Sunday, June 17, 2018

Trump: Richard Nixon, Neville Chamberlain, or just some useless idiot?

I made a reference in yesterday's post to Neville Chamberlain.  Do you remember him?  He was the British Prime Minister who negotiated with Hitler in 1938, and decided that you know what?  Hitler ain't so bad.  We can reason with him!  And so, "my good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour [Brits even pronounced those u's].  I believe it is peace for [the cliche is "in," the quote is "for"] our time.  We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.  Go home and get a nice quiet sleep."

Neville Chamberlain has become the boogeyman in every conservative and neoconservative story of foreign policy.  Every foreign adversary is Hitler, so everyone who doesn't want to bomb the shit out of everyone else is Neville Chamberlain, and we know how that worked out.  The act of diplomacy is appeasement, just like Neville Chamberlain.  Are you even remotely complacent about any given adversary?



NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN!!!! You're NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN!!!  No talking, no diplomacy, no appeasement, no complacency.  It's all Hitler, all the time, baby!  Just like the History Channel, without that stupid alien shit.  If you're not on board with that, someone is going to give you the Neville Chamberlain misquote, and that's one hell of a burn.

Neville Chamberlain really did fuck up, though.

And then there's Richard Nixon.  Remember China?  There's a cliche about Nixon and China.  Richard Nixon is remembered for many things, but probably not sufficiently for buddying up to Joe McCarthy and going full HUAC.  Nixon was actually quite flexible on a lot of policy, which was why, as President, he signed a lot of liberal legislation into law.  He really hated communists, though, and combine that with his natural paranoia, and you had a recipe for some problems.  He was rabidly anti-communist, though.

So, we have the cliche about how only Nixon could go to China and settle relations with them because nobody else had the anti-communist credentials to do so without seeming like a commie sympathizer.  That isn't to say we haven't continued to have problems with China over the years, but hey, things could be worse.

All of this brings me, of course, to Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.  You may notice that Trump's rhetoric, post-summit, sounded a lot like Neville Chamberlain.  So, did Trump get duped like Neville Chamberlain, did he do a Nixon-China thing, or... is he just some useless idiot?

You can probably guess where I'm going with this, right?

First, Kim Jong Un is no Hitler.  He is a brutal, mass-murdering psychopathic monster, but not an expansionist one.  His goal:  to stay in power.  That's it.  He didn't invade the DMZ, much less Czechoslovakia.  Here's what you need to remember about the DPRK, going back decades.  They rattle their sabres until we give them food and fuel, then crawl back under their rocks.  That's it.  Their bluster is all sturm und drang, if I can use German without problematic connotation.  Those nukes?  They exist solely to deter us from attacking them.  Period.  Once you understand that, you stop being scared of them.  Would we rather have those nukes not exist?  Certainly, for many reasons, but North Korea is not, and never was Nazi Germany.  Given that, Chamberlain comparisons are problematic.

Second, the China thing.  Did Nixon actually calm anything down in 1972?  Maybe.  Possibly.  However, Nixon wasn't personally responsible for escalating the tensions.  He played a part, I'd argue, but he wasn't the central figure.  What was the likelihood of a nuclear war with North Korea before Trump was inaugurated?  Essentially zero.  Why?  Obama wasn't stupid or crazy, and neither is Kim.  Really.  Kim is a rational actor.  Evil is not the same thing as irrational.  The risk escalated because Trump escalated it.  Kim's sabre-rattling was nothing out of the ordinary for North Korean behavior going decades back, but Trump didn't understand that, because Trump is a "fucking moron" (source: Tillerson, Rex).  So, Trump started escalating in response, and that was how things started getting scary.

We are now back to, short-to-medium term, near-zero probability of a nuclear war with North Korea.  Yay, but that was how it was before Trump was inaugurated.  Nixon, to the degree that he improved relations with China, brought our relations to a level better than they were before he was inaugurated.  Trump escalated the risk of a war, and then de-escalated it back down to where it was before he was inaugurated.  That's not a Nixon-China thing.  That's better than nuking the Korean peninsula, by far, but this is a Nelson Muntz kind of thing.



Once Nelson lets that owl go, if he does, the owl doesn't owe him shit for letting it go.  OK, the owl owes him shit, in the sense of flying away and shitting on him, but beyond that, no, the owl doesn't owe him.  Are we safer than we were a year ago?  Yes, but that's not because Trump negotiated some deal.  It's because he stopped endangering us.  We don't owe him for that.  The problem is that Trump never understood what North Korea was really about, internationally.

And this brings me to the "useless idiot" model of Trump's diplomacy.  It seems natural, of course, for Trump to fall head-over-heels in love with Kim Jong Un.  Kim is a psychopathically evil, murderous, totalitarian dictator-for-life, whose people are tortured to death if they don't praise him with sufficient fervor.  In other words, he's everything Trump wants to be.  I wish this were a joke, or even a mild exaggeration, but anyone with a smidge of objectivity recognizes that Trump's assessment of Kim is one of hero-worship.  Kim now fully understands how to manipulate Trump.  Image and flattery.  Possibly some bribery too, if he can find a way, but image and flattery will get you everywhere with Trump.  I wrote a few days ago that the summit was an event in which nothing was ventured, and nothing was gained.

Certainly, nothing was gained.  Kim, despite Trump's bloviation, will not give up his nukes.  He didn't commit to anything, nor will he.  What did Kim gain?  The end of military exercises in South Korea... those don't mean anything on their own, but they were a bargaining chip.  Kim wanted them to stop, and Trump gave them up for nothing, because he knows precisely jack shit about "deals."  The legitimization of meeting with a US President, the photo ops, and saluting that general... well, what concrete damage does this do?

At this point, I revert to my basic, game theoretic perspective, and I have a hard time finding a quantitative way to specify any damage.  Like the South Korean military exercises, Kim wanted this stuff, so conditions could have been attached to the meeting, and saluting the general was just Trump being a clueless dipshit (i.e., being Donald Trump), but really, every small-d democratic world leader already hates Trump anyway, so finding the damage here is difficult.  Mostly, this all just shows how clueless Trump is.  So, I'm just sticking with "useless idiot" right now.

Trump is still dangerous.  An idiot with the capacity to blow up the planet is a dangerous thing.  The Neville Chamberlain comparison is the one Republicans would be making if a Democrat did what Trump just did, inappropriate though it is, but neither is the Nixon-China comparison appropriate.  No, Trump is just a useless idiot.

Given the alternatives for him, though, that's about the best-case-scenario we can expect.  Yay(?)

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