So we’re nine months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and America’s inauguration babies are busy clawing their way out of their mums’ noxious wombs like harlequin ducks flapping away from the Exxon Valdez. Except they’re quickly finding that life out here is immeasurably worse than anything they could have imagined from inside a benighted and besotted Trumpette.
Imagine growing up with no clue that presidents were once expected to be more ethical than Nigerian email scammers and have at least as much humanity as Ed Gein’s settee.
They were also required to be knowledgeable about our nation’s history, and to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.
So much for that.
Despite having pretended for a year and a half that he alone among the 2016 Republican presidential candidates had been against the disastrous Iraq war, Trump is now blundering into a potential (and completely unnecessary) conflict with North Korea, and doing so with a reckless abandon that should be eerily familiar to those of us who were alive and politically aware back in 2003.
Take a moment to compare Trump’s current inflammatory rhetoric with that of George W. Bush in March 2003:
And here was George W. Bush in a news conference on March 6, 2003, just two weeks before the invasion of Iraq:
“First, for those who urge more diplomacy, I would simply say that diplomacy hasn't worked. We've tried diplomacy for 12 years.Saddam Hussein hasn't disarmed. He's armed. ... And in the case of Iraq, it is now time for him to disarm. For the sake of peace, if we have to use our troops, we will.”
And in case you’d forgotten, UN inspectors were on the ground in Iraq and diligently doing their jobs when they were forced to leave just days prior to the invasion.
So the early 2000s have several clear — and frightening — parallels with 2017.
Then as now, diplomacy and other alternatives to war were mocked by our commander-in-chief as wimpy half measures. Then as now, a president with toxic daddy issues appeared to be trying to make a point about how tough and important he was. Then as now, nuance was thrown out the window as our president ratcheted up jingoism and faux national pride to sell a war that he seemed only too eager to start.
Of course, we wouldn’t be in crisis with North Korea today had it not been for George W. Bush’s rash decision to blow up our nuclear agreement with the country back in the 2000s.
The Clinton administration had negotiated an Agreed Framework with North Korea — a deal that required the country to submit to inspections in return for shipments of fuel oil and two light-water reactors, which would be useless for bomb-making.
The Bush administration hated the agreement, just as Trump hates the Obama-era deal that’s temporarily halted Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Here’s how The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler summarized the Bush administration’s failed approach to North Korea in the early 2000s:
So how did North Korea get its hands on the nuclear material? George W. Bush became president in 2001 and was highly skeptical of Clinton’s deal with North Korea. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was even slapped down when he suggested the administration would follow the path set by the Clinton administration. The new administration terminated missile talks with Pyongyang and spent months trying to develop its own policy.
Then intelligence agencies determined that North Korea was cheating on the agreement by trying to develop nuclear material through another method — highly enriched uranium. The Bush administration sent an envoy who confronted North Korea — and the regime was said to have belligerently confirmed it in 2002, just as the Bush administration was mostly focused on the pending invasion of Iraq.
In response, the Bush administration terminated the supply of fuel oil that was essential to the agreement — and then North Korea quickly kicked out the U.N. inspectors, restarted the nuclear plant and began developing its nuclear weapons, using the material in radioactive fuel rods that previously had been under the close watch of the IAEA. Japan and South Korea, the key partners in the accord, were not happy with the decision to terminate the Agreed Framework, but there was little they could do about it.
Within two years, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded North Korea was using the plutonium to create nuclear weapons.
Stupid, right? But by the time the Bush administration had realized its colossal blunder, it was too late.
After North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, the Bush administration tried desperately to negotiate a new accord with Pyongyang, including offering significant new concessions, but those efforts ultimately failed. Bush, to the anger of conservatives and the government of Japan, even removed North Korea from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism — only to see the hard work turn to dust. The nuclear genie by then was out of the bottle, and North Korea had little incentive to give up its stash of plutonium, no matter what the United States and its negotiating allies offered.
So in both 2001 and 2017, our president expressed a personal animus toward a pragmatic deal negotiated by his Democratic predecessor and chose to endanger the agreement without offering a viable alternative.
But today’s state of affairs is far worse, because a war with North Korea would be degrees of magnitude more devastating than the Iraq War was, and nearly everyone in the world who knows anything — including members of Trump’s own cabinet — believes the Iran deal is working exactly as designed. Trump’s decision to undermine the agreement is 100 percent about misplaced pride and ego, which dovetails nicely with his monomaniacal obsession with obliterating Obama’s legacy.
In other words, today — as in the early 2000s — our president wants to scuttle a viable diplomatic solution and replace it with nothing. As we saw with North Korea, that didn’t work. The country is now a nuclear power.
And today — as in the 2000s — our president is openly scorning diplomatic options while engaging in irresponsible saber-rattling.
Of course, if our presidents refuse to learn the lessons of history, it’s especially crucial that we remember.
As with the warmonger Bush, our current president is leading us on a path to a foolish, horrific conflict, and making future nuclear brinkmanship far more likely.
Let’s sound the alarm bells while we still can.
We won’t get fooled again.