world view

Why Doesn’t Trump’s Talk of U.S. Moral Duty Apply to North Korea?

Not exactly standing up to the Kim regime. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a reason wise public speakers don’t use the Holocaust to illustrate their points very often: The magnitude of its horror, and the courage shown by its survivors, tends to make our contemporaries look pretty puny. Last night was no exception.

In the foreign-affairs section of his State of the Union address, President Trump devoted as much rhetorical effort to the Holocaust, and the survivors and soldiers in attendance, as he did to contemporary U.S. security policy. Usually, in American public discourse, one invokes the Holocaust to signal profound moral clarity and purpose, and to target immoral and inhuman regimes of the present day. Americans never wavered when confronting Nazis, the trope goes, and must likewise stand fierce and firm against Bad Regime X.

That logic might have made sense if Trump’s speech only covered his policies toward Iran and Venezuela, but it completely fell apart when he discussed North Korea. While the regimes in both Venezuela and Iran treat their people terribly, and Tehran in particular also exports mayhem abroad, Pyongyang is on a whole other level of awful, in terms of decades-long privations and totalitarian restrictions on information and association. Yet rather than condemning North Korea, Trump touted his good relationship with Kim Jong-un, and confirmed that the two leaders will meet in Vietnam at the end of the month. “Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in more than 15 months,” he added.

Every U.S. president has chosen to stand firm against some regimes while palling around with others. However, it’s doubtful that any of Trump’s predecessors would have announced a second summit with North Korea on the same day that a leaked U.N. report alleged that Pyongyang is violating sanctions to get fuel on a massive scale, actively keeping its nuclear weapons updated and ready for use, and apparently selling weapons to groups in Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. In Yemen in particular, that means they could end up being used against American service members.

This move is shocking to foreign-policy professionals who see the U.N. report as evidence that Trump’s policies toward North Korea are unsuccessful. When massive sanctions violations are reported, the traditional response is to set a meeting with the violator, not brag to the world about your successful use of sanctions. But this is entirely consistent with Trump’s approach to North Korea; he’s been unwilling to use leverage against Pyongyang, or attempt to make deals in the conventional sense.

Trump’s audaciousness didn’t end there. He also claimed that his North Korea policy is saving the U.S. and the world from a nuclear conflagration, saying, “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.” This line was meant to appeal to a certain wing of Trump’s base, the realists and noninterventionists who were eager for the U.S. to bring its troops home and stay out of wars — and who love to caricature Hillary Clinton as an arch-interventionist.

Is there any truth to the idea? Pyongyang tests and provokes every new American president, and Clinton would have been no different — likely experiencing the same set of missile launches early in her tenure that Trump did. (Let’s be honest, possibly more, as the North Koreans would have wanted to see if her gender made her weak.) But you simply cannot imagine Clinton or anyone on her team unleashing the barrage of insults and social-media provocations that Trump did, leading to the spiraling tensions of “fire and fury” and nuclear false alarms. It was that set of developments in spring 2017 that seemed to bring us to the brink of war. And the North Korea hawks who cheered Trump on — Lindsey Graham and John Bolton, among others — would not have been seen as influential or relevant to a Clinton presidency, further diminishing the tension.

It’s unlikely that President Hillary Clinton would have had any better luck at convincing the North to genuinely denuclearize — because it seems never to have had any intention of doing so. But would the Clinton administration have come to accept, just two years in, that the U.S. has to live with a nuclear North Korea, and shifted to a strategy based around arms control? That seems doubtful, in no small part because the same GOP senators who accept Trump’s North Korea overtures would have spent weeks trying to impeach Clinton if she’d so much as sent a secretary of State to meet with Kim, much less doing so herself.

This is where the current fad for Trump revisionism — Trump foes cheering his alleged intention to end the endless wars, and musing that the president might be a necessary “disrupter” who’s “more decisive” than President Obama — gets some major things wrong. Trump gets away with “disrupting” established U.S. security patterns, discomfiting longtime allies, and making unilateral, nonstrategic decisions because he uses abrupt, bullying tactics in a simulacrum of strength — and because his fellow Republicans have decided that’s enough toughness for them.

Last night the president also walked back his prior commitment to a specific timetable for getting U.S. troops out of Syria, and seemed unsure about whether or not negotiations with the Taliban would result in a U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan. At this point, the policies he is “disrupting” are his own administration’s; a clear policy either way would probably produce better results, uncomfortable as that is for those passionate about the U.S. either staying or going.

If you’re looking for an honest consideration of Holocaust-level suffering in our day, and policy responses that are at least decent if not courageous, the U.S. Congress may deliver. While Trump failed to even mention the U.S.-supported Saudi war in Yemen last night, it’s currently the world’s No. 1 cause of starvation. A bill passed in the Senate last year to force Trump to end the U.S.’s role in that war is expected to come back up in both houses of Congress shortly. That would be a good time for lawmakers to display moral clarity, bipartisan leadership, and all the other virtues the president sought to signal last night.

Why Doesn’t Trump’s Talk of US Moral Duty Apply to N. Korea?