The Trump-Kim breakup in Hanoi was almost as sudden as the engagement – a huge sigh of relief pouring forth from the national security establishment. Donald Trump did not give away the store. But more important, to the experts, the collapse of the summit proved that a marriage that should never have happened in the first place was over.
And what do the experts want now? Reduce the scope of American ambitions and return to “managing the problem”, wrote Richard Fontaine of the establishment Center for a New American Security. Accept that North Korea is a nuclear nation, others whisper. Supercharge efforts to deter, undermine and then even force the North to capitulate. Congress, meanwhile, newly presses legislation – the Brink Act – that would impose even greater sanctions.
But something else is going on here. Almost every day, stories appear in the news reporting that the North is secretly doing this and that, that nuclear materials and warheads are still being built, and that new WMD sites are being worked on and being discovered. I’m all for holding North Korea accountable, and I’m all for vigilance and verification in not being blind to the regime’s actual behavior. But the news now seems to have taken on a larger theme: that North Korea is only stringing the United States along. The drumbeat and the controlled leaks feel very similar to what unfolded with Iraq in 2002.
The US has a choice to make. It makes no sense to return to the “go nowhere” diplomacy and coercion that the last three administrations followed. Resuming the active confrontation of 2016-2017 seems even riskier. But what about the Iraq playbook? In essence, this is the preferred, beefed-up policy direction the experts are offering. It is a scenario where no amount of progress from the North registers with the establishment because the dual objectives of WMD elimination and regime change crowd out all other considerations. And we all know how Iraq turned out.
The alternative is the East German playbook. This cold war course focused on opening up a closed society, particularly through beaming television, so that the people of the repressive state could actually see the riches and freedoms of the west. It took almost 20 years of patient tolerance where the US practically ignored domestic discontent for a greater goal. The end result was a peaceful collapse and reunification of one Germany.