There's so much double-dealing going on lately it's hard to figure out who can be trusted but, on the trustworthiness scale, Donald Trump must be pretty close to the bottom. Over the objections of America's security and intelligence czars and the Chiefs of Staff, not to mention Washington's allies, Trump unilaterally pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear pact. Now he's infuriated and alienated America's closest allies - Canada, the European Union and Mexico - by starting a trade war purely on impulse, whim.
To someone like North Korea's Kim Jong Un, these things can't be confidence-building. Yet Trump is on a mission to get Kim to surrender North Korea's only meaningful means of defence, its nuclear arsenal. That's all Kim must do and a glorious future will be assured for Rocket Man and his long-suffering, malnourished people.
It was all going swimmingly until Trump's national security advisor, John Bolton, said the word "Libya." Doug Bandow, from the rightwing Cato Institute,argues that Trump has already defeated himself, the US and America's Asian allies.
Bolton, uncompromisingly hawkish and an experienced bureaucratic backstabber, publicly mused that the model for denuclearization should be Libya in 2003, essentially boxing up the North’s weapons and facilities and sending them to America.
Although the U.S. president apparently sought to downplay Bolton’s comments, he ended up threatening regime change and war. Amid a rather muddled discussion of Libya, Trump said, “If you look at that model with Qaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him. … that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely” with Kim. The vice president followed with much of the same, announcing that the North could “end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”
It was a dubious example, since North Korea’s arsenal is far more complex, including completed nukes, as well as a substantial inventory of missiles and chemical and biological weapons. Libya also didn’t have a tempting target like Seoul within missile range.
But such language is also a rhetorical disaster — perhaps a deliberate one on Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence’s part. The Libya model lingers in North Korean minds. When I visited Pyongyang last June, I was informed that Libya’s experience illustrated why nuclear weapons are necessary — something that the North Koreans have repeated to many other visitors. Officials talked about eliminating America’s “hostile policy,” “military threats,” and “nuclear threats.” But the Libyan experience means that verbal assurances and paper guarantees will never convince the North to give up its weapons.
The North Koreans are well aware that history did not end with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s relinquishment of his most important weapons. U.S. President George W. Bush announced in 2003 that Libya’s “good faith will be returned.” For eight years, the United States and Europe showered him with flowers and whispered sweet nothings in his ear. In one of the more infamous examples, U.S. Sens. John McCain, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman supped with Qaddafi in Tripoli, discussing the possibility of dispensing aid to reward him for his opposition to al Qaeda.
...But then a popular revolt broke out in 2011, and the West used the excuse of humanitarian intervention to launch a campaign for regime change on the cheap. The onetime Libyan strongman died a particularly public and gruesome death. Pyongyang was watching. As the North’s official news agency wrote, “‘Libya’s nuclear dismantlement’ much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.”
The North has drawn the obvious conclusions. Last year, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, explained that Kim “has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have.” As for Libya, Coats said, the lesson is, “If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.”
Although the Wall Street Journal attempted to exonerate Bolton by explaining that he was talking about Libya in 2003, not 2011, the two Libyan experiences are inseparable in the minds of North Koreans. By surrendering his missiles and nukes, Qaddafi invited Washington to take advantage of his weakness. Even if that was not America’s plan from the start, Washington did not hesitate to oust its recent partner. In fact, Bolton, who had been involved in the Qaddafi negotiations, advocated that the U.S. military target the Libyan leader.
...Another diplomatic disaster has further poisoned the waters. Assuaging the North’s concerns has been made more difficult by Washington’s termination of the Iran nuclear deal, followed by a set of far harsher demands for Tehran. Ironically, the Obama administration had hoped that the Iran agreement would attract Pyongyang. For instance, then-Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said in 2015 that the Iran deal “might give North Korea second thoughts about the very dangerous path that it is currently pursuing.” Once the Trump administration tore it up, however, all bets were off.
...Whatever happens with the summit, the Trump administration has become a major hindrance to nonproliferation.
...Trump has highlighted North Korea as the party more willing to engage in diplomacy, and much harder to demonize as an appropriate target of U.S. military action. He has demonstrated to South Koreans that the United States, under his administration, is the more obstructionist and dangerous nation. He has made it easy for Beijing to resist future U.S. requests, since he abandoned negotiation. The only certain loser from the president’s language and decisions is the United States.