President Donald Trump is turning two crucial foreign policy dramas – over the Iran deal and a startling opening on the Korean peninsula – into one big game of televised nuclear poker.
He’s concealing his hand, but constantly raising the stakes. He’s dripping tantalizing details out bit by bit, stoking expectations and speculation about his next moves.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said Monday regarding his decision expected in two weeks about whether to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. “I’m not telling you what I’m doing, but a lot of people think they know. And on or before the 12th, we’ll make a decision.”
But as a statesman, he is raising questions about whether his overtly personal approach is useful in jolting diplomatic progress or whether he is wagering too much personal capital on risky plays. It’s certainly possible that Trump’s unrestrained “fire and fury” rhetoric complimented a tough sanctions regime against Pyongyang and might have changed the North Korean calculation.
At times, his demands for credit about what is happening contrast with the public comments of his senior aides, who seem much less convinced that North Korea has really changed.
Trump is also relishing his looming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, that promises to be the most compelling presidential theater in decades.
“It has the chance to be a big event,” he told reporters Monday.
“The United States has never been closer to potentially having something happen with respect to the Korean Peninsula that can get rid of the nuclear weapons, can create so many good things, so many positive things, and peace and safety for the world,” Trump said.
“So we’ll see what happens. You know, I often say, ‘Who knows?’ Who knows? Maybe a lot of things change.”
Trump’s approach to both challenges is consistent with the pattern of his own life. As a real estate developer, a reality show personality and politician, he’s made himself the star of every show.
Personal prism for deals
Trump also seems to be seeing the Iran deal through a personal prism.
It often seems that his animosity for President Barack Obama may have prevented him taking a rounded look at the central foreign policy legacy achievement of his predecessor.
Trump’s ultra-personal approach to the intricate cases of North Korea and Iran have prompted fellow leaders on opposite sides of an argument to adopt their own unorthodox theatrics to reach him.
French President Emmanuel Macron last week laid on an ostentatious show of hugs, kisses and hand holding in a bid to convince Trump to stay in the Iran deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded on Monday with an elaborate, prop-laden PowerPoint broadcast accusing Iran of lying about its past nuclear activity. The appearance was timed minutes before Trump’s news conference Monday with the Nigerian President.
And perhaps seeking to keep Trump engaged in the political possibilities of meeting Kim, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said Monday the US President already deserved the Nobel peace prize.
The constant drip of details about the venue of the North Korea summit – and Trump’s warning that he could “respectfully” walk out, are diverting attention from the key question of whether the North really is ready to give up its nuclear program and has changed its behavior.
The President suggested on Twitter on Monday that the meeting could be held at the Peace Village in the demilitarized zone between the Koreas. There is a worry in Washington that such a venue could be seen as a concession to Kim given that the President would have to fly halfway across the world to make the meeting.
But Trump tweeted Monday that the border would be a “more Representative, Important and Lasting site than a third-party country? Just asking!”
It could be that that Trump, with his penchant for showmanship, saw the stunning pictures of Kim and Moon at the world’s last Cold War-era frontier last week and wanted a piece of it himself.
Certainly such a venue would be more in tune with Trump’s theatrical reflex than a hotel ballroom or a government facility in Singapore, another possible location mentioned by the President Monday.
Attention being paid to the logistics of the summit is for now at least overshadowing the historic potential of the meeting itself.
Events seem to be moving at a staggering pace on the peninsula following the Kim-Moon summit last week. The South said at the weekend that the North would invite US and South Korean journalists to watch the dismantling of a nuclear test site in May.
Trump sees such developments as a sign he’s on the right track and proof of Kim’s sincerity.
“He’s talking about getting rid of the site, which was their big site. He’s talking about no research, no launching of ballistic missiles, no nuclear testing. And he has lived up to that for a long period of time, a longer period of time than anybody has seen.”
But there is another way to see the North Korean approach. Kim could be playing a familiar game of offering symbolic concessions to draw the US and its allies into a prolonged and ultimately inconclusive dialogue.
Pyongyang’s announcement on its nuclear test site is seen by many analysts as a way of declaring itself a genuine nuclear power.
Washington also has no way to know about other test sites or secret storage facilities throughout North Korea. And Pyongyang is unlikely to agree to open up without the substantial economic concessions that the President’s team says are not on the table.
Doubts about North Korea’s intentions are apparently shared high up in Trump’s own team and are being expressed in a way that contrasts with the President’s bullish pre-game banter.
“The North Korean propaganda playbook is an infinitely rich resource,” national security adviser John Bolton said on CBS “Face the Nation.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also tempered.
“We’ll see how the negotiations proceed, but we’re going to do it in a fundamentally different way than the previous efforts to persuade the North Koreans to get rid of their nuclear weapons program,” Pompeo said on ABC News “This Week” on Sunday.
“We have our eyes wide open,” he said.