The president is busy this morning at the economic summit in Hamburg, the guest of Angela Merkel, with a lot more to talk about than numbers, trade deals and graphs with lots of squiggles and up-and-down arrows.
The real stuff is going on at the margins, in conversations between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, between the president and Xi Jinping. The bottom line is about doing something about the crazy fat kid with his new toys in North Korea.
Back home, right on cue, the usual magpies are eager to undercut the only president the nation has, with tales of gloom and doom about his options to halt development and production of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles. An analyst at The Washington Post, where editors and reporters mostly worry about exhausting the supply of ways to say how much they despise the president, is pleased to report that “Trump never had a plan for dealing with North Korea.”
No doubt true. That’s why the president and his men are trying to come up with one now. He could have gone back to sleep while the North Koreans busied themselves with their deadly ambitions, like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and, above all, Barack Obama. Mr. Trump’s predecessors took comfort that preventing catastrophe might not be necessary because probably nothing would likely happen any time soon.
Those weasel words — “probably” and “might” and “not likely” — abound in the conversations of those who see Donald Trump, not Kim Jong-un, as the great threat to civilization as we know it. The “actual” threat to the American homeland, one of these analysts writes in a bit of Post punditry, “is still unclear.” North Korea claims it can mount a nuclear bomb on such a long-range missile, “but many experts doubt that.” Oh, well: if “many experts” doubt it, and the threat is “unclear,” it’s probably safe to go back to sleep. Besides, if the threat from North Korea is eliminated, Donald Trump might get credit for it. It’s better to lose San Francisco or Seattle than to let the anti-Christ get credit for saving the day.
The good news is that someone who understands the situation is awake at the White House, and either the gang that sometimes can’t shoot straight has been taking target practice, and the firing is well coordinated, or there’s a divine Providence at work. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is giving both the Russians and the Chinese a snoot full, accusing them of holding Kim’s fat little hand, chiding them for opposing a Security Council resolution condemning the North Korean provocation and imposing greater economic sanctions. The sanctions would be punishment, such as it is, for Pyongyang’s “sharp military escalation.”
Further, she told the Russians and the Chinese what they probably already know, that North Korea is “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution, and suggested that the United States would continue to consider military action if necessary.”
Mrs. Haley does not usually speak in the lace-panty language beloved by diplomats. “One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces,” she told the U.N. Security Council this week. “We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.”
When a Russian official offered the usual quibble and cavil, questioning whether the North Korean missile fired Tuesday was actually an intercontinental missile, or merely an intermediate range missile, the tough-talking lady late of South Carolina replied firmly: “If you see this as a threat, if you see this for what it is, which is North Korea showing its muscle, then you need to stand strong. If you choose not to, we will go our own path.”
This is exactly the honest dialogue the rest of the world needs to hear, and which it rarely has in the precincts of the fearful and accommodating over these past few decades with both Democrats and Republicans in charge. The lace-panty diplomacy of the Obama years echoed again this week in the advice of Danny Russel, a senior expert on Asia at Mr. Obama’s National Security Council. “What the [Trump] administration needs to do,” he says, “is get China and Russia around an approach, even if it is not as testosterone-rich and muscular as the United States would like.”
Indeed, testosterone and manly muscles frighten the timid and the irresolute.
The way ahead for diplomacy will be difficult. China yearns to see America driven out of Asia and the Pacific. Russia never wastes an opportunity to needle the Americans and obstruct American interests. The crazy fat kid dreams of inflicting catastrophe on the American mainland. But when Donald Trump says he’s considering “some pretty severe things,” they have to believe he, unlike certain earlier presidents, might mean it.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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