There is nothing like a meeting with a dictator to get out of problems at home. The visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang, just as President Donald Trump was jettisoning the Iran deal, shows Trump’s eagerness to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and come up with a statesman-like solution to the confrontation on the Korean peninsula.
Assuming Trump really does see Kim, could there be any better way to distract attention from all the problems besetting him in Washington? For a few blessed days, maybe more, he would be free of the threat of interrogation by special counsel Robert Mueller and all the questions about his lawyer Michael Cohen.
He might not even have to worry about the next headlines, and salacious jokes, about the porn star Stormy Daniels and seances with Russian women while getting to know President Vladimir Putin. All that happened before he ran for president, but his past is catching up with him just as he would like to be “making America great again.”
With Trump in the same room with Kim, all they need is to escape with a joint declaration that saves face for both. Kim can say, OK, we’ll begin to get rid of our nuclear program while you withdraw your troops. Never mind if neither really happens. Trump is looking for headlines, maybe a few quotes and columns about what a great choice he’d make for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The American president lusts after this kind of distraction not just to get the Mueller investigation off his back. He’s worried about elections coming up in November for all 435 members of the House of Representatives, elected to two-year terms, and 34 of the 100 members of the Senate, elected for six years each. Right now he faces the real threat of his Republican Party losing control of both houses of the Congress, leaving the Democratic majority in a position to press for his impeachment.
Think of the wave of popular support he might create if he came home with a real deal with the North Koreans after his predecessors in the White House had failed. How could all those columnists and academics who hate him carry on with such impunity against his claim to have put out a fire that threatened only half a year ago to explode into a regional conflagration?
Would not the mere mention of his name as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize seriously undermine any movement for his impeachment? Whoever heard of a peace prize candidate driven out of office by the jackals of the opposition?
There’s no guarantee, of course, that Kim will cooperate. What if Kim stonewalls Trump’s demands for dumping his nukes and missiles? Or what if he says, I’ll begin doing it after the United Nations removes sanctions and you begin withdrawing your troops? One reason Trump sent Pompeo to Pyongyang again, on his second trip, is to try to reach a deal well in advance, to avoid any surprises.
By getting tough with Iran, undercutting the deal so carefully wrought in concert with major European powers, Trump is sending a warning to North Korea. Having denounced the Iran deal as really terrible, he’s tossing the whole thing just as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long demanded. He’s telling the North Koreans, so close to Iranians in wheeling and dealing on nuclear technology and missiles, he won’t compromise with them either.
The future, though, may not work out so simply. What if the Iranians now go back to developing the means to fabricate nuclear warheads on which they stopped work under the terms of the deal? Would Trump consider a pre-emptive strike on their nuclear facilities, as he once threatened North Korea? And do the Israelis really want conflict in the Middle East to escalate to an entirely new level?
In doing away with the waiver on sanctions against Iran, Trump risks alienating all the European powers that went for the deal in the first place. He also can probably forget the talk about a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing an end to conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Always, however, Trump is playing to the crowd in Washington. On Korea, he may still choose to mingle firmness with flexibility. Having made good on his promises to walk out of the agreement with Iran, he may opt for an appearance of reaching a deal for lasting peace in Korea.
For Trump, his future in office depends on his ability to have it both ways, proving his statesman-like qualities to enough of his loyal voter base to ensure his safety against impeachment and the survival of his presidency. He’s counting on Kim to help him weather the storm.