One of the things that life in the Trump administration makes you appreciate is the things you took for granted in the pre-Trump era. And I think one of those things I took for granted was a base level of executive branch competency during crisis decision-making.
In a century in which the United States has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and intervened in places such as Libya this might sound risible. But what I am talking about is great power confrontations, conflicts that could lead to a system-changing war. Tensions with China have occasionally flared up, as have tensions with Russia, or even Iran. In those cases, however, previous administrations usually recognized the stakes and the risks. They did not always back down, but neither did they needlessly escalate tensions.
This applies to economic as well as foreign policy crises. Heck, I wrote a book about the response to the 2008 financial crisis called The System Worked. Clearly, I’m relatively optimistic when it comes to how American policymakers have fared in pivotal decision-making moments.
And then Donald Trump was elected president.
It is possible that the beclowning of the executive branch under the Trump administration has challenged my Zen nature a wee bit:
And that was before yesterday’s North Korea news. According to the Post’s Anna Fifield:
North Korea fired another ballistic missile Wednesday morning, apparently testing a land-based version of its rocket that can be fired from a submarine, in a development that nonproliferation experts called “scary.”
The launch comes days after Pyongyang said it planned to mark two key anniversaries this month as “big” political events and days before President Trump meets with China’s Xi Jinping — with North Korea at the top of the agenda.
As a general rule, experts use words like, “concerning” or “troubling” or “problematic.” When they use “scary” it’s a bad sign.
So, how is the Trump administration handling this news? Well, there’s this:
Which is leading to pleas from friends that everything will be okay. And I really, really want to oblige. Then I look at the performance of the secretary of state and the devaluing of the president’s words and I begin to wonder.
Still, as an exercise in optimism, is it possible to say that even under a president Trump, the response to a crisis on the Korean peninsula will be rational? Believe it or not, I think it is possible to sketch out an optimistic answer.
It is worth noting that Northeast Asia is where president Trump has deviated the most from his campaign rhetoric. After complaining about U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea, the administration has sounded like prior administrations. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis seems to be trusted in the region. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip was somewhat less successful, but he did seem to please his Chinese hosts. And North Korea is an area where the Chinese do have some common interests with the United States.
So do I think everything will die down? Well, no, not really. As much as the Chinese might not like the THAAD deployment on the Korean peninsula, their overall policy seems constant. Furthermore, I doubt president Trump’s ability to wrangle a good deal at Mar-a-Lago this weekend. But still, the overarching nature of the North Korean crisis plot seems unchanged so far.
If there’s something that really gives me pause, it’s this:
For Trump to be polling this badly so early in his presidency is unprecedented. For this to be happening in a reasonably decent economy is even more unprecedented. What will an unpopular president who is obsessed with being popular do in such circumstances? Escalate a foreign policy crisis to get Americans to rally around the flag.
So I hope president Trump’s polling numbers don’t continue to crater. The last thing I want to see is this president gamble for resurrection on the Korean peninsula.