Trump is a lousy president. He still deserves a victory lap on North Korea.
Hooray for President Trump.
Those are words I never expected to write. But here we are, in the first stunned hours after the Singapore summit has been concluded, and right now it looks like the U.S. is less likely to go to war against North Korea than it was a few months ago.
That's a win.
Yes, the smart betting today is that the results of the Singapore summit will prove to be hollow. North Korea made vague commitments to denuclearization — haven't we heard that before? — and President Trump made somewhat-more-specific promises to ratchet down America's military involvement on the peninsula.
It can be rightly argued, in fact, that the disastrous G7 summit a few days earlier laid the groundwork for what happened in Singapore: Once again, Trump took action without apparent regard for a longtime U.S. ally — in this case, South Korea, whose defense establishment was caught off guard by the president's announcement that the U.S. will pull out of joint military exercises with that country. The postwar order is unraveling, and the consequences are likely to be painful and long-lasting.
Then again: We're not going to war. That's a good thing.
North Korea is probably not going to actually give up its nuclear weapons under this agreement. It was never going to give up its nukes, no matter how much huffing and puffing American officials did on the international stage — particularly after John Bolton oh-so-wisely reminded the world of the Libyan precedent for such deals. Which left President Trump with two choices: Go to war, or do something to save face.
He chose to save face. Thank God.
Squint hard enough, maybe, and you can see Neville Chamberlain shouting about "peace in our time." Hawks in and around the Trump administration will inevitably see the results of the Singapore summit as intolerable, letting an evil man retain possession of genocidal weapons while lending him some much-craved international legitimacy. What exactly did the U.S. win out of this?
Well, we're not at war.
The second-best scenario in North Korea was always this: The country would keep its weapons, and the U.S. would decide that war over those weapons wasn't worth it. This is the scenario the Trump administration — whether the president realizes it or not — has apparently decided to implement.
War on the Korean peninsula would be an unfathomable disaster. Civilian populations in both North and South Korea would probably be slaughtered; American officials believe 10,000 U.S. troops would die just in the opening days of the conflict. And if Kim Jong Un believed he was about to lose power, he'd probably unleash his nukes. That would mean more death, possibly on America's West Coast.
There is no "best-case" scenario for the next Korean War.
Choosing that war is acceptable only if you're reasonably sure it provides a better outcome than peace. Otherwise? Better to kick the can down the road.
Kicking the can has a bad reputation, generally: It means you're putting off till tomorrow a problem you should be solving today. But some problems can't be solved today without a terrible cost, and North Korea is one of them.
It's hard to be overly generous in praise of the president. There's good reason to believe that he stumbled into this version of "peace in our time." He famously did little preparation for the summit and seemed over-eager to be able to claim a win. As is often the case, he appeared more confident than knowledgeable about the crisis in which he found himself.
That's fine. The details of the agreement matter less than the the fact that war fever seems to have cooled. Trump can claim victory and go back to being a disastrous president in virtually every other respect. For the moment, he seems to have averted a war that was looking increasingly likely. And sure, it was probably a mix of ill-considered bravado, ego, and ignorance that led him to this result. The process was never going to be pretty.
What's more: History suggests that a few months or years from now, this president or his successor will realize that North Korea has done little or nothing to denuclearize, and it's possible we'll re-enter the cycle of threats and cajoling that has long defined the U.S.-North Korea relationship.
But for now we're not going to war. That's good. Hooray.