The news has taken on a theme: North Korea is only stringing the US along, and the controlled leaks feel very similar to what unfolded with Iraq in 2002
The Trump-Kim breakup in Hanoi was almost as sudden as the engagement a huge sigh of relief pouring forth from the national security establishment. Donald Trump did not give away the store. But more important, to the experts, the collapse of the summit proved that a marriage that should never have happened in the first place was over.
And what do the experts want now? Reduce the scope of American ambitions and return to managing the problem, wrote Richard Fontaine of the establishment Center for a New American Security. Accept that North Korea is a nuclear nation, others whisper. Supercharge efforts to deter, undermine and then even force the North to capitulate. Congress, meanwhile, newly presses legislation the Brink Act that would impose even greater sanctions.
But something else is going on here. Almost every day, stories appear in the news reporting that the North is secretly doing this and that, that nuclear materials and warheads are still being built, and that new WMD sites are being worked on and being discovered. Im all for holding North Korea accountable, and Im all for vigilance and verification in not being blind to the regimes actual behavior. But the news now seems to have taken on a larger theme: that North Korea is only stringing the United States along. The drumbeat and the controlled leaks feel very similar to what unfolded with Iraq in 2002.
The US has a choice to make. It makes no sense to return to the go nowhere diplomacy and coercion that the last three administrations followed. Resuming the active confrontation of 2016-2017 seems even riskier. But what about the Iraq playbook? In essence, this is the preferred, beefed-up policy direction the experts are offering. It is a scenario where no amount of progress from the North registers with the establishment because the dual objectives of WMD elimination and regime change crowd out all other considerations. And we all know how Iraq turned out.
The alternative is the East German playbook. This cold war course focused on opening up a closed society, particularly through beaming television, so that the people of the repressive state could actually see the riches and freedoms of the west. It took almost 20 years of patient tolerance where the US practically ignored domestic discontent for a greater goal. The end result was a peaceful collapse and reunification of one Germany.
To set the East German course required following several practical steps. In those days, they called the very small US army Berlin brigade a tripwire force. This functioned as a deterrent in that its physical presence made it very real that any attack on West Berlin would also be an attack on the US. In reality, the brigade was composed of barely a handful of tanks and one spiffy infantry battalion that spent more time on ceremonial duties than shooting. They held no pretense of combat readiness.
The same model could and should be followed in South Korea. Today, the US has 28,000 permanently stationed military personnel in the South, a number that is way too large to serve the simple purpose of deterring the North. The armys second infantry division (plus a nine-month rotational heavy brigade that the US has expensively been shipping from home. since 2015) says it is ready to fight tonight but in reality, it is no different than the Berlin tripwire force: a symbol of American commitment. That it is and should only be a tripwire, leaves open many possibilities for negotiated reductions in troops and their proximity to the DMZ.
Though he doesnt know it yet, thats exactly what Trump wants. Reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing! he tweeted last Sunday after the summit. He was reacting to a pesky NBC News story that reported large-scale war games on the peninsula would be curtailed, suggesting that Trumps unilateral moves were somehow making things more dangerous. Fake news! Trump shot back on Twitter. He said he had already made a pledge to cut back exercises last August, calling them too expensive. According to classified military documents, 23 Korean exercises large and small have been canceled or scaled back under Trump. I havent heard any commanders publicly protesting. And the reason is because it is merely a small confidence-building measure, one that should be used, like a cutback in forces, to get the North to take similar steps.
As I have already written, small measures are already having an effect. The North has ceased nuclear testing and Pyongyang has stopped shooting off long-range missiles. Behind the scenes, both sides also backed off other actions bomber flights, submarine patrols, ships congregating that might increase tensions. That, and North Korean paranoia that the US clandestinely interfered with its November 2017 missile launch got us past the fire and fury moment.
The experts insist that despite two summits, Trump has gotten nothing from Kim Jong-un. After Hanoi, everyone seems to want to give the president a history lesson on nuclear weapons, war, military realities and alliances. The experts cite many reasons for the sudden collapse in Hanoi: Trumps arrogance and lack of preparation, the president going for too much, the mercurial mix of leaders and finally, the fact a fact at least to the establishment that North Korea will never give up its nukes. Its all to push the amateur president and his cockeyed fantasy to denuclearize to just get out of the way.
Reversing the progress that has been made, and returning to brinksmanship would be exactly the wrong course to follow. Yes, the North has reneged on agreements in the past. Yes, Kim is unlikely to embrace the Trump-Pompeo bargain: give up nukes, get sanctions relief, and prosper like your communist brethren in Vietnam. It is tantamount to Kim negotiating his own demise.
The North say they want sanctions relief and an elimination of the nuclear threat against them. It isnt so ridiculous to provide that if one has an eye on a bigger prize: the opening up of the country to commerce and the internet. One can scream loudly about how horrible a regime is (Saddam), about human rights (remember the Marsh Arabs, the Kurds, the Shia majority?), and about the horrific consequences left and right. But is it possible that the Pentagon and the national security establishment is just stuck on its blinkered WMD playbook, even more so than it is on actually making progress towards a long and backdoor path to disarmament and ultimate reunification?
William M Arkin is a longtime military analyst, critic and commentator who is writing a book for Simon & Schuster on ending the era of perpetual war. He is a Guardian US columnist
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