Journal Entry #43

The Hanoi summit, the Mueller report: Two home truths and a clarification.

for L.D. and G.K.J.

NORFOLK, CONN., APRIL 1—Readers write in with some regularity these days, and mail is always welcome, of course. Cú Chulainn has had a number of responses to his most recent Journal entry, concerning the Mueller report and what the past two years and some tell us about the peculiarities of public opinion in—common term early in the last century—mass societies. Most were approving of Cú Chulainn’s point; two letters, including one from someone very dear, were vigorously otherwise. A clarification is in order. And an apology for inadvertently offended sentiments.

But before getting to that, another faithful reader (and generous Patreon supporter) has just forwarded a piece I might otherwise have missed. It concerns exactly what happened and why when President Trump summitted with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi this past February.

One at a time, then. And the just-broken news on the Korea question should come first.

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WHEN THE SECOND encounter between Trump and the North Korean leader fell abruptly to pieces at the Métropole, that Hanoi hotel in wedding-cake style left over from the French era, there were instantly two accounts as to why. The American side, first to the microphones, explained that Kim had asked for the lifting of all sanctions against North Korea in exchange for the decommissioning of only part of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. “They wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that,” Trump explained before departing the Vietnamese capital for Washington.

This did not ring quite true. Soon enough, the North Koreans gave their account of the doings at the Métropole. Kim had asked the U.S. to lift only those sanctions that most directly affected the livelihoods of North Koreans, and in exchange Kim committed to shutting down the North’s principal reactor, located at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang.

I had little hesitation putting my money on the North Korean version of events. Two reasons.

One, Kim’s position was in keeping with the “action for action” approach urged by Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president and the prime mover behind this latest effort to resolve the Korean crisis. It also conforms to customary practice in Asian diplomacy. It is always a step at a time: You do this, and I’ll do that; then you do the other and I’ll follow with the other. Low-hanging fruit comes first. The fountain pens and formal agreements follow once trust, confidence, and odds and ends such as postal arrangements are properly established.

Two, having followed the frighteningly hawkish John Bolton for two decades now, it was difficult to imagine Trump’s national security adviser sitting still while the Dealmaker made any kind of diplomatic advance toward a peace agreement in Northeast Asia. With considerable certainty in my conclusion, I asserted that it was the American side that sabotaged the encounter in Hanoi. That column of commentary is here, should any reader wish to take a look back.

Now comes the stunner. In an exclusive put out by Reuters at the end of last week, the British news agency reported that Trump “handed the North Korean leader a piece of paper” when they met at the Métropole. On it was a lengthy list of demands that began with the North’s surrender of all nuclear weapons and bomb fuel and went on through chemical and biological weapons, ballistic missiles, launchers, and all other associated facilities. The kitchen sink, in short. In exchange, Trump offered a vague commitment to lift sanctions at some unspecified time in the future.

“The document appeared to represent Bolton’s long-held and hardline ‘Libya model’of denuclearization that North Korea has rejected repeatedly,” the Reuters report noted.

The Reuters exclusive, by Leslie Broughton and David Brunnstrom, is here. It is excellently framed by Mike Whitney in a fulsome piece picked up and published in The Unz Review Sunday. Whitney’s report and analysis are here.

“Bolton presented Kim with an offer he knew Kim would reject, the same offer that led to the destruction of Libya and the savage murder of [Muammar] Gaddafi,” Whitney writes. “Bolton wanted the talks to fail so he could push for tougher sanctions that would pave the way for regime change. That was his goal. Kim’s nuclear weapons were never the target, they were merely the pretext for intensifying the economic strangulation, the relentless belligerence, and the threats of war.”

I tip my cap to the two Reuters journos who did the digging necessary to detail this turn of events and also to Whitney, whose work is uniformly good. It is important to get this kind of material into the record for one simple reason. The official American versions of numerous past failures to resolve the Korea question are typically blurred such that only with great effort can one detect that on many occasions it has been the Americans who undermined the outcome.

Whitney asks a good question in the course of unwrapping the failure in Hanoi. “Why would Trump agree to going along with this fraud?”

In my view, it is impossible to determine most of the time whether Trump is saying and doing what he means to say and do or whether he is talking and acting under pressure exerted by his foreign policy minders. People such as Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo are weird mismatches with the Dealmaker. And in the Hanoi case, we have evidence now of what happened. Trump wanted a deal with Kim—this is beyond dispute. And he knows what an offer the other side cannot accept looks like.

Whitney wonders, “Is there a connection between Trump’s (recent) foreign policy reversals and the termination of the Mueller investigation? Did Trump make a deal with his deep state antagonists to get Mueller off his back?”

This is worth asking, too, but I stay with the first half of Whitney’s next sentence: “It is hard to say…” One cannot take Whitney’s suggestion any further than “curious theory,” and curious it is, I grant. On the foreign policy side, this is easily the most opaque administration I have watched over many years and from many different places. But there is little question that those few worthwhile ideas Trump has tried to pursue—improved ties with Russia, an end to the Pentagon’s pointless wars of adventure, a settlement on the Korean Peninsula—have been foiled from within at every turn.

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I NOTED FROM THE VERY FIRST SIGNS that Donald Trump was a serious contender for the Republican nomination in 2016 that there was something unfamiliar in the political air we Americans breathe. As what we soon came to call “Russiagate” emerged, the odor was all the more distinct. Trump’s emergence was far more than a political or policy question. There was sociology in it. Understanding it required a resort to psychology and such questions as taste. In the latter case, I reread part of the late Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, which makes the case that taste is deployed to express and preserve stratifications of class. As noted in the Journal entry just prior to this one, I also found it useful to study up on the behavior of people in crowds.

I am more convinced of these dimensions of the Trump phenom now than I was at the outset. And with the release of the Mueller report, I made this point. For one or another reason—and probably a variety of them—people in groups can exhibit behavior one would not ordinarily expect of them. There is a considerable literature taking up this point (as Cú Chulainn also noted last week). People can manage not to see things right in front of them, or see things that are not there.

At a friend’s suggestion after the Mueller report came out, I mentioned Germany and Japan during their worst passages in the last century as cases in point. Most readers found this an apt comparison. Two, with a vehemence I found greatly distressing, did not. Here I address what I count a misunderstanding.

There was no intent in the previous Journal entry to compare Democrats or anyone else in our political constellation with Nazis or emperor-worshipping Japanese. I wish this to be very clear. My point was, indeed, wholly devoid of politics—Trump’s or anyone else’s. This was not the topic. The topic was the behavior of human beings in large groups formed of shared identities, real or imagined. I might just as well have drawn a comparison between what we saw during the 2016 political season and since with the section of a society peculiarly given to, say, badminton. They will not hear of anyone who does not love badminton and despise people who despise it.

Remove the distasteful comparison Cú Chulainn never intended to make—furthest thing from his mind—and the cases of Germany and Japan seem to remain germane. But the Irish giant would have done well to choose instances with less of an explosive charge to them. The Salem witch trials would have done. Drawing from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the point could have been carried straight on to the McCarthyist 1950s. I might have mentioned de Tocqueville’s noted thesis on “soft despotism,” found in the last sections of the second volume of Democracy in America. It is rich material. Writing about power in societies founded on the basis of equality, the French visitor wrote, “… it does not tyrannize, it impedes, it restrains and represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies….”

Not very far from my point. And I greatly hope this point is now better made, regardless of whether it finds agreement among readers.

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