Mad or bad?

With many ask­ing whether ei­ther pro­tag­o­nist in the US-North Korea nuclear stand-off is in his right mind, the world is on the brink.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Paul Thomas

With many ask­ing whether ei­ther pro­tag­o­nist in the US-North Korea nuclear stand-off is in his right mind, the world is on the brink.

Less than seven months into Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency, the un­think­able has be­come lead item on the news. It seemed ob­vi­ous from the out­set that Trump’s flaws – no­tably the self-sus­tain­ing com­bi­na­tion of ig­no­rance and ar­ro­gance and his un­sta­ble per­son­al­ity, si­mul­ta­ne­ously nar­cis­sis­tic and insecure – made him un­suited to cri­sis man­age­ment, es­pe­cially of an in­ter­na­tional con­fronta­tion. When his ad­ver­sary is a sim­i­lar per­son­al­ity type and the bone of con­tention is nuclear weapons, the world is jarred out of the com­pla­cent day­dream into which the threat of nuclear war has re­ceded al­most to the point of be­com­ing a myth­i­cal bo­gey­man evoked by cur­mud­geons try­ing to con­vince the younger gen­er­a­tion they don’t know how lucky they are.

The aw­ful prospect has been raised from time to time but al­ways by pro­pa­ganda or­gans of para­noid, au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes, in­clud­ing North Korea’s. Trump’s dec­la­ra­tion that North Korea’s threats “will be

met with fire and fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen be­fore” is a pro­foundly dis­turb­ing de­vel­op­ment: this world has never be­fore heard the leader of an ad­vanced, sup­pos­edly civilised democ­racy threaten a lesser na­tion with nuclear in­cin­er­a­tion be­fore a shot has been fired.

In Au­gust 1945, Pres­i­dent Harry S Tru­man threat­ened Ja­pan with “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth”, but that was af­ter three-and-a-half years of all-out war and 16 hours af­ter the US had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. That Trump echoed a threat for­ever as­so­ci­ated with the first and only use of nuclear weapons, which by con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates killed 210,000 peo­ple, mostly civil­ians, in Hiroshima and Na­gasaki, re­in­forces his mean­ing and rep­re­hen­si­bil­ity.


The world had to live with the threat of nuclear apoc­a­lypse through­out the Cold War, but there was al­ways the sense that, how­ever cyn­i­cal, bru­tal and some­times evil those with ac­cess to the red but­ton were, they un­der­stood the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the hu­man race that went with con­trol of dooms­day weapons.

Now we don’t have the com­fort of as­sum­ing that cau­tious, dis­pas­sion­ate, ra­tio­nal peo­ple are in charge. “[North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un is al­ready para­noid,” says Jon Wolf­sthal, for­merly Barack Obama’s spe­cial as­sis­tant on arms con­trol and non-pro­lif­er­a­tion. “If he’s go­ing to take the Pres­i­dent at face value, then the risks of pre-emp­tion and mis­cal­cu­la­tion are ex­traor­di­nar­ily high.”

Asked in 2005 if she thought Kim’s father and pre­de­ces­sor, Kim Jong-il, was in­sane, the then US Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice replied, “How would I know? I’ve never met the man.” What hap­pened to the prin­ci­ple of “by their works ye shall know them”? Now US health pro­fes­sion­als are ag­o­nis­ing over the le­git­i­macy of as­sess­ing Trump’s men­tal state from a dis­tance.

Bill Curry, who was White House coun­sel­lor in the Clin­ton Ad­min­is­tra­tion, met Trump al­most a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago; he came away think­ing he’d in­ter­rupted an epic co­caine binge. Given the wa­ter un­der the bridge, he now thinks the behaviour he wit­nessed was ev­i­dence of men­tal im­pair­ment: “You don’t need to be a botanist to tell a rose from a dan­de­lion. Do we dare not state the ob­vi­ous? You needn’t be an am­a­teur di­ag­nos­ti­cian to see that Don­ald Trump is men­tally ill.”

Is it pos­si­ble there’s method in the mad­ness? Trump apol­o­gists have hinted that he’s em­ploy­ing the “mad­man” gam­bit sup­pos­edly used by Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon dur­ing the Viet­nam War – seek­ing to spook your ad­ver­saries into com­pli­ance by giv­ing the im­pres­sion you’re suf­fi­ciently un­hinged to go nuclear. The fact that North Viet­nam got what it wanted out of the war – South Viet­nam – doesn’t say much for the gam­bit’s ef­fi­cacy.

The con­sen­sus among ex­perts on the Korean Penin­sula is that the an­swer to the ques­tion “what does North Korea want?” is “the preser­va­tion of the Kim dy­nasty”. From the word go, ac­cord­ing to this in­ter­pre­ta­tion, its nuclear pro­gramme and as­so­ci­ated blus­ter and sabre-rat­tling were in­tended to dis­suade South Korea and the US from pur­su­ing regime change and Korean re­uni­fi­ca­tion. By that logic, the last thing Kim will do is start a war since that would bring about the very out­come he’s striv­ing to avoid.

There are two prob­lems with this strat­egy. The first is that the more threat­en­ing North Korea’s nuclear ca­pa­bil­ity be­comes, the more likely its neigh­bours and the US are to con­clude that it must be de­fused once and for all. The se­cond is that no mat­ter how many times regime change back­fires, there will al­ways be a fac­tion in Wash­ing­ton that sees it as the best, if not only, so­lu­tion. At last month’s As­pen Se­cu­rity Con­fer­ence, CIA di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo spoke of the Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­sire to “sep­a­rate” North Korea’s nuclear ca­pac­ity from “the char­ac­ter who holds con­trol”. The lan­guage was fuzzy, but the at­ten­dant media were left in no doubt he was talk­ing about regime change.


The “in­tol­er­a­ble threat” ar­gu­ment was de­ployed when the US and sev­eral other na­tions were ne­go­ti­at­ing with Iran over its nuclear pro­gramme. Egged on by Is­rael’s Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, the Repub­li­cans did their best to sab­o­tage the even­tual deal, and they con­tinue to de­nounce it, al­though the rest of the world would wel­come such a res­o­lu­tion now.

It’s dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why any­one should think war is prefer­able to ne­go­ti­a­tion. Diplo­macy is hard, of­ten a case of one step for­ward and one step back, and may pro­duce a less than to­tally sat­is­fac­tory out­come, if not fail al­to­gether, but who in their right mind would ar­gue the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were easy, clean op­er­a­tions and un­qual­i­fied suc­cesses?

The world is a com­pli­cated, un­ruly place whose dis­putes and crises are rarely sus­cep­ti­ble to quick fixes. Trump, though, is lazy and, like a sa­loon-bar blowhard bang­ing on about what he’d do if he ran the coun­try, too con­sumed with delu­sional self-im­por­tance to ac­knowl­edge that bet­ter and brighter men than he have strug­gled with the com­plex­i­ties and chal­lenges of the Pres­i­dent’s role. Re­mem­ber “no­body knew healthcare could be so com­pli­cated”? The no­body in ques­tion was Trump.

But he’s the Pres­i­dent and now he has to man­age this cri­sis and those to come, for come they will. Even if it strength­ens his hold on power and gives him some­thing else to boast about, we must hope that he pre­sides, how­ever nom­i­nally, over a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion. The al­ter­na­tive would be cat­a­strophic.

Trump apol­o­gists hint that he’s em­ploy­ing the “mad­man” gam­bit to give the im­pres­sion of be­ing suf­fi­ciently un­hinged to go nuclear.

Who knew avoid­ing war was so hard? US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump; be­low, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un.

Trump echoed Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man’s threat to Ja­pan af­ter the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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