From Consortium News
President Trump speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 19, 2017.
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President Trump's bellicose speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month sparked a crisis for the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that was then reaching out to North Korea and Iran, with Trump's comments jeopardizing not only the talks but the credibility of the intermediaries, according to a source familiar with those efforts.
Trump essentially pulled the rug out from under the intermediaries by insulting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man," threatening to "totally destroy" Kim's nation of 25 million people, and calling for regime change in Iran. Trump's bluster on Sept. 19 also deepened internal tensions with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who was privately supporting the secret diplomacy.
The next day, when one of the intermediaries complained about the harm that Trump's speech had caused, the President glibly explained that he liked to "zigzag" in charting his foreign policy, the source said.
The immediate consequences of Trump's U.N. speech included ratcheting up nuclear-war tensions on the Korean peninsula and torpedoing a possible diplomatic breakthrough with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. A proposed meeting between Rouhani and Trump around the Iranian president's trip to the U.N. sank under Trump's barrage of insults, the source said.
Trump's "zigzag" approach to foreign policy has similarities to President Richard Nixon's infamous "madman theory," in which Nixon pretended to be crazy enough to launch a nuclear strike against North Vietnam in a ploy to gain concessions from Hanoi and its allies during the Vietnam War.
In Trump's depiction of his business negotiating style, he has hailed the value of coming on tough to soften up a rival. But one problem of this approach in foreign policy is that Trump's zigzagging left the U.S. government's middlemen in the uncomfortable position of appearing to have misled senior North Korean and Iranian officials regarding what U.S. intentions were. The source said no one was in physical danger but apologies had to be made and the credibility of the initiatives suffered a severe blow.
In the case of North Korea, the backchannel goal had been to tamp down the heated rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang and to persuade the North Koreans to begin talks with South Korea about the possibility of some loosely formed confederation that could then lead to the gradual withdrawal of U.S. military forces and a reduction in overall tensions.
Leaving Intermediaries in the Lurch
However, by using his maiden U.N. speech to personally insult North Korea's leader and to threaten to annihilate the country, Trump left his intermediaries in the unenviable spot of trying to explain to North Korean officials the chasm between the U.S. administration's private overtures and the President's public outburst.
That was the context behind Secretary of State Tillerson's public acknowledgement last Saturday that the administration was engaged in direct communications with the North Korean government. In effect, Tillerson was trying to bolster the credibility of the intermediaries by putting the backchannel contacts into the public light.
"We are probing, so stay tuned," Tillerson said. "We ask, 'Would you like to talk?' We have lines of communications to Pyongyang -- we're not in a dark situation, a blackout."
Tillerson added, "We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang." Tillerson even went out of his way to specify that these were American channels, not indirect contacts through China or some other third-party government.
"We can talk to them," Tillerson said. "We do talk to them." The Secretary of State then rebuffed a suggestion that he was referring to Chinese intermediaries. Shaking his head, Tillerson said, "Directly. We have our own channels."