Way Down In The Hole

The issue of the World vs. North Korea continues to spin out of control.

The North Koreans insist on conducting repeated missile tests for no apparent reason, strategic or otherwise, other than to just try to get the world to pay attention to them.  The world responds by condemning North Korea’s activities and, most recently, by the UN Security Council unanimously imposing additional sanctions on that country.  North Korea tries to up the ante by issuing bizarre threats.  President Trump responds by saying that threats to the U.S. will be met with “fire and fury” — perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, recalling the lyrics about the devil in Way Down in the Hole — and now North Korea has announced that it is “carefully examining” plans for a missile strike against Guam in order to “contain” the U.S. military base there.

4057dec000000578-4509784-image-a-27_1494928848360Oh . . . and the North Koreans also say that America is considering a “preventive war” against North Korea, and warn that any attempt to do so would be met with an “all-out war wiping out all the strongholds of enemies, including the U.S. mainland.”

What is the world supposed to do with North Korea?  We keep expecting, or hoping, that Kim Jong Un and his cadre will react rationally to standard diplomatic practices, like being admonished by its principal apparent ally, China, or being subjected to sanctions unanimously imposed by a world body that almost never acts because its members typically disagree about just about every issue.  And secretly, no doubt, every other country wishes that the starving, deprived, long-suffering people of North Korea would rise up and overthrow the Leader with the Bad Haircut and his military minions — who are always pictured yukking it up, as if planning nuclear strikes against peaceful countries is completely hilarious fun.  But nothing happens, and the North Korean threats continue, and countries that might be the target of a rogue missile launch become increasingly jittery, and the world hopes that we can somehow avoid a stupid, utterly unnecessary military confrontation.

So, what do you do with a North Korea that is run by somebody who is evidently unbalanced, is armed with nuclear missiles, and is intent on doing whatever it takes to attract attention to itself?  How do you deal with a country that is so irrational and is apparently guided exclusively by the whim of an unpredictable, outlandish leader?  And even if you somehow avoided an armed confrontation in this particular instance, how secure would you feel knowing that the unpredictable leader remains in place, ready to escalate things at any time in the future?  We’ve asked these same questions before, but the problem keeps getting worse and worse, with no resolution in sight.

We’ve got some difficult issues to deal with in the world, but a nuclear North Korea is perhaps the most perplexing, and the most dangerous.

Uneasy Chaos

Normally, I’m of the “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the Legislature is in session” school of thought.  Because I think the politicos typically just mess things up for the rest of us — whatever their stated or unstated intentions — I normally don’t mind if Congress is thrashing around and not really doing much of anything.

But when the White House seems to be the scene of constant chaos, it’s a different story.  In our modern government, so much power and decision-making has devolved upon the Presidency, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, that the perception of competency, stability, reasoned judgment, and careful analysis in the Oval Office and the West Wing is essential.  In short, we want our allies and our enemies alike to believe that the President and his Administration know what they are doing and have developed and are pursuing a coherent policy, and that those allies and enemies should toe the line with that policy or there will be consequences.

161203153317-john-kelly-donald-trump-super-teaseThat’s why the apparently unending disorder in the Trump White House is disturbing.  We’re not even a year into President Trump’s first year in office, and we’ve already seen the departure of his chief of staff and press secretary and now the firing of a communications director who hadn’t even been on the job for two weeks.  I’m not arguing that Anthony Scaramucci shouldn’t have been fired — in reality, he seemed to be so completely ill-suited to serve in that position that you wonder how he was hired in the first place.  But with the constant uproar, the unnecessary and off-message tweets from the President himself, the many personnel changes, the flood of disabling leaks, and the evident turmoil between and among the President’s most senior advisers, you really wonder whether the important things are getting done — and, more fundamentally, what kind of message is being sent about the United States to the world at large.  Does it embolden North Korea and other rogue nation-states to engage in even more adventurous behavior if they think the White House is the scene of bedlam?

So President Trump has turned to a new chief of staff, retired general and former homeland security chief John Kelly, to try to restore some order in the White House, and Kelly’s first act apparently was to show Scaramucci the door.  Now he’ll try to establish some order, stop the constant barrage of leaks, ensure consistent messaging, and maybe, just maybe, rein in some of the counterproductive tweeting activity by POTUS, too.

It’s a big job, but you don’t get to be a general in the U.S. Marine Corps without having some significant leadership and managerial skills, so maybe Kelly will be up to the task — if he can stay in the position long enough to actually have an impact.  I’m no fan of Trump or his Administration, but for the good of the country let’s hope Kelly can make a difference.  The current state of apparent chaos needs to end.

Looking “Presidential”?

Last week President Trump ordered a missile strike on a Syrian base that was implicated in a toxic chemical attack by the Syrian government against Syrian citizens.  This week we’ve got an array of U.S. Navy ships heading into the western Pacific regions, apparently as a show of force against North Korea, which has been engaged in repeated missile tests and is continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

2017-04-08t082322z_1_lynxmped3705y_rtroptp_2_usa-china-cfCouple the military maneuvers with a few presidential summits with foreign leaders like the Chinese head of state and the president of Egypt, and you’ve also got a lot of people talking about Donald Trump looking “presidential.”  Of course, Presidents always are said to look “presidential” when they are dealing with foreign policy or ordering military action; that’s because those are areas where the President can act unilaterally, without having to try to convince balky Congresses to take one action or another.  It’s been a time-honored technique of the residents of the Oval Office for decades — if you’ve had a rough time on your domestic agenda, have a foreign leader over for a visit or try to shift the focus to the actions of a “rogue state” or “terrorist threat.”  So, whether through careful planning or happenstance, Donald Trump is following a well-thumbed presidential playbook.

It’s interesting that we frequently associate ordering military action and foreign policy positioning with looking “presidential,” because in doing so we’re really encouraging Presidents to spend their time on those areas rather than focusing on the domestic issues  that never seem to get addressed and actually trying to convince Congress to do something about those nagging problems.  How many Presidents, deep in their heart of hearts, have been tempted to engage in a little sabre-rattling or to lob a few missiles at a terrorist encampment or an air base to shift the focus of national attention and raise their approval ratings a few points?

Donald Trump isn’t the first President to receive the “looking presidential” kudos, and he probably won’t be the last, either.  But the association of military action and photo ops with foreign leaders with “looking presidential” troubles me.  Wouldn’t we rather incentivize our Presidents to focus on fixing what’s gone wrong in this country, and reserve the highest, gushing “looking presidential” praise for when the President does what the Constitution contemplates, and signs domestic legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress into law?

Permanent Protest

  
When Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C. in the early ’80s, a “Ban the Bomb” protestor camped in Lafayette Square Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.  His protest area featured a number of hand-lettered signs about the perils of nuclear weapons that featured photos of the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In those days of the Reagan Administration, nuclear weapons were a big issue: some American communities were declaring themselves “nuclear-free zones,” as if municipal ordinances could repel nuclear warheads, and President Reagan was accused of being a dangerous war-mongerer.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and the United States and the Soviet Union talked about eliminating their nuclear stockpiles, and the worries about Mutually Assured Destruction and “duck and cover” seemed to be quaint issues that were behind us.

But, 35 years later, the “Ban the Bomb” protest is still there in Lafayette Park, with its little encampment and crude signage.  And the nuclear issue, unfortunately, is still with us, too — except now the concerns aren’t about the Soviets, but about Iran, and North Korea, and ISIS, and rogue terrorist groups using nuclear weapons to advance their inexplicable political and religious agendas.  Nuclear weapons are back on the front page, and the issue seems to have curdled and gotten worse, and more dangerous than ever.  

Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the protest area, though.  Maybe we should.

Censorship And Safety

Who is responsible for pulling the film The Interview from its planned Christmas Day release in the face of threats from terrorist hackers?  Was Sony craven, as many have suggested, or was it the theater chain owners who triggered the decision to pull The Interview because of liability concerns, as Sony responds?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know this:  Totally removing a movie, or any other form of expression, from widespread public distribution because of threats is censorship and sets a terrible precedent.  Does anyone really dispute the conclusion that somewhere in Pyongyang or some other rathole the terrorist hackers are high-fiving over their success in this instance, and that terrorist groups elsewhere haven’t taken note of the new weapon that has now been added their arsenal?  What movie, book, play, or TV show is going to be the next target of this technique?

The Interview isn’t the kind of movie I would ever go to a theater to see, but that’s obviously not the point.  The next time it might be  controversial biography I’ve been eagerly anticipating, or the next installment of the Game of Thrones series because the terrorists disagree with how religion is depicted by George R. R. Martin. Regardless of the subject, a free society cannot tolerate a world in which terrorists dictate who gets to see, read, or consider what.

One other point: if I were an author, actor, or historian, I would be thinking long and hard about who brings my work to market and whether they have the courage to do it in the face of threats.  I don’t think I’d want to entrust my creative work product to a company, or a theater chain, that crumbled and caved in the face of threats.  Are actors, directors, and producers going to shy away from Sony projects?

Getting The Dear Leader’s Haircut

There are conflicting reports from North Korea about whether men have been ordered to get a haircut that matches the styling of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Un. Some websites are reporting the story as the truth; others are saying it’s a hoax.

Either way, the story is getting a lot of play — primarily because the Dear Leader’s haircut is so distinctive. The hair on the sides of the head, around and above the ears, is shaved down to the bare scalp. Then, some kind of industrial lubricant is liberally applied to the hairs on top of the head to give them a deep sheen and allow them to be combed straight back and parted in the middle. The awkward result looks something like a wet plastic mat covering part of a cue ball. It’s a look you’d expect to see in a prison or a mental institution.

The “required haircut” story has legs because it’s plausible — North Korea’s conduct is so unpredictable that people will believe just about any news story emanating from that country — and because it’s outlandish even by North Korean standards. Could Kim Jong-Un actually be so besotted with the state-created cult of personality about him that he thinks his haircut looks good? Would a country that starves and enslaves its people go so far as to dictate an item of personal choice like a haircut, and force its unfortunate citizens to get an unflattering one at that?

We’re lucky we live in a free country where our leaders don’t insist that we adopt their hairstyles. I’ve now lived through the terms of 11 different Presidents, which would mean a lot of hairstyle changes — especially since I’ve stuck to pretty much the same style for the past 30 years or so. And some of our presidential coiffures weren’t exactly trend-setting, either. I wouldn’t have wanted to adopt the Ronald Reagan Brylcreem pompadour or the Richard Nixon straight comb back — although either of those would be preferable to Kim Jong-Un’s institutional trim job.

The Perils Of Foreign Policy Hubris

Things aren’t going real well on the foreign policy front for the U.S. of A. these days.

Among other areas of concern, mass killings are continuing in Syria. Iran is moving closer to nuclear capability. North Korea is rattling its sabers. And Russia appears poised to annex the Crimea, and has accused the United States — of all things — of conducting foreign policy under the “rule of the gun.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

No American, regardless of their political affiliation, should be happy with this state of affairs in this dangerous world. I’m not sure, either, how much influence American foreign policy has had on any of these developments. I’m not saying that the U.S. is powerless, but I also believe that we cannot fully control everything that happens in the world.

That’s why I’d encourage every American administration, regardless of party, to avoid displaying tremendous hubris about foreign policy. When President Obama took office, he famously promised to practice “smart” foreign policy and had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly present a “reset” button for U.S. relations with Russia to the Russian Minister — an odd attempt to marry foreign policy with a campaign-style photo opportunity. Odd, isn’t it, that the new American government would so publicly attempt to distance itself from the preceding administration’s policy? It shows how far we’ve come from the approach that prevailed for most of the 20th century, when Republicans and Democrats alike contended that partisanship ended at our borders and pursued uniform policies, like “containment,” that were followed for decades by administrations of both parties.

No doubt the Obama Administration, from the President on down, legitimately believed that it would be able to produce better relations with Russia — but obviously that didn’t happen. Their supreme confidence in their own ability to control world affairs was sorely misplaced. Now, with Russia moving aggressively to annex territory and intimidate its neighbors, the Obama Administration and its grand promises and “reset” button photo ops look foolish. The embarrassing contrast of the empty “reset” button with the reality of Russian military and geopolitical maneuvering makes the current situation all the more injurious to American credibility in world affairs.

Hubris is never an attractive quality. We’re now seeing that, in foreign affairs, it can have disastrous consequences. Let’s hope that the next presidential administration recognizes that fact.