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Can Liberals Give Peace a Chance?

It’s OK to hate Trump and think his visit to North Korea is a good thing

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1930

Our deeply flawed president has distinguished himself by setting out to reverse everything that Barack Obama accomplished. This obsession has been ascribed to perversity and racism, and both charges are plausible enough. But sometimes a reversal could be an improvement. 

In the present circumstance, what bears reversal is the previous thirty (sixty?) years or more of U.S. hostility and threats directed at North Korea. Naturally this gives rise to a dispiriting liberal edition of Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS), the morbid symptoms alluded to above. I’d be the last to deny Trump’s awfulness, but in this case we ought to push back against the premise that nothing he does can be good.

What exactly has Trump done? He has radically ratcheted down tensions, admittedly some of his own making, with North Korea. It could be temporary, it could facilitate some volcanic reversal, it could provide greater leeway to attack Iran, it could elevate the president’s political fortunes a bit. Any of that would be bad, but what would be monumentally worse is U.S. armed aggression aimed at bringing down the Kim regime, since it could easily lead to mass casualties in South Korea and elsewhere.

The real rationale is to curb North Korean and Iranian regional power in their respective theaters.

The salient military factor is that the North Korean regime has fingertip control of thousands of artillery pieces, well dug in and impregnable to air strikes, that can obliterate Seoul and its millions of Koreans and thousands of Americans in a matter of minutes. In this context, North Korea’s current nuclear capability is a sidelight. At the same time, the U.S. military response of “fire and fury” to any North Korean strike would be no less lethal (and not for the first time). The result would be a decimation of the Korean population on the scale of the Cambodian genocide, authored by a previous generation of U.S. foreign policy geniuses.

Few imagine that the Kim regime would willingly “denuclearize.” Kim himself has been vocal on this front. After all, how well did that work out for Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi? If you put Kim’s intransigence together with the denuke demand, the only implication is war. That same insistence nurtured during the Clinton administration greased the skids for the Bush administration’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq.

The pretend rationale for U.S. policy, which goes back through Obama, Bush, and Clinton, is that North Korean possession of nuclear capability would be a threat to the U.S. The same principle is applied to Iran. Insistence on such a danger is pure dishonesty. The real rationale is to curb North Korean and Iranian regional power in their respective theaters.

North Korean nuclear capability poses no threat to the U.S., let alone to its powerful neighbors. After all, we have survived the nuclearization of the U.S.S.R., “Red” China, and jihadi-riddled Pakistan. There is no threat to the U.S. for the simple reason that all parties understand that any use of nuclear weapons would invite total destruction. Deterrence is a given.

We have been treated to the negative exaltation of Kim as Hitler of the month, following the same script applied to Hussein. In both cases, U.S. leaders alluded to the mental instability of these demons. Is it at all unclear that such charges are simple appeals to racism? (Kim’s mental health is discussed here by University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings.)

The point is the diplomatic implication, that Trump has gone from leaning towards military action to leaning against it.

The other dimension of racism at play is the chronic American indifference toward the well-being and viewpoint of the party most at risk in this entire situation—the nation of South Korea. An easing of tension, even with an unchecked North Korean nuclear capability, is a boon to the south, which explains the pivotal role of their leader, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in launching this round of negotiations.

Of course, Trump’s 180-degree reversal on the wonderfulness of “Rocket Man” Kim is ridiculous in literal terms, no less than Vladimir Putin’s compliments for the “brilliant” Trump. The point is the diplomatic implication, that Trump has gone from leaning toward military action to leaning against it. There is also the suggestion of postponing U.S. military maneuvers, and even of reducing the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. Whatever you think of Trump or Kim, these are arguably good things. At this point, it is hard to support the notion that Trump is any less deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama was at the time of the latter’s coronation.

While the president has effectively paralyzed potential criticism from Republican politicians not on the verge of retirement, the #NeverTrump neocons are in their highest dudgeon. Never one to miss a chance to ally with those to their right, Democratic politicians are floating up there with them.

Reinforcing the pearl-clutching is the Democratic foreign policy establishment, described by no less than Barack Obama as “the Blob.” He was referring to its overrated wisdom and its genetic predisposition to look for trouble, otherwise known as maintaining and exercising the superpower supremacy of the United States. When it comes to foreign affairs, like Uncle Ernie, the Blob wants to fiddle about, fiddle about. Hillary was their standard-bearer. To his credit, Obama resisted her impulses in dealing with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

We also see notables of “the Resistance” stricken by TDS, to the point where they must attack Trump’s rapprochement with North Korea from the right. Rachel Maddow is a prominent case. She seems to be following in the footsteps of Samantha Power, who began as a human rights champion and evolved into a reliable saber-rattler as Obama’s UN Ambassador.

Naturally much liberal outrage dwells on the hypocrisy of Republicans who would scream bloody murder if a Democrat undertook the same peace initiatives as their pathological leader. The problem is that such criticism tends to shade into endorsement of the principles Republicans are clearly discarding out of craven partisan mania. 

We see something similar in deficit politics: “Those fiends the Republicans talk fiscal responsibility, then blow up the deficit.” The danger is that deficit reduction, or inflamed tension with North Korea, harden into retrograde Democratic Party governing principles. 

In the same vein, support for the institutions of law enforcement besieged by Trump, such as the FBI, the CIA, and the Department of Justice, achieve an unmerited exaltation that can only facilitate their persistent, decades-long abrogation of basic human rights (not excluding the tenure of the sainted Barack Obama) in the future. TDS tends to shorten memories. The hypocrisy is a two-way street.

Back in the day, we were told that genuine comprehension of the ongoing debacle of Vietnam was limited to the elite experts, later memorialized as “the best and the brightest.” Bitter experience taught us otherwise: that what looked like bullshit was precisely that, and leaders defending U.S. military adventures lie like crazy. What you see is really what you will get. The heirs to this tradition are at it again with crisis-mongering over North Korea. Their counsel should be rejected. After screwing up Iraq, we don’t need their advice on Korea or Iran.

We are far from out of the woods on Korea, and Iran crisis-mongering is just around the corner. But now is a time to recapture a principled, liberal dedication to peace.