North Korea Negotiations Continue
I have a few thoughts on my favorite topic — negotiations — but first some social commentary.
The Supremes ruled 7-2 in favor of the Colorado baker who had declined to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage on religious grounds. There are lots of disparate interpretations of the result, but I think the ruling got it exactly right. It’s why they call them “judges” and pay them the big bucks — because the case involved the head-on collision of two fundamental rights, non-discrimination and religious freedom. Activists on the Left are trying to spin the ruling as a victory for gay rights because it focused narrowly on this one case and made no statement about the relative overall weight of each position. But that’s precisely what the judges should do — base the outcome on the specific facts of the case at hand — and that’s what they did here.
Some of the key facts included the following: The baker was fine with selling “generic” cakes to anyone, including the same-sex couple. It was only the participation in the sake-sex wedding ceremony that he found goes against his religion, so any potential discrimination was not aimed at a class of persons. The baker had a long, well-known history of strongly and publicly held religious beliefs, so it was not whim that led to his decision. There were any number of other options for the same-sex couple to find a cake, so there was an element of no harm/no foul. Unlike the spin that claimed the anti-religion rhetoric from the Colorado authorities tilted the ruling (and by extension, if that hadn’t occurred, the ruling would have been reversed), it was the utter sincerity of the baker in basing his actions on religious motives that carried the day.
It was entirely appropriate for the Supremes to limit the ruling to the facts of this case and leave open the possibility that if the facts were different, the outcome of another case could be as well. Folks on both sides were looking for sweeping resolutions, but that’s not what should happen when comparable issues of fundamental rights are at stake. Take it case by case, and let judges be judges; that’s what they are there for.
Did you catch the Bill Clinton interview on TV? It looks like victimhood and tone deafness run in the family. Seems that being put through the impeachment ringer and winding up $16 million in debt elevates the former president to a victimhood status that exceeds the intern whose life he and his cronies ruined. Oh, and by the way, didn’t you know that he had women on his staff and actually had an anti-harassment policy when he was governor of Arkansas? I have always maintained that impeachment was a bridge too far for the GOP. The “high crime” of telling a fib and torturing the English language in denying an “affair” wasn’t exactly treason, and politically the GOP would have been far better off focusing every day on the fact that Bill Clinton was the poster child for workplace sexual harassment. Even #MeToo seemed to do nothing but cause Clinton to get his back up when a media figure (in the middle of a book tour, no less) finally raised “the question.” Can the Clintons please just go away?
Now to negotiations. One of the geniuses of Trump’s negotiating style is his ability to zero in on what matters to the other side and his willingness to use all the levers of power at his disposal to tilt the negotiating playing field. Take Afghanistan. We have been at it there forever, and efforts to reach a resolution with all the moving pieces have all failed. But now it appears that the Taliban is coming to the table with an apparent serious intent of ending the punch-up. Why now? Well after pursuing a military solution, and trying to prop up successive failed central governments, Trump decided to incentivize the Taliban to chat by hitting it where it really hurts — in the pocketbook.
The new tactic has been to let the Taliban cultivate its cash cow, the poppy fields, until it is just ready to be harvested, and then sending in bombers with incendiaries to blow it all up and burn it to the ground. After a few cycles of this, the Taliban is out of money. Afghanistan being what it is, there is certainly no guarantee that things will get settled, but at least there is a shot.
The North Korean summit is back on after it was on and then off. There’s still time for it to take a few more twists and turns before next week, but for now it looks like a go. This being North Korea, there is also no certainty of a positive outcome, but Trump’s negotiating tactics so far have been spot on and have created at least some optimism. Essentially, he has convinced Kim Jong-un that his nuke program has become more of a liability than an asset, exactly opposite what previous regimes have believed. And for good measure, Trump tossed in a compliment that the program has gotten too good and poses a real threat.
Many negotiations are won before they start by setting the plateau on which the discussions will take place. For example, it is a far different negotiation in buying a house if the agenda is not whether the furniture is included but rather how much the buyer will pay for it. Both parties have tried to play the plateau game. After meeting with China a week or two ago, Kim suddenly changed his tone from appearing conciliatory to being very aggressive in denouncing Trump’s team and refusing to commit to full denuclearization. Trump called his bluff by canceling the summit, and Kim backed down.
There has been commentary that China is being relegated to back-bench status in this negotiation, but nothing could be further from the truth. China is absolutely key here because it holds the economic lifeline for North Korea that could mitigate the sanction effort to squeeze it (or at least the North Korean elite). Military action is also on the table, and North Korea has come to believe that regardless of how damaging military action could be to the region, including our allies, Trump just might be crazy enough to do it, and that would be the end of Kim’s existence. But the economic lever is all the more important given the downsides of military moves, so China remains critical. And as I have said before, when the history of this is written, we will find out what the China/USA quid pro quos really were.
But that didn’t stop North Korea and China from taking a plateau shot at Trump, trying to move Trump off his negotiating points before the session. It had worked before with other administrations over decades, so why not give it a roll? When Trump raised the ante, North Korea dispatched its number two guy to get things back on track, and North Korea and China essentially withdrew the attempt to change the plateau. Trump is a player in this game too. He has used John Bolton and Mike Pence (and to a lesser degree, Mike Pompeo) to test drive the signal that North Korea must completely denuclearize before the U.S. would do anything on sanctions or security. Of course, that will never happen, as there will have to be some “phasing” of the mutual obligations, but Kim had signaled some weakness by releasing hostages, stopping his nuke development and destroying a nuke facility, so why not give it a try? Kim called Trump’s bluff, and Trump backed off as the parties reinstated the summit on more equal grounds.
Don’t forget though that Trump continues to have the upper hand. Kim has nowhere to go if the summit fails. Trump can just bump up sanctions while keeping the military option on the table, and he has made it clear that North Korea’s nuke capability must go. So Kim must believe that his days are numbered if a resolution is not reached. Trump also kept Kim off balance by stressing that economic benefits for the people of North Korea would be the main quid pro quo of a deal. Of course, Kim doesn’t care about economic goodies for the people, only for his elite, and his main goal (which Trump fully understands) is to remain king. The ultimate trade will be complete, permanent and verifiable elimination of North Korea’s nuke program (and possibly other WMD programs as well) in return for security guarantees that perpetuates the Kim regime; economic goodies are icing.
Along those lines, look for the steps to start with a U.S. commitment not to invade North Korea (the poster child for ice in winter since we were not going to do that anyway) in return for North Korea’s identifying its entire nuke program elements, allowing full verification, and giving a complete accounting of where everything is and how it was developed. Step two will be another security measure like a treaty to end the Korean War and guarantees from South Korea in exchange for dismantling major parts of North Korea’s nuke program. Economic goodies will be the last straw, as North Korea ships all of its nuclear components out and allows whatever verification protocol to assure that it is totally gone and will never be reinstated.
We hear all the time that Trump has given away the ranch before the summit and/or is so desperate for a deal or Nobel Peace Prize that he will cave at the table simply by giving Kim what he has always wanted — the appearance of equal footing with the U.S. — with precious little in return. But that’s the rhetoric of diplomats who view appearances as results and have gotten us into this mess over decades of similar thinking. This is now set up to be a results summit. And because Trump has negotiated so cleverly to this point, and Kim has nowhere to go, there is a sense of optimism that a deal can be reached, even if it takes a few rounds.