Take a tough Republican president, a Chinese government committed to help us, and a North Korean government faced with demands for denuclearization, and what do you get? It sounds like breaking news. But the scene comes from 2007, when the Bush administration thought it had achieved a historic breakthrough with North Korea. It was mistaken.
So, it appears, is Donald Trump. In June, he emerged from a summit with Kim Jong Un and tweeted that "everybody can now feel much safer" because there is "no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea." He could have been accused of putting the cart before the horse, if there were a cart, or a horse.
So far, the most he has to show for the meeting is the remains of 55 American military personnel killed in the Korean War, turned over Friday—a welcome achievement, but not one that makes us safer. Aside from that, the administration mostly has vague commitments that are not worth the paper they weren't written on.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted Wednesday that the Pyongyang regime is still producing fuel for nuclear warheads. It has begun to dismantle a missile test stand that has already served its purpose, but other facilities remain intact.
U.S. negotiators complain that their North Korean counterparts "have canceled follow-up meetings, demanded more money and failed to maintain basic communications," reported The Washington Post. Trump, after claiming swift success in getting Kim to give up his nukes, now says, "I'm in no real rush."
It was once said of French royals that "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing." Trump and his foreign policy team, by contrast, have learned nothing and forgotten everything. Their ignorance of and disdain for history have left them surprised at the difficulty of coercing our enemies—and the poor options available to us when bluster proves unavailing.
The president assumed that by threatening North Korea with "fire and fury," as he did last year, he could force Kim to surrender his atomic arsenal. So far, it hasn't worked.
That hasn't stopped him from using the same approach with Iran. On Monday, after President Hassan Rouhani warned him not to attack, Trump threatened Iran with "CONSEQUENCES THE LIKE OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE."
He doesn't seem to realize that every time he raises the specter of American bombs incinerating Iranians, he pushes the Tehran government to acquire a nuclear deterrent. Entrusting the State Department to Pompeo, who had advocated regime change in Iran, had the same effect.
Pompeo had unmitigated scorn for the nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by the U.S. and five other parties, which Trump renounced in May. The secretary has vowed to keep sanctions until Iran meets a long list of stringent conditions.
Those demands go far beyond what Iran was willing to accept in the accord, which was the product of years of give-and-take. The administration's position on Iran, as with North Korea, is that we expect total capitulation. Trump has found the perfect formula for getting nothing while hardening the enemy's resolve.
The obvious lesson of recent history is that nuclear arms are the best guarantee of survival in the face of U.S. hostility. That's why North Korea has invested so much time and money acquiring nuclear warheads and the missiles to carry them. That's why Iran created the infrastructure to produce nukes.
During the Obama administration, Iran was willing to enter into an agreement requiring it to dismantle most of its nuclear centrifuges, surrender 97 percent of its enriched uranium, and accept extensive outside inspections. When Trump pulled out, he sent a message to Tehran that negotiations with the U.S. are a snare and a delusion. The message did not go unheard in Pyongyang.
All this brings to mind the line from country singer Trisha Yearwood: "That's just a lot of water underneath a bridge I burned." By acting as though the North Korean problem has been solved, Trump encourages Kim to continue the regime's old practice of stringing us along. By scrapping the Iran deal, he encourages Tehran to pursue nukes. In each case, he leaves himself with few options to get his way except going to war—which would be disastrous and might not work.
Trump is fond of burning bridges. One of these days, he may realize that he's stranding himself.