Let us finally praise President Trump for getting it right on North Korea. This is much like praising a compulsive gambler for leaving the casino before he loses everything, but it is better than the alternative. The summit’s collapse is an embarrassment that was as predictable as it was necessary, and leaves in its wake yet more damage to U.S. foreign policy.
Trump’s foreign policy team will spin this as a decisive, strong move, but in reality it’s the chaotic end of a bad idea. The president had no reason to agree to a summit other than that he is a creature of television and he was entranced by the idea of a Very Special Episode of the ongoing reality show that is the Trump administration.
With his team scrambling behind him, the president, as is his habit, talked too much and said too little, lavishing praise on North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and promising to Make North Korea Great Again if only they would play ball. Kim, in return, flattered Trump, which every foreign intelligence service knows is the key to getting his attention. Kim made rhetorical concessions as lures to see how deeply the president would commit himself. He cleverly ignored Trump’s extemporaneous word salads and instead pressed on with a charm offensive with the South Koreans
The North Koreans did, however, listen to other Americans, such as national security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Pence, both of whom made reference to “the Libya model” of nuclear disarmament. Whether Trump and Pence know what that means is an open question, but both Bolton and Kim know: It means regime change. (Bolton’s clever usage of that example was itself a sign of disarray among the White House team.) Once the Libya talk started, the North Koreans decided to press their luck and see whether Trump would drop his demands.
And it nearly worked, as the president openly mulled reducing U.S. forces in Korea in exchange for ... well, for nothing.
Trump was outplayed at every turn, until finally he had no choice but to avoid what would have been a stinging humiliation in Singapore. It is possible that the North Koreans increased their rhetoric to scuttle the talks for their own reasons. (Perhaps Kim got cold feet about being so far from home. A man who had his own brother killed in an airport is probably jumpy about travel.) If so, Trump has once again been saved from himself.
The president’s message to Kim was a cringe-inducing breakup letter. It is full of tells that Trump might have actually written it, including the reference to the “tremendous anger" of North Korean statements and the playground taunt about how U.S. nuclear capabilities are “so massive and powerful.” The president then thanks Kim for releasing three hostages — two of whom were taken on Trump’s watch — and says America is ready to talk if Kim changes his mind, imploring the North Korean dictator not to "hesitate to call me or write.”
Perhaps one of the president’s advisers will explain Kim’s change of heart in simpler terms: He’s not that into you.
This escapade has damaged U.S. security in several ways. First and foremost, the North Koreans have proved that nuclear threats and hostage-taking work: Pyongyang is now Washington’s peer. Meanwhile, American inconstancy has put distance between the United States and our allies in South Korea, who pitched this whole idea as a way, apparently, of talking Trump off the ledge about war. The two Koreas might now, with China smiling quietly in the background, start making their own arrangements, without U.S. involvement. This would suit both Pyongyang and Beijing just fine, but it is an outcome inimical to America's interests.
And once again, the president has demonstrated that his foreign policy is a product mostly of impulse, with no real thought to consequences or even basic process. Every incident like this is a master class for other powers in how to manipulate a reactive, uninformed president and a dysfunctional White House. It is also a reminder that in this administration, national security is not an end in itself, but one of many goods to be traded away for the sake of purely transactional dealmaking.
The president has since announced that he is ready for a war — and that Japan and South Korea are ready to pay for one, a remarkable assertion, to say the least — but that he hopes a summit can still come off.
In the coming days, we will find out more about why this summit collapsed. In the end, whoever was responsible for finally pulling the plug on this misbegotten adventure has saved the White House from a foreign policy disaster even worse than the one taking place now.