The question isn’t why President Donald Trump ever fell for flimflam spin from North Korea, where its spasmodic leader this month suddenly yo-yoed from “Little Rocket Man” to “very honorable.” That one we understand by now: The man in the Oval Office is spasmodic himself. He doesn’t go deep, he just goes with his gut, which might work when you’re building casinos in Atlantic City (although from his debacles there, not always), but it’s no way to govern. The abruptly canceled North Korea summit proves that point yet again.
But no, the question is why Trump would ever think of treating North Korea any differently than he has treated Iran? After all, these are two of the three nations named by President George W. Bush in 2002 as the “axis of evil.” (The third was Iraq, but that’s such a mess right now, we don’t know which side is up.) The evil was that they supported terrorism, they imprisoned their opponents, they suppressed their citizens’ human rights, they aligned with America’s adversaries, and they were building, or believed to be building, weapons of mass destruction (translation: nukes).
Yet Trump effectively destroyed the nuclear deal with Iran while he was making nice with North Korea. Why?
Behavior over the years by both Iran and North Korea has been pretty much the same. So has their rhetoric, tossing threats and vitriol toward the United States. And, lest we forget, both have imprisoned American citizens on apparently bogus charges. Trump strutted like a peacock when three Americans imprisoned in North Korea were released (and to be sure, he deserves credit for that). However, he has all but abandoned the Americans still behind bars in Iran. What’s the difference?
The answer is Barack Obama.
Along with five other global powers, Obama struck a deal with Iran, which means Trump won’t; Obama didn’t negotiate with North Korea, which meant Trump would try. That’s the difference. Same with Afghanistan, same with Syria. Obama did it one way. So, whether Trump has a better way or not, he’s determined to do it differently.
That’s no way to govern, either.
He’s the most powerful man on earth, but he has no real anchor to policy. No long-held principles.
And it’s not just Trump. The president’s vengeance reflects the vengeance of the modern Republican Party. Throughout Obama’s two terms, congressional Republicans carried out a strategy of obstruction, culminating in the final year when they unconscionably refused to consider the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. Now they’re filling court vacancies with judges of like mind. The party’s only consistent strategy was to build barriers on every path Obama tried to take, and now, with Trump leading the charge, to undo everything Obama did. We don’t even have to guess at the big picture anymore.
The conclusion is hard to take, but also hard to ignore: The president of the United States has no real allegiance to the American people (or at least the ones who didn’t vote for him). He’s the most powerful man on earth, but he has no real policy anchor. No long-held principles. No sense, when he impetuously throws treaties and tariffs and traditions in the air, of where the pieces will fall. No sense, and no apparent concern. And the base of his party, in and out of Washington, is right behind him.
To hear him tell it before the summit went sour, “everyone thinks” he ought to win the Nobel Prize. Sorry, Mr. President, everyone doesn’t. Yes, we’ve all shared the hope — in our nation’s interest, in our world’s interest — that you could neutralize the nuclear threat from North Korea. But you weren’t even close.
In my many years as a foreign correspondent, I covered conflicts, treaties, and the like, including several arms control pacts with the Soviet Union. I learned three things. One was, when negotiating with adversaries, neither side gets everything it wants, but both get more than they had before. Another was, you don’t increase world stability by making the world less stable. The third was, the U.S. is well served in the long term by consulting and compromising with long-loyal allies, not snubbing and sometimes even insulting them.
But these are concepts that Obama (and, by and large, his predecessors) lived by. So Trump doesn’t.
The sudden collapse of the planned summit with North Korea didn’t come because the facts on the ground changed. By and large, they didn’t. It came because Trump boxed himself in, leaving him no negotiating tool more potent than bluster ― which might explain why he decided to cancel. It’s called “saving face.”
That’s not about governing at all. It’s about ego. And politics.
Greg Dobbs is an Emmy Award-winning former correspondent who covered news in more than 80 countries for two television networks, the author of two books and a former op-ed columnist for The Denver Post.