The coming Trump faceplant on North Korea
Try to imagine, if you will, the scene when President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sit down to negotiate, with just a few aides and a couple of translators in the room. The president, we can be sure, will be brimming with confidence, as is his wont. He's the most famous man on Earth! He's the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal! No second-rate tyrant is going to get the better of him.
None of us can really predict how the meeting will go. But I have a pretty good idea of what will happen afterward. Trump will walk to the cameras and declare victory. We have a deal, he'll proclaim. Nobody thought it could happen. Nobody could do it but me. You're welcome.
And when he's asked for details, Trump will say that it's a fantastic deal, a tremendous deal, a better deal than anyone thought possible. Then he'll say some things about what North Korea has committed to do, which we'll quickly discover are completely wrong. It will turn out that Kim has agreed only to some very modest steps, like extending his moratorium on further nuclear testing, or shutting down some facilities he doesn't need anyway. But his nuclear weapons? He'll be keeping those.
That scenario sounds plausible if you've been paying any attention to what Trump has said about North Korea lately. It has become obvious that he has all but given up on Middle East peace — which, surprisingly, Jared Kushner was not able to negotiate — which leaves North Korea as the logical place for Trump to win the Historic Deal No President But Trump Could Achieve, which he plainly desires. In a tweet last Sunday, Trump triumphantly said that "we haven't given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization (so great for World), site closure, & no more testing!" This was absurd: The North Koreans have of course not agreed to denuclearization, even though they did say they'd be dismantling a test site they no longer need, and halting further nuclear testing for the moment.
But it shows how eager Trump is to say that he's achieved all his goals even before the talks take place. He even called Kim "very open and I think very honorable from everything we're seeing," which was a bizarre thing to say about someone who runs one of the most oppressive dictatorships on the planet.
We know, furthermore, that Trump has a ridiculously inflated belief in his own negotiating abilities. As he has shown since he got to Washington, he seems to believe that every negotiation is just like, say, getting a small-time vendor to give you marble at a discount. You can threaten to walk away, and they'll come back begging for your business, at which point you've gotten them down to a lower rate (and you might just stiff them on the bill, because that's how smart businessmen do it).
One thing Trump doesn't see as a prerequisite to negotiation is understanding the person on the other side of the table: What they want, what motivates them, what they might be willing to give up, and how far they'll go. We saw that with negotiations over his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, where he never bothered to learn about the issue and didn't grasp the incentives and risks influencing members of Congress from his own party.
So do you think Trump will spend weeks reading briefing books about North Korea and Kim Jong Un? Or will he say, "Don't worry fellas, I can handle this pipsqueak"?
Trump also doesn't seem to realize that there's a good reason previous administrations weren't able to put a stop to the North Korean nuclear program. And in some ways it's a harder sell today than it ever was, since Kim now has both nukes and the missiles that could deliver them all the way to the U.S. mainland.
Kim may be a brutal dictator, but there's no evidence he's an idiot. According to multiple reports, his thinking and that of other North Korean officials is shaped in significant part by the experience of Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his weapons and then was overthrown and killed, and Saddam Hussein, who didn't have much in the way of weapons and then was overthrown and killed. Not only that, Kim can see that the United States and other countries signed an agreement to restrain Iran's nuclear program, but now Trump wants to trash that deal. Why should he believe that Trump will keep his word?
All indications are that Kim sees his nuclear weapons as a guarantee of his own survival and that of his regime, which is a perfectly rational thing for him to believe. For all the problems the weapons cause in dealing with other countries, they provide the ultimate deterrent against an invasion that would end with Kim strung up on a lamppost.
So Trump would have to be able to deliver something truly spectacular for Kim to agree in exchange to give up his nuclear program. What will that be? Kim would certainly like an end to sanctions and some economic aid, but that probably won't be enough. Nor will a promise to build Trump Tower Pyongyang.
Just to be clear, if Trump can negotiate a deal that includes actual denuclearization, that would be great, and he'd deserve the kudos he'd get. But nobody really believes that's going to happen. He'll claim that he did something great, but it will turn out to be less than it appears, and will ultimately come to nothing. And the next president will still have to confront this problem.