Sunday, August 13, 2017

Like a drunk on a highwire


Richard Nixon was the first Madman in the Oval Office and he had a pre-Alzheimer's Kissinger to advise him, not very wisely but attuned to the dangers such diplomacy could involve. Now, all these years later we have Cheeto Mussolini trying to impress his base, telling them to hold his beer while he tries it, with nobody capable of providing any diplomatic.
After a four-day fusillade of apocalyptic threats against North Korea, President Trump left many in Washington and capitals throughout the Pacific wondering whether it was more method or madness. Among those wondering were members of Mr. Trump’s own administration.

It was not the first time in his unconventional presidency that Mr. Trump had unnerved friend and foe alike, but never before had it seemed so consequential. Unrestrained attacks on uncooperative members of his own party, the “dishonest media” and the cast of “Saturday Night Live” generally do not raise fears of nuclear war. But as with so much with Mr. Trump, the line between calculation and impulse can be blurry.

In the broadest sense, Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” warnings fit the strategic imperatives of the advisers who gave him classified briefings at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., over the last week. The president showed resolve in the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, as his aides had counseled, while increasing pressure on China to broker some kind of deal to denuclearize the tinderbox Korean Peninsula.

But Mr. Trump, who bridles at being stage-managed, ignored their advice to project dignified steadfastness. Carefully calibrated briefings for the president by Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came out through a Trump bullhorn, magnified and maximized for effect. For perhaps the first time in generations, an American leader became the wild card in a conflict typically driven by a brutal, secretive despot in Pyongyang.

“On the U.S. side, the tradition has been steely resolve and preparation,” said Dennis C. Blair, a retired admiral and head of the United States Pacific Command who went on to serve as director of national intelligence. “But now we have a president who reacts to braggadocio with an attempt to top it on his own side. He’s out there in territory he thinks is familiar, which is meeting exaggerated statement with exaggerated statement, convincing the other side that we’re tough, you’re going to fold.”

In other words, the magnitude of the challenges that Mr. Trump faces has grown dramatically, but his tone has not. And it remains to be seen if the don’t-mess-with-me attitude that cowed Republican primary rivals like Jeb Bush will have a similar effect on a regime that has managed to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States while making progress toward miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that would fit on top.
And unlike Nixon, Cheeto doesn't enjoy the thrill of wandering the halls of the White House drunk while talking to the portraits.

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