On Thursday, the president-apparent was handed his latest foreign policy challenges, The first, older one yielded a tragic embarrassment, the next one was something of a serial humiliation. How the last one plays out remains to be seen.
Challenge #1 was navigating the fallout from the botched raid in Yemen, a late January incident that, according to several reports, resulted in a 50-minute firefight, at least a dozen Yemeni civilian casualties and, according to the facts, the death of a Navy SEAL. The Trump White House has been furiously spinning that as no worse than a stalemate and a visceral stand on Trumpian campaign principles, or, in their eyes, a flat-out qualified success.
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There was no spinning this — by White House Press Yutz Sean Spicer, Chief of Stuff Reince Priebus or anyone else. Trump was effectively schooled on life in the geopolitical playground by the leader of the world’s most provocatively explosive economy ... and Trump caved. Folded like a table at a flea market. Surrendered to the weight of nothing more or less than a situation he could not tweak, bully or control: Global reality.
It all came down to one sentence from the Trump White House: “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘One China’ policy.” Challenge #2, part one.
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AND DON’T THINK this ends the rift between Washington and Beijing. There will be some residual resentment, to be sure, and a sense on Beijing’s part that only a rank amateur would have let things get this bad — in two inescapable ways. First there was the December phone call with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, a call that broke with policy in place since 1979.
Then came the comments made during the transition that called into question Trump’s fidelity to a generally-tolerated national policy — including an asinine statement he made to The Wall Street Journal, in an interview published Jan. 13, that “everything is under negotiation, including 'one China.’” No wonder China's state-run media called him “a rookie.”
Gordon Chang wrote Friday in The Daily Beast: “In what was a test of will, the Chinese will surely believe they have scored a quick victory. Trump, therefore, has fed their sense of power and arrogance—and American weakness. Beijing, as a result, is bound to become even more difficult to deal with.”
“Just two days after Mattis issued his confirmation, three Chinese coast guard vessels, without permission, intruded into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus. The intrusion is seen as a warning to Tokyo and the United States.” Challenge #2, part two.
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Fast forward to this Saturday. Challenge #3. The relative doldrums of a no-news/slow-news weekend got a serious jolt when it was reported that North Korea had test-fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile from its northwest interior into the Sea of Japan more than 300 miles away. It looked to be a provocation deliberately timed to coincide with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with Trump, at his estate in Florida. (Abe met with Trump earlier, at the White House.)
In the past, Kim Jon Un, the leader of North Korea, has made it a stated priority for his country to step up development of nuclear missiles that can hit Japan and the U.S. mainland. They’ve been practicing; North Korea conducted more than two dozen such tests last year. What happened on Saturday (Sunday in the region) may be a leading indicator of that intention. Or not.
The United States has been working on deploying its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea. This planned move has been bitterly opposed by China, a main ally of Pyongyang, and may be one of the reasons why the Chinese coast guard ships did their dance around the Senkakus a week earlier.
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SPEAKING FROM Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Abe reacted to Pyongyang’s saber-rattling. At a news conference with Trump, the prime minister said: "North Korea's most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable. North Korea must fully comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Those comments were almost verbatim from his reaction to similar tests and suspected tests going back to last June of last year.
For his part, Trump was unusually circumspect. “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent,” he said in remarks almost too brief to be called “remarks.”
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Why some thought leaders and other members of the punditburo insist his statement was some kind of taciturn wisdom or toughness on Trump’s part is hard to understand. There was absolutely nothing else for Trump to say or do than to side with one of the United States’ more enduring global partners in the generations since World War II.
To this point, Donald Trump’s willfully abrasive style of what passes for governance has given the red-meat eaters of the conservative base all they were after, but the stakes just got higher. The serial events of the last three days are a warning to the White House:
This is what it means to be president of the United States. If there’s ever been a time TeamTrump needed to begin a pivot from the rhetorical free-fire zone of campaigning to the more rigid necessities of governing, statecraft and credibly functioning on the world stage ... this is it. That time is now.
Image credits: Trump on the phone: via @MotherJones. Senkaku islands: Associated Press.Abe and Trump: Bloomberg News.