Tillerson Backtracks Trump

Yesterday the so-called president threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” if it made any more threats against the U.S. A few hours later, North Korea responded by saying it was considering a strike (one assumes a nuclear one) on Guam, which is overrun with U.S. military bases. Trump hasn’t directly responded to that, I don’t think, proving once again that what he’s not a man of his word.

Greg Sargent writes that Max Tillerson has more or less pulled back Trump’s “red line.”

Tillerson also sought to reassure Americans by saying this:

“I think what the president was just reaffirming is that the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and our allies, and we will do so. So the American people should sleep well at night.”

Tillerson also said “the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the U.S. has the unquestionable ability to defend itself … and its allies.” But that subtly — and meaningfully — shifts the red line Trump drew.

Other reactions to Trump’s “fire and fury” talk:

John Cassidy:

Within minutes, news of Trump’s words had gone around the world. They were met with a mixture of astonishment, alarm, and gallows humor. “Look on the bright side: compared to the coming thermonuclear inferno, global warming will seem quite pleasant,” Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist, said on Twitter. In a similar vein, Ross Douthat, the Times columnist, tweeted, “Nuclear war Twitter will be the best Twitter.” Psychologists tell us that laughing is often a way to deal with stress and to downplay dangerous situations. Indeed, the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran has theorized that laughter developed as a way for early humans to signal to their kin, “Don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm.” Hopefully, Trump’s use of this bellicose rhetoric was such an instance, but it’s hard to be sure. It’s not even clear what he was trying to say. …

…In light of Tillerson’s stance, a charitable interpretation of Trump words is that the Secretary of State and the President are doing a good-cop, bad-cop routine, and that Trump’s statement was part of a coördinated effort to persuade the North Korean dictator to change course. On Tuesday, the North Korean Foreign Minister said that his government would never agree to negotiate about its nuclear weapons. And a North Korean news agency responded to the United Nations’ recent imposition of new economic sanctions by saying, “Strategic steps accompanied by physical action will be taken mercilessly.”

Threats are the only way Trump knows how to relate to people. But threatening someone like Kim Jong Un is counterproductive; it just makes him less likely to cooperate. KJU and DJT are like two little boys taunting each other; neither will back down. The adults have to step in and stop them, if there are any adults.

Josh Marshall reminds us that much of the difficulty we’re having with North Korea now is the fault of George W. Bush, who unnecessarily inflamed relations with North Korea to score political points at home. I wrote about this back in 2005; see “Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes.” Dubya also tried talking tough about North Korea, and this made a dicey situation much worse.

As Josh Marshall points out, North Korea has a pattern of using “menacing or destabilizing actions to extract aid from great powers.” Four days ago the UN hit North Korea with a bunch of new sanctions. Kim John Un has tantrums and makes threats; like Trump, that seems to be his only foreign relations tool. I don’t see any solution here, other than hoping the boys get tired of taunting and go take naps.