Life After Singapore

Alan Zendell, June 13, 2018

Now that things have percolated for a day, it turns out that I do have some thoughts about the Trump-Kim Summit.

Ever since Ronald Reagan used the phrase “Trust but Verify,” it has been America’s mantra for all subsequent disarmament negotiations. It’s actually the literal translation of a Russian proverb, which, given President Trump’s admiration for Russia’s leadership, makes his reaction to Kim Jong Un even more shocking than it sounds on its face.

When asked if he could trust Kim to keep his word when he pledged to denuclearize North Korea, Trump said. “We will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt … I don’t have to verify because I have one of the great memories of all time.” As the Washington Post’s James Hohmann noted in today’s “Daily 202” newsletter, that’s eerily reminiscent of when George W. Bush “peered into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, saw his soul and concluded that the Russian leader was trustworthy.” We know how that worked out.

Prior to the Singapore Summit, Trump told us it would take him about one minute to size up Kim and know whether he could trust him. He assured us that as the master deal maker he is, he would know right away if a deal was possible, and he promised to come away with one that would be a win for America. When the summit was over, Trump completed his circular reasoning by assuring us that he had accomplished what he said he would. Bush once declared victory on the deck of an aircraft carrier. We know how that worked out, too.

Is that why the entire world isn’t cheering? Why is the other world leader who has the most to gain from a genuine rapprochement with North Korea, South Korean President Moon reacting as if he was slapped upside his head with a two-by-four?

I was surprised by the level of skepticism expressed by people who really understand the key players and their history. I felt it too, but I cautioned myself not to let my fundamental dislike for our president influence me too much. I care very deeply about the future I’m leaving for my grandchildren, and if Trump could actually do what he promised, I’d have to tip my hat to him like everyone else.

But now that the dust is settling, things are becoming clearer. Trump watchers have often said he may not be the ultimate deal-maker he touts himself to be. Any professional negotiator will tell you that a good deal is one that lets every party walk away feeling like he or she won something, but that hasn’t been the case with most of his deals. Trump has his name on a lot of buildings, but he’s achieved that by trampling a lot of people, and ruthlessly cutting his losses and running whenever things went south. He was schooled by the best in the art of shifting blame and using his money to settle court battles.

He thinks he can buy Kim off with the promises of riches, and says Kim wants to do the right thing for his people, as though Kim would be following the example he, Trump, has set. But there is no evidence either that Trump has ever cared much about anything except making money and increasing his own power and influence, and even less that Kim would ever be  inclined to be motivated that way.

There is no evidence that Trump came away from Singapore with anything of substance that benefits either America or its allies, and if this deal falls apart, Trump can’t just pay off an aggrieved plaintiff and walk away. We’ll all be paying for a long time. The only country that seems to have immediately benefited from the talks is China, which quickly resumed its profitable trade relationship with Kim, without waiting to see if he was going to follow through on his promises. Does that give the wily Kim much incentive to fully denuclearize?

Trump eagerly committed to ending joint military exercises with South Korea and laid the initial groundwork for withdrawing our forces from the south. Both are things he campaigned for since long before becoming a presidential candidate, claiming they wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. Most military professionals disagree and were shocked by what they saw as a one-sided concession, but for Trump it felt like a win because he appeared to get his way on a contentious issue, when the “experts” all said he was wrong. It might make Trump feel like a King, but the main beneficiary of his decision will again be China, which loves the idea of American troops leaving the region.

While we got empty promises from a distinctly evil, untrustworthy dictator, there was one other winner in Singapore. Vladimir Putin now claims that he was right all along in telling Trump that only direct talks with Kim would reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula. Is it possible Putin also understood that Trump’s arrogance would be no match for Little Rocket Man?

Mel Brooks famously said, “It’s good to be the King.” Let’s hope that works out better for Trump than it did for Louis XVI.

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