Mon, Aug 14, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Trump’s North Korea rhetoric reverberates in US diplomatic void

The US president refuses to dial down the war of words with Pyongyang despite his State Department being in no fit state to deal with its first real foreign crisis

By Julian Borger  /  The Guardian, WASHINGTON

It took more than seven months for US President Donald Trump’s administration to encounter its first real foreign crisis, and when it came, it was largely self-inflicted.

The challenge posed by the North Korean regime’s nuclear weapons program had been festering for more than a decade, but it was Trump who turned it into a global emergency with a few words. The US president took his own staff unawares when he went off script on Tuesday to vow “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if the Pyongyang regime made further threats against the US.

As the Kim Jong-un government routinely churns out threats, the president’s choice of words was always going to be a hostage to fortune. Within hours, North Korea had responded with a detailed threat to drop missiles in the sea around the US island territory of Guam.

On Friday, in the face of global appeals to dial down the rhetoric, Trump did the opposite, turning a thorny geopolitical nuisance into a personal arm-wrestling contest with Kim. The North Korean leader would “truly regret” any move on Guam or other US or allied territories.

Before last week was out, the 160,000 people on the island were being issued official advice on what to do, and what not to do, in the event of a nuclear blast. (Take cover, but don’t look into the “flash or fireball.”) By way of a parting shot on Friday evening, Trump also mentioned that he was not ruling out a military option for dealing with Venezuela.

It is one of the core tasks of the US Department of State to try to ensure that global crises do not turn into wars, but it is currently struggling with an existential crisis of its own. The Trump White House has called for its budget to be cut by a third, and installed at its helm Rex Tillerson, a former oil executive who has shown little interest in drawing on the experience and analysis of its diplomatic corps.

State diplomatic officials say they continue to send memos and reports and urgent requests up to the department’s leadership on the seventh floor of the Foggy Bottom headquarters, but rarely hear anything back, so that even routine messages to foreign governments go unsent.

Tillerson has hired outside experts to consult 300 of the staff prior to a major reorganization due to begin next month; however, as the administration has already announced that there will be an 8 percent cut in staffing levels, many assume the outcome of the restructuring has been cooked in advance.

Tillerson lost the trust of the rank and file by failing to defend the department with any vigor when he was cross-examined in Congress, even by sympathetic senators. His advantage was supposed to have been his access to the president. Although he does lunch at the White House more than any other Cabinet secretary, access has apparently not won him respect.

Several of his choices for senior posts have been turned down by the political staff in the White House for their apparent insufficient devotion to Trump’s “America First” agenda.

Tillerson’s frustration reportedly boiled over into an angry outburst at the head of the White House personnel office at the end of June, earning him a rebuke from the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for being “unprofessional.” To add to the humiliation, the dressing-down was leaked.

When it came to North Korea and Venezuela this past week, there was no sign that Trump had listened to any State Department advice and referred exclusively to the military options available to him, shrugging off talk of diplomacy.

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