It’s not about nuclear weapons, leverage with President Trump or the trade war.
.. Such vagueness should come as no surprise since obtaining a compromise from Mr. Kim never was the purpose of Mr. Xi’s trip. China’s president did not travel to North Korea to prove to Mr. Trump that only the Chinese government can broker a deal with Mr. Kim or to gain bargaining power in the trade dispute. In keeping with the long, tangled history of Chinese-North Korean relations, Mr. Xi traveled to Pyongyang to lure back into China’s fold what he sees as a difficult and wayward subordinate.
China may be North Korea’s largest trade partner and a formal defense-treaty ally, but tension and distrust have characterized relations between the two countries for decades. Strains reappeared in recent years after Mr. Kim tested nuclear weaponsand seemed to pull back from China while repositioning North Korea closer to the United States and South Korea. China, for its part, has gone along with the latest punishing international sanctions against North Korea.
Kim Il-sung resented the asymmetry and as a hedge maintained ties to the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s: He needed Mao, but didn’t think Mao could be trusted. Sure enough, come 1972, China welcomed President Richard Nixon in Beijing and began rapprochement with the United States, while North Korea remained violently opposed to the presence of the several tens of thousands of American forces stationed in South Korea.
After Mao’s death in 1976, the patterns of Chinese-North Korean diplomacy, like so much to do with China, changed. Mao’s successors were more interested in developing China’s economy than in big-power politics. In 1978, the leaders Hua Guofeng and then Deng Xiaoping made North Korea their first overseas destination. But this flurry of diplomacy belied the emergence of new tensions in the alliance: The two countries’ political systems and approaches to economics and foreign affairs began to diverge.
By the mid-1980s, China was barreling down the path of “reform and opening-up,” as the official line went, and it wanted a stable international order, thinking that this would be more conducive to its own growth. But Kim Il-sung saw China’s burgeoning links to capitalist economies as a betrayal of the socialist trading bloc, and his government is suspected of having ordered assassination attempts and terrorist attacks abroad.
Then came what the North Korean government considered to be an unforgivable act of treachery: In 1992, as Communist regimes were collapsing across Eurasia, the Chinese government normalized relations with South Korea, leaving Kim Il-sung diplomatically isolated and economically in the dust.
After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, his son and successor Kim Jong-il asserted some measure of independence from China by not visiting for six years. He finally made a trip in 2000, soon before hosting the South Korean president for an unprecedented meeting and while preparing to bring President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang — or, only once it seemed like détente with South Korea and the United States was within grasp.
Several Chinese leaders, in turn, visited Pyongyang in the early 2000s, trying to project the image of a special relationship. Yet something was resolutely changing: The North Korean government was now doggedly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, not only to defend itself against the threat of regime change suddenly posed by a hostile Bush administration, but also to emancipate itself from its unreliable and bossy ally.
Only one person can save us from the dangerous belligerent in the White House.
And that person is Donald Trump.
How screwed up is that?
Will the president let himself be pushed into a parlous war by John Bolton, who once buoyed the phony case on W.M.D.s in Iraq? Or will Trump drag back his national security adviser and the other uber hawks from the precipice of their fondest, bloodiest desire — to attack Iran?
Can Cadet Bone Spurs, as Illinois senator and Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth called Trump, set Tom Cotton straight that winning a war with Iran would not merely entail “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”? Holy cakewalk.
Once, we counted on Trump’s advisers to pump the brakes on an out-of-control president. Now, we count on the president to pump the brakes on out-of-control advisers.
.. “On one side, you have a president who doesn’t want war, who simply wants to do with Iran what he has done with North Korea, to twist the arm of the Iranians to bring them to a negotiation on his terms,” said Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador. “He thinks they will suffer and at the end, they will grovel in front of his power.”
But in a way, Araud said, the face-off with the Iranians is more “primitive and dangerous” because, besides Bolton, other factions in the Middle East are also “dreaming of going to war.”
“Even if Trump doesn’t personally want war, we are now at the mercy of any incident, because we are at maximum tension on both sides,” said Araud, recalling Candidate Trump’s bellicose Twitter ultimatumsin 2016 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards held American sailors blindfolded at gunpoint for 15 hours.
Given their sour feelings about W. shattering the Middle East and their anger at Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans are inclined to see the U.S. as trying to provoke Iran into war. This time, the Europeans will not be coming along — and who can blame them?
I’m having an acid flashback to 2002, when an immature, insecure, ill-informed president was bamboozled by his war tutors.
In an echo of the hawks conspiring with Iraqi exiles to concoct a casus belli for Iraq, Bolton told members of an Iranian exile group in Paris in 2017 that the Trump administration should go for regime change in Tehran.
“And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Bolton cheerily told the exiles.
When Bolton was the fifth column in the Bush 2 State Department — there to lurk around and report back on flower child Colin Powell — he complained that W.’s Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) was too limited, adding three more of his own (Cuba, Libya, Syria). Then, last year, Bolton talked about “the Troika of Tyranny” (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). His flirtations with military intervention in Venezuela this month irritated Trump.
The 70-year-old with the Yeti mustache is an insatiable interventionist with an abiding faith in unilateralism and pre-emptive war. (The cost of our attenuated post-9/11 wars is now calculated at $5.9 trillion.)
W. and Trump are similar in some ways but also very different. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: W. was interested in clarity. Trump wants chaos. W. wanted to trust his domineering advisers. Trump is always imagining betrayal. W. wanted to be a war hero, like his dad. Trump does not want to be trapped in an interminable war that will consume his presidency.
Certainly, the biographer says, Trump enjoys playing up the scary aspects of brown people with foreign names and ominous titles, like “mullah” and “ayatollah,” to stoke his base.
But Trump, unlike W., is driven by the drama of it. “It’s a game of revving up the excitement and making people afraid and then backing off on the fear in order to declare that he’s resolved the situation,” D’Antonio said. “Trump prefers threats and ultimatums to action because that allows him to look big and tough and get attention without doing something for which he will be held responsible. This is who he is at his core: an attention-seeking, action-averse propagandist who is terrified of accountability in the form of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”
David Axelrod, who had the military briefing about what a war with Iran would look like when he was in the Obama White House, said: “I’m telling you. It’s not a pretty picture.”
He says he is not sure which movie Bolton is starring in: “Dr. Strangelove” or “Wag the Dog.”
“If part of your brand is that you’re not going to get the U.S. into unnecessary wars,” he said, “why in the world would you hire John Bolton?”
You’ve got to give Vladimir Putin his due: The man knows how to play a weak hand well.
With relatively little investment, the Russian leader is expanding his toehold in the Western Hemisphere and potentially getting access to giant oil and uranium supplies by backing a dictator in Venezuela.
With relatively little investment, he has expanded his base of operations in the Middle East by propping up a dictator in Syria and by trying to send some sophisticated Russian military equipment into Turkey. (For the latter effort, he’d actually turn a profit.)
And with relatively little investment, and little notice from a distracted international community, he has kept up a low-level war against those fighting a Russian takeover in eastern Ukraine, holding on to a bargaining chip he might find useful someday.
He does all this while overseeing an economy roughly the size of South Korea’s, which produces little or nothing the world wants to buy, outside of oil and military gear.
It’s an audacious strategy—and it is working. Never was that more clear than last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Boltoncited Russian support as the only reason Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro remained in his country in the face of an organized uprising by his opponents and elements of his own military.
.. In short, Mr. Putin appears to recognize the moment he is in, and what to do about it. After almost two decades of a focus on combating terrorism and Islamic extremism, the world is evolving into a new era of big-power competition. The U.S. and China are the two big competitors now, of course, but Mr. Putin is making sure Russia is the third.
His problem is that Russia doesn’t have the economic might of the U.S. and China. So he brings to the table what he can, which is basically the ability to make trouble and thereby insert himself into the global mix.
Thus, Russia became an early world leader in the 21st-century tool of unconventional combat—cyber warfare. The Kremlin combined that skill with its traditional willingness to engage in the dark arts of covert action to interfere with the 2016 election in the U.S., as well as other elections in the West.
As the U.S. tries to maintain economic pressure on North Korea, Russia provides just enough economic relief to Pyongyang to ensure that Moscow has to be a player in how the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program plays out.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is wedging himself into the space between East and West by offering to sell Russia’s S-400 air-defense system to Turkey, which happens to be a member of the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization. After members of Congress declared that Turkey couldn’t both buy the American-made F-35 jet fighter and have a Russian air-defense system geared toward shooting down that same jet, Russia stepped up and said it also would sell its own jet fighters to Turkey instead.