Troubling Options for Real Troubles
Terry H. Schwadron
These are days of truly troubling international reports about troubling U.S. prospects on the horizon.
The President faces immediate decisions on how to consider a narrowing set of options in North Korea, and is Europe for G-20 meetings which will be at once testy and will test him with a first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For everyone concerned, there are bristles aplenty ahead, feelings and political reputations at risk, and actual risk that military options will explode into all-out nuclear wars. It’s the perfect stuff for cable pundits who will play no role but to talk, talk, talk, but seems a huge challenge for a President who said there would be no ICBM for North Korea on his watch.
I’ve read a lot of the coverage about our North Korean prospects, but frankly come away feeling woefully inadequate about understanding better what we might do next? For a good overview of the inadequacies of any single approach, this Motoko Rich New York Times story is an excellent guide. There have been several very good interviews with American troop commanders on the ground, both on NBC and in The Times.
Making things most difficult is understanding exactly what it is that North Korea wants from the U.S. other than the removal of our troops and the reunification of Korea. Having seen the play Oslo recently about the backdoor channels set up for Middle East discussions, it is interesting to know that there are once again real life efforts under way in Norway to probe the possibilities of direct talks with North Korea. Still, you can’t learn any of this directly from the Trump White House, which has not yet nominated an ambassador to South Korea.
Just as mysterious to the public and object of intense need to comment for pundits is tomorrow’s meeting with Putin, and what exactly each party seeks and risks.
There are a number of different themes:
· For openers, what started off being described as an off-stage, private introductory meeting has been now being made into a more formal, structured affair, something that is supposed to produce measurable results. In diplomatic terms, it changed a chance, informal get-together into something that will be viewed as an agenda-filled summit — something that Barack Obama withheld from Putin. That more formal status can work either better or worse for the parties, for their differing home audiences and for the global business at hand, of course.
· For Mr. Trump, a Washington Post article notes, it may well be difficult to emerge politically unscathed. “If Trump attempts to loosen sanctions against Russia. . . Congress could defy him by pursuing even stronger penalties. And if he offers platitudes for Putin without addressing Russia’s election meddling, it will renew questions about whether Trump accepts the findings of his own intelligence officials. . . . There is also a risk that Trump could choose to freelance in the meeting, diverting from the more balanced objectives that his advisers have laid out for the bilateral relationship. If Trump prioritizes his desire to build camaraderie with Putin as he has with other world leaders, it may put him at a stark disadvantage with a former KGB operative known for his unflagging focus on Russia’s primacy. . . . “
· There are specific questions at hand: Does Mr. Trump raise Russian meddling in U.S. elections? Do they talk sanctions? Will they revisit Ukraine land grabs by Russia? Will they talk Syria? What it amounts to, however, is a general question: Will Mr. Trump be in a position to discuss “concessions” to Putin, who is regarded by his own Republican Congress as an international enemy? “The president is boxed in,” said Nicholas Burns, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush. “Why would you give Putin any kind of concession at the first meeting? What has he done to deserve that? … If you try to curry favor, offer concessions, pull back on the pressure, he’ll take advantage. He’ll see weakness in a vacuum.”
· From Russia, correspondents of different publications have been looking at what Putin has to gain or lose. David Filipov of The Washington Post: “ “From Moscow’s point of view, since Trump took office, the relationship has gone from abysmal to worse, amid growing tensions over the increasingly assertive role of the U.S. military in Syria. Heading into Friday’s meeting, Moscow has dismal hopes of any marked improvement … The most deliverable item on Putin’s agenda will be the Kremlin’s demand that Washington return two Russian diplomatic compounds shuttered in retaliation for Moscow’s election meddling … No one in Moscow expects any progress anytime soon on recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the lifting of U.S. sanctions, the U.S. abandonment of regime change in Syria, the acknowledgment of Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ in Ukraine or a reduction of support for the NATO military alliance. . . Moscow observers believe that even if Trump wanted to make progress on these issues, his political situation at home would make it impossible.”
· Mr Trump has asked his staff to draft a possible list of concessions he could offer, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution wrote in Politico. “Less clear is what Trump wants in return. [Putin] is the arch manipulator — ‘deft at psyching people out’ as a former U.S. official put it — and his meetings with foreign leaders are frequently notable occasions. Putin brought his Labrador, Konni, to his first meeting with Angela Merkel, who has a lifelong fear of dogs. In his first meeting with Nicholas Sarkozy, he personally threatened to ‘smash’ the French leader ‘to pieces,’ leaving him dazed and confused in the news conference that followed. One former [Bush administration] official who dealt with Putin told me there is a risk that Putin might trick Trump into doing a deal on Syria and Ukraine in the meeting. The agreement might only last a few days … [But] such a scenario would likely expose divisions within the Trump administration, it would discredit the president, and it could also heighten his suspicion of his own government who Trump would perceive as undermining his partnership with the Russian president.”
· Overall, MR. Trump was described as more nervous about being drubbed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other G-20 heads of state about his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
· Oh, and Hamburg is expecting between 50,000 and 100,000 protesters in the streets around the G-20 meetings in a downtown area.
Troubling options for troubling situations.