Sometimes it helps to have a narcissistic ignoramus in the White House. As we hover near the edge of a new Korean war this may one of those times.
China’s Xi Jinping has the measure of Donald Trump having spent a couple of days with him at his Mar a Lago beach palace last April. That would explain why, on Monday, he was happy to make unanimous the UN Security Council vote to tighten sanctions on North Korea. He knows a problem child he sees one. Pyongyang’s Kim Jong Un has company.
In fact, as the Korean crisis escalates, the other guy with odd hair may be the more alarming of the two. Kim may soon have the ability to land a nuclear warhead on a US city, but if anyone is going to fire the first shot, at this point it looks more likely to be Trump. That’s what would be keeping me awake if I were Xi.
We don’t know how his tete a tete with Trump really went, but thanks to the Washington Post’s sources, we now have verbatim Trump’s conversations with two other leaders, both US friends. Whoever leaked the transcripts clearly wanted to give the world a heads up.
Trump’s January 27 phone calls with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Neto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirm that he is an obtuse, ill-informed and self-obsessed bully.
Candidate Trump, on the stump last year, preposterously insisted that Mexico would pay for the wall he promised to build on the southern border. Pena Neto has been adamant that Mexico will not pay. Trump now demanded that the Mexican stop contradicting him because “the press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that…If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall then I do not want to meet with you guys any more.”
As infantile as that was, it was in the call with the Australian that the depth and purity of Trump’s crassness truly shone.
Turnbull cut a deal with President Obama last year under the which US would take in up to 1250 migrants Australia held in camps offshore. Try as he might, the PM could not make Trump understand that these people, ”economic refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan”, had been interned not “because they are bad people” but to shut down “people smugglers” by discouraging their wouldbe clientele from buying passage on leaky boats. “We said if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if you are a Nobel prize-winning genius, we will not let you in.”
Trump would not listen. The “stupid” deal was “going to kill me” because “I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people in the country…I guarantee you they are bad…They are not going to be wonderful people who go on to work for the local milk people.” Turnbull must have wondered what the president was on about. He tried again. Trump finally heard the word “boats”. “What is the thing with boats?” he asked. “Why do you discriminate against boats?”
Turnbull gave it one more shot, earning this from Trump: “I have had it…This is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was pleasant. This is ridiculous.” Would Trump like to discuss North Korea, the prime minister asked, but Trump wasn’t interested. “This is crazy,” he said. The call was over.
Diehard Trump-splainers like Dilbert creator Scott Adams (who is starting to sound as clever as his strip’s pointy-haired boss ) want us to see in these exchanges a brilliant dealmaker whose unorthodox approach to statecraft will yield terrific victories while outraging the establishment. When it comes to dealing with North Korea, its ICBMs and nuclear warheads, I have a different theory.
The last thing Beijing wants is another hot round of the never officially ended Korean war. It would likely lead to the devastation of Koreas North and South, millions of casualties, a massive influx of refugees from the North, quite possibly the return of American forces all the way up to the Yalu river, and conceivably, an exchange of nuclear weapons.
The Kim dynasty, as deranged as it may seem to most outsiders, is not suicidal. It wants to survive. Hence its desire for nukes both as a deterrent and for bargaining purposes. Domestically, it needs to perpetuate the narrative, familiar to readers of 1984, of being constantly at war. That does not mean it seeks an actual fight.
The real danger comes from the White House being occupied by an ignorant, intemperate, insecure boob whose own party is starting to desert him as his polls tank and whose presidency is on the brink of historic failure. Look to China to save the day and give Trump something he can call a win. The US will pay a price in lost regional clout, but that was ebbing anyway with Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.