Mike Pompeo's secret trip to North Korea makes zero sense
The word of the day is: "Kremlinology."
The term comes from the Cold War era, and refers to the difficulties analysts encountered in trying to interpret political developments within the Soviet Union. Who's in? Who's out? Were major policy changes in the works? Was a recent diplomatic position a bluff? Or was it in earnest?
Democratic governments can try to hold their cards close to their vests, but the existence of opposition parties forces the government to articulate some position before the press and the voters, which observers can assume has some bearing on its actual views. Kremlin-watchers had to read between the lines, seeking coded information in the order in which articles appeared in Pravda, or placement in reviewing stands of parades.
But when a democratic government behaves in a sufficiently opaque and confusing manner, its own citizens have to start reading it like a Soviet-era Politburo. Which brings us to Mike Pompeo's mission to North Korea.
The Trump administration's policy on North Korea has been mass of contradictions, threatening "fire and fury" one day and offering peace on the next. The president mocked his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson at the time, for trying to negotiate with "Little Rocket Man," but then expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader in person, something no previous American president has done. He has called for complete denuclearization as a precondition for talks, but at one point appeared to have confirmed that direct talks had already begun without preconditions (a statement he later walked back). It's in this confusing context that Trump sent one of the few members of his foreign policy team that he trusts as an advance man to prepare for a summit.
But why did Pompeo go to Pyongyang? What was he sent to accomplish? His mission was conducted in secret; he didn't even reveal the plans to those senators responsible for oversight of foreign policy. He went as the outgoing head of the CIA and the not-yet-confirmed secretary of state; his authority, inasmuch as he had any, was not institutional but personal, as someone with the president's ear. He came back from the highest-level talks since 2000 with no concessions and no progress on releasing American citizens held by the Kim regime. And upon his return, the president trumpeted the incredible progress that had been made in U.S.-North Korean relations.
Secrecy befits the quest for a difficult diplomatic breakthrough. But if a breakthrough is what was sought, then there'd be little reason to announce the mission after the first high-level overture — particularly when there are no concrete results to be demonstrated. And while sending someone who has the personal confidence of the president but is not an official American diplomat makes sense if you want to feel out the other side while retaining deniability regarding any proposals that individual might make, if that individual has already been announced as the president's choice to serve as top diplomat, he'd logically be an even weaker negotiating partner than either a confirmed secretary or an outsider, because he'd still have to face a difficult grilling before the Senate that might reveal sensitive points in an ongoing negotiation.
Was the Senate perhaps the real target of the mission? Pompeo was hardly assured of confirmation before. But now, rejecting him might be interpreted to be a rejection of diplomacy with North Korea. Might that move some votes into his column? Or might it provoke the opposite response, nervousness on the part of hawks coupled with anger from senators who expect to be kept more appropriately in the loop?
It's extremely hard to answer any questions about the purpose of his trip when we don't know what Trump himself would view as a "win" from negotiations with North Korea. Based on his performance in domestic negotiations with Congress, he might well count any piece of paper with his signature on it as a win. If that's the case, then the South Koreans, who are desperate to avoid conflict on the peninsula while also anxious to keep a volatile American government on-side, have both the incentive and the opportunity to facilitate a deal to their liking. That could be a very hopeful sign for Korean peace; "go big or go home" might well mean larger American concessions than have ever been contemplated. But Trump might sign such a deal and denounce it the next day as something he never should have done. Or negotiations might be going nowhere, and the trip might have been Pompeo's way of manipulating negotiations toward a standstill, the better to lay the groundwork for military action.
We really have no way of knowing. So we look at Twitter, our version of dàzìbào, and hope there's method somewhere behind the madness.