alliances, anonymous op-ed, Bob Woodward, Fear, foreign policy establishment, Gary Cohn, Im-Politic, Jim Mattis, North Korea, nuclear war, South Korea, The New York Times, Trade, tripwire, Trump, Washington Post
“Crazytown” – that’s the memorable term reportedly used by Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff John F. Kelly to describe the White House under a President portrayed as dangerously erratic both in an upcoming book by legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (which contains this claim), and in an op-ed article published in The New York Times yesterday anonymously by an author who supposedly is a “senior” administration official.
I haven’t read the full book (titled Fear) yet, but what’s made stunningly and ironically clear in the excerpts that have appeared in the Post is that “crazytown” is actually a description most richly deserved by the national bipartisan foreign and economic policy establishments from which The Times author clearly comes, and whose administration representatives surely provided Woodward with much of his material.
My reason for this conclusion? The treatment of Korea trade and national security issues described in Fear.
According to the Post account, “Again and again, Woodward recounts at length how Trump’s national security team was shaken by his lack of curiosity and knowledge about world affairs and his contempt for the mainstream perspectives of military and intelligence leaders.”
And two prime (and related) examples of the team’s efforts to “control his impulses and prevent disasters, both for the president personally and for the nation he was elected to lead”? The President’s desire to pull U.S. troops out of the Korean peninsula, and to withdraw from the trade deal reached by his predecessor, Barack Obama, with South Korea.
In one Post description of an episode described in Fear:
“At a National Security Council meeting on Jan. 19, Trump disregarded the significance of the massive U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, including a special intelligence operation that allows the United States to detect a North Korean missile launch in seven seconds vs. 15 minutes from Alaska, according to Woodward. Trump questioned why the government was spending resources in the region at all.
“‘We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,’ Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told him.”
Another Post account specifies that “Trump at one point asked his military leaders why the United States couldn’t just withdraw from the Korean Peninsula.”
Yet as known by RealityChek regulars, Mr. Trump’s positions were not only completely rational. They’re the height of prudence. For North Korea has rapidly been nearing the ability to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead. The American forces on the peninsula were still playing exactly the same tripwire role they had played before this American vulnerability had emerged – i.e., by virtue of their inability to defend themselves with conventional weapons alone, virtually forcing a U.S. President to escalate any conflict with North Korea to the nuclear level.
Nowadays, or very soon, the result could well be exposing the American homeland to an almost unimaginably destructive strike from Pyongyang. And the continuing U.S. alliance with South Korea and that military presence remains the only reason that North Korea would even think of risking a nuclear exchange with the vastly superior American strategic deterrent. Therefore, the alliance is the only reason that Washington would need to value early warning of a North Korea missile launch.
That is, President Trump has recognized that the cost-benefit calculus in Korea has changed fundamentally – and for the worse for the United States. Conventional thinkers like Mattis are still living in a world in which America can offer nuclear protection to allies without fear of losing an entire city – or two, or three – and in which it was reasonable to risk “World War III” for a country with only modest strategic or economic significance for the United States.
Indeed, the most compelling criticism that can be leveled against the President’s North Korea policies is that he hasn’t acted on his (accurate) instincts, and ordered a military withdrawal from the peninsula.
Similar reactions are justified by the Woodward contention that former White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn (in the Post‘s words) “tried to tamp down Trump’s strident nationalism regarding trade” by stealing a letter off Mr. Trump’s desk “that the president was intending to sign to formally withdraw the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Cohn later told an associate that he removed the letter to protect national security and that Trump did not notice that it was missing.”
After all, it’s bad enough that Mattis thinks the United States still should risk nuclear attack to protect South Korea. It’s positively whacko to think, as Cohn apparently believed, that South Korea would renounce its alliance with the United States out of anger at President Trump for exiting the trade agreement. Who else did Cohn suppose would protect the South from the North’s vastly superior military forces? And if he really did fear that Seoul would tell its defender to take a hike because of a trade dispute, then why would he consider South Korea to be a reliable ally in the first place – especially once any shooting started? So good riddance to this one-time Wall Street plutocrat.
There’s undeniably a case to be made that Donald Trump lacks some, much, or any of the temperament and judgment to be President. But here’s what’s also undeniable. His establishment foes (who style themselves “the adults in the room”) still cling to policies that are needlessly endangering literally millions of American lives; that have already just as needlessly cost many millions more Americans their jobs, their homes, and much of their incomes; and that have wasted trillions of dollars on ill-conceived foreign military ventures. If the choice is between this record and “Crazytown,” I’ll take the latter any day. And it’s anything but surprising that, two years ago, nearly 63 million Americans agreed.