Trump's 'fire and fury' rhetoric baffles and outrages foreign policy establishment and its toadies
The Smart Set agrees that once again, President Trump has said something ridiculous, amateurish, and downright embarrassing. His warning to North Korea, using rhetoric that resembles the hyperbole that regime long has favored, is something they would never do (and just look at how successful they have been preventing North Korea from getting nukes).
But watch as the president makes his point twice, very deliberately, using the exact words "fire and fury" that he had committed to memory:
Left-wingers bandied about works like "insane," and NeverTrumps of the right muttered, "Trump is trying to out-crazy Kim Jong-un." The foreign policy establishment was equally critical, if more measured.
Axios eagerly sought out one of the deans of the foreign policy establishment, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, interrupting his "golfing, riding and hiking in Wyoming" in order to sneer at the sort of rhetoric that Just Isn't Done by People Who Are Experts (because they have been doing such a great job, presumably).
Here's his Axios smart-brevity take on the developments:
- "Potus's words (fire and fury) [were] counterproductive as it will raise doubts around the world and at home about his handling of the situation when all the attention and criticism ought to be placed on NK."
- "North Korea is engaging in bluster in the wake of its diplomatic isolation at the UN. The bluster could be meant for domestic consumption and to persuade China or Russia to reconsider their distancing from NK."
- "But Kim Jong-un is playing a dangerous game, as his words will add fuel to the argument here and elsewhere that he cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons and that deterrence cannot be assumed to work here."
- "I assume Potus's words were meant to signal NK and others that NK's bluster would not succeed in getting the US to back off its effort to isolate NK and pressure it to change course on its missile program."
- "[T]his may all be seen in hindsight as posturing. Diplomacy could still bring about a freeze on NK's capabilities or some other outcome that both sides can live with."
Just for a moment, and just for fun, let's see if there might be any logic to trying a different approach from the one that has consistently failed for decades under the knowledgeable stewardship of the foreign policy establishment.
A couple of possibilities occur to me.
Psyching out the psycho: speaking directly to Kim Jong-un
In choosing words that reflect North Korea's past rhetoric, President Trump may be speaking directly to Kim Jong-un and saying, in effect: "We know that you don't have the capacity to pull off an attack that would utterly destroy us in a 'sea of fire' and the other terms you have used. And you know that we do have the power to destroy you, maybe with a cruise missile or MOAB on your bunker, or maybe take out all of Pyongyang, where the regime's insiders all are clustered. Or we could take out the entire country, if we are really annoyed, or if you inflict damage on Guam, Seoul, or any place we care about (everywhere but your territory). We have power [Trump added this, seemingly extemporaneously], and you do not."
North Korea's people, as well as its leadership, now understand – as they never did before – that their country is truly backward. Until cell phones and video players were parachuted into the country in vast numbers and software supplied of everything from soap operas to documentaries to pictures of traffic jams, the regime could get by telling its subjects they were the lucky ones, that everyone else had it much worse. Now they all know that it is a lie. The information age and economical South Korean-manufactured consumer electronics have destroyed the information wall around Kim's domain.
Kim Jong-un, who was educated in Switzerland, personally understands the gap between his country's capabilities and those of the West, and President Trump knows he knows this. Remember that President Trump is far more accustomed to bare-knuckle negotiations than foreign policy types, for whom the niceties of etiquette and protocol are the very vehicle of negotiations. Little shadings of language and behavior carry deep meaning, well understood by all the diplomats.
That's why they are so outraged. Trump is throwing their toolbox out and bringing in tools they regard as crude, counterproductive, and dangerous, which is exactly the image of Trump they already have.
On the other hand, North Korea does not play this game of etiquette and shadings, at least in public.
President Trump knows there are multiple paths to achieve his goal of eliminating this threat, ranging from getting Kim to decide that a new course is merited owing to a new understanding of the carrots and sticks being wielded to encouraging or even helping a coup by the generals to remove him to the most unpleasant of all: overwhelming military force ("shock and awe").
Keep in mind that Iran's mullahs are the other audience Trump is addressing. They are sending billions of dollars a year to Kim in order to get help with their nuclear arsenal. Every move the president makes, every word he speaks, is also directed at them. They have flourished thanks to the deal President Obama gave them, and now they must realize that the game has entirely changed. The North Korea precedent will tell them a lot.
Could "fire and fury" be a coded message?
The deliberateness with which President Trump spoke those words suggests that it was important to get them exactly correct, so they would be recognized for some other meaning than the obvious. The idea of a coup by the generals who control the means by which Kim's power is enforced surely has been on the minds of the President Trump's team. I have no idea if there has been any progress, and neither does anyone else who would write or speak on the subject.