WASHINGTON — We hear a lot about North Korea’s missiles but sometimes forget America’s own unguided missile. That would be Donald Trump, who’s likely to go shooting off in any and all directions with little or no warning or planning.
The inability of anyone, including Trump’s closest advisers and Cabinet members, to anticipate his next move makes life extremely uncertain for friends and allies. The fact that Trump would just as soon do away with alliances, or at least downplay such relationships, is capable of turning uncertainty into panic.
Most recently, Trump’s decision to order America’s small but highly trained and focused force from northern Syria dramatizes the point. In defense of Trump, he probably didn’t know what he was doing and didn’t comprehend the consequences. Had he asked anyone who knew the risks, he might have known that withdrawal exposed thousands of people, the Kurds whom U.S. forces were defending, to the danger of annihilation by a predatory power, namely Turkey.
It’s possible, however, that Trump did not really care about the fate of the Kurds. As he remarked at one political rally, the people in that region have been fighting for hundreds of years. The implication was plain: they’re free to fight and kill one another, who cares? If the Turks want to attack the Kurds, let them. Why should Americans worry about who’s killing whom 7,000 miles away from Fortress America.
Implicit in that reasoning is a dire warning for Korea, which happens to be a few thousand miles from the U.S. west coast. Just as Trump betrayed the Kurds, so he’s equally likely to betray the Koreans, that is, the South Koreans, whom U.S. forces have been poised to defend since turning back the North Koreans and then the Chinese in the Korean War.
Why waste lives and funds waging war for one bunch of Koreans against another? Let them all slaughter one another, might be Trump’s reasoning, and if an overweight strongman from the North winds up ruling them all, so what? Crazy questions, but in a crunch on the Korean peninsula, there’s no guessing which way Trump would go.
He’s already shocked the military establishments in the United States and Seoul by abandoning war games featuring combat forces in action on the ground, bombers and fighter planes overhead and ships off the coast. Playing war games on computers may be fine, but they’re no substitute for military units grinding away in the field as they were accustomed to doing annually until Trump fell for Kim Jong-un at their summit in Singapore in June 2018.
Stupidly, Trump says he’s not at all concerned about North Korea’s short-range missile tests and yearns for another meeting with Kim after which he would claim one more success in getting him to give up his nukes and missiles. He does not appear at all bothered by mounting North Korean rhetoric against the South or President Moon Jae-in’s failure to get Kim to come to terms beyond the happy talk surrounding their own meetings.
Part of the problem seems to be Trump’s infatuation with strongman leaders. Having been taken in at times by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping, Trump seems to want to believe Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is capable of acting in good faith. Erdogan, however, is not going to let up in the opportunity Trump has bequeathed him to wipe out the Kurds, whose rebellion has long been a serious annoyance.
The problem with Erdogan is quite different from that with North Korea. It’s easy to forget that Turkey, far from having been hostile toward the United States, is an American ally, the site of important U.S. bases and a longtime NATO ally. Erdogan may have had good reason to expect that Trump would not feel inclined to pressure him, beyond imposing feeble sanctions, to come to peaceful terms with the despised Kurds.
Fantasies about Erdogan’s basic loyalties, however, should have dissipated with the deal he’s just reached with Putin whereby Turkey and Russia will be the main players in Syria. The United States — that is, Trump — asked for this humiliation, this debacle, made all the worse in view of Turkey’s ongoing alliance tie with the United States.
Oh, that’s right, Trump doesn’t much like NATO either so he won’t have a problem with a NATO partner sharing policy goals with Russia. Maybe someone had better tell Trump NATO was formed originally against the former Soviet Union. Putin would like to revive Russian influence over all its neighbors, including Korea, with which Russia’s interests were intertwined until the Japanese defeated the Russians in 1905 at the outset of Japanese rule over the Korean peninsula.
It might be too much to expect Trump to read up on the history, but at least his advisers should make him aware of the forces at play before he goes off with another, much worse, more shocking betrayal of a longtime ally — that is, South Korea.