Lord knows we’ve seen plenty of downsides to President Donald Trump’s gut-based leadership style. Shooting from the lip has landed him, and us, in a sea of troubles ranging from the Mueller investigation to the post-Charlottesville, Virginia, meltdown.
But Trump wouldn’t be where he is today if his instincts weren’t sometimes keen. His gut gave him a boost in Washington this last week. And his gut can lead him through the North Korea crisis—if he lets it.
It was instinct that told him to pull the rug out from under Capitol Hill Republicans and strike a debt-ceiling deal with “Chuck and Nancy”—his new besties, the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House. GOP factions wanted to use the risk of a government default to advance some pet causes, but Trump’s gut told him that a brutal hurricane season is the wrong time for shenanigans. Shutdown showdowns and looming defaults represent everything wrong with modern Washington: the partisanship, the grandstanding, the reckless toying with the nation’s reputation. Even people who rank long-term fiscal policy high on their worry list understand that the dance of the debt ceiling is a sideshow, not a solution.
Conservatives were shocked by Trump’s impulsive deal because they keep making the mistake of thinking Trump is on their side. Trump is on no one’s side but his own. And his instincts told him, in a flash of recognition, that the people who put him in office are hungry for exactly this sort of behavior. They want him to deploy his unpredictable, no-apologies, anti-Washington mojo as a hammer to smash the baloney cycle. They want him to shaft the Republicans today and, after he lulls Chuck and Nancy into smugness, shaft the Democrats tomorrow. They measure his success by the volume of howls they hear from the in-crowd, regardless of party.
As for North Korea, Trump’s initial instincts were correct there, too. During the campaign and again as president, he recognized that North Korea’s reckless conduct is principally China’s problem to solve. After all, the Chinese want global influence to match the size of their economy. But how can they be credible on the world stage if they can’t keep their nearest neighbors in line? Mexico and Canada aren’t firing off missiles and stroking H-bombs. China’s hegemony starts in its own back yard.
Unfortunately, Trump has clouded that message and alarmed the world with blustery talk about unleashing “fire and fury” that is “locked and loaded.” The tone of those statements could not be more wrong. They steer attention away from China while lowering the president to the level of Kim Jong Un, a pair of schoolyard tough guys trading apocalyptic yo mamas.
Against that backdrop, some of the best news we’ve had lately was reported by my colleague David Ignatius, a sage and deeply wired analyst of foreign policy and national security. He disclosed that America’s sphinx-like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is hard at work below the radar prodding and encouraging China’s leaders to shoulder the responsibility they claim to seek. Tillerson’s goal is to see China walk Kim to the bargaining table, hold his feet to the fire and then enforce any agreements that are reached.
Apparently, Kim harbors the delusion that his nuclear missiles are going to cow the United States into abandoning its allies in the Pacific and South Asia—a result that would delight the Chinese, although they are rational enough to know it won’t happen. The reality, which China must help Kim see, is that he already has things about as good as they’re going to get. The U.S. role in the region assures a non-nuclear South Korea and a largely demilitarized Japan. Meanwhile, North Korea’s strategic importance to China assures Kim’s future without the need for rattling his nukes. And this status quo can continue indefinitely if Kim abandons his provocations.
At this incredibly delicate juncture, should Trump’s gut tell him to change direction, let’s hope he ignores it. His first impulse was the right one, and no more bluster is needed. If anyone had forgotten about America’s vast and terrible nuclear deterrent power, he has amply reminded them. Any use by Kim of his new arsenal will be punished as only an Ohio-class submarine—with at least 20 Trident II missiles each bearing 10 independently targetable hydrogen bombs—can do. No more need be said on that topic.
Keep the focus on China, not as a problem, but as the key to a solution. It’s true that a successful de-escalation of the crisis will strengthen China, but a stronger China is inevitable. What the world needs now is a better China.
Conservatives were shocked by Trump’s impulsive deal because they keep making the mistake of thinking Trump is on their side. Trump is on no one’s side but his own. And his instincts told him, in a flash of recognition, that the people who put him in office are hungry for exactly this sort of behavior.