and governmental investment. Its current leader, educated in Switzerland, appears willing to engage in some level of privatization to enhance his country’s economic prospects. If we believe in the superiority of capitalist markets, the only successful strategy to engineer regime change in North Korea involves transforming its economy to improve the standard of living of its citizens. In this way, we could gradually bring North Korea into the international community and alleviate its fear of American “imperialism”. Giving North Korean citizens a place in the world economy is the best enduring strategy to diffuse the current conflict over its nuclear weapons program.

Of course, this valuable assistance can only occur if North Korea agrees to freeze, rather than dismantle, their nuclear weapons program, with UN inspectors empowered to be the sole judge verifying they have honored their commitment. A freeze would allow the regime to save face with its people after decades of propaganda describing the importance of a nuclear weapons stockpile, while defusing current tensions. The ball would be in North Korea’s court: to seize the opportunity offered by American “capitalists” and the rest of the world or to remain an economically desperate and pariah nation. Concurrently, we must scale back the public hostility and redouble our effort to engage in behind the scenes diplomacy, like the US accomplished with China during the Nixon administration.

Donald Trump’s aggressive pronouncements validate the North Korean government’s fear of America’s intentions. It also indicates he is temperamentally ill suited, as widely assumed, to resolve a major international crisis. Finally, it suggests a powerful ulterior motive: to launch a preemptive strike against the scent of a major presidential scandal, embodied by Robert Mueller’s Trump/Russia investigation, and to bolster his beleaguered political leadership. Since the war of words between Donald Trump and the North Korean regime began, Mueller’s decision to convene a second grand jury to facilitate his investigation, the FBI’s decision to secure records from Mike Flynn, Mueller’s desire to interview White House staffers, including recently departed chief of staff Reince Priebus, and perhaps most remarkably, the unannounced predawn FBI raid of Paul Manafort’s home in July, has been shunted aside as the day’s major news story. In the Hollywood movie Wag the Dog, a trumped up war distracts attention away from a sex scandal. Donald Trump’s menacing rhetoric, a sobering example of life imitating art, represents a dangerous instance of wagging the dog.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

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