We’ve been told repeatedly in recent days that President Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, appreciates that one of the key aspects of his job is controlling the president: making sure Trump doesn’t undermine his administration’s goals, or damage his foreign policy, with his off-the-cuff tweets.

Kelly retired from the Marine Corps with three stars; one of his previous jobs had been as commanding general of US forces in Iraq, no doubt an easy ride compared with keeping Trump under control.

As Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s short fat dictator, develops hydrogen bombs and tries out his long-range missiles, Trump seems equally as inclined to insult our ally in South Korea as to rebuke its northern aggressor, accusing the South Korean government of “appeasement’’ for proposing to hold talks with the Pyongyang regime.

“They only understand force,” Trump tweeted of the North Koreans, a follow-up to a previous one that “talking is not the answer.”

Force — a pretty fair synonym for war — Trump was making clear, is his preferred approach to dealing with the north. Or at least threatening force — talking a macho game — Trump sees as preferable to our ally South Korea trying to negotiate with their belligerent, nuclear-armed northern brethren.

Trump cannot be unaware that North Korea’s nuclear-tipped missiles can now reach our bases in Guam, and sooner rather than later, the continental US.

With perfect intelligence on our part — and assuring none on the part of the North Koreans — it would be conceivable for the US to take out all of North Korea’s long-range missile sites as well as its nuclear bomb facilities. But so what: North Korea has a massive force of some 8,000 artillery pieces spread just above the DMZ, seconds away from killing literally hundreds of thousands in Seoul, South Korea’s sprawling mega-city of 20 million inhabitants.

And when Trump wasn’t castigating South Korea’s government for its hope to work things out peacefully with Pyongyang, he was suggesting publicly it was time to abrogate our trade agreement with South Korea because their exports to the US are larger than ours to them — hardly a new or surprising phenomenon.

So here we have our closest ally in Asia threatened with a dangerous unraveling of the 60-plus years of peace that have followed the Korean War. And our president is not only accusing them of being weak-kneed but is talking about canceling a long-standing trade deal.

Nor are Trump’s provocative, out-of-the-blue tweets a one-off: he’s also been talking about cutting off US trade with China, which, quite apart from its geostrategic risks, would probably hurt our economy as much as theirs.

 


A former top national security officer in Obama’s administration nailed it: “In circumstances where we’re going to need close cooperation with not only South Korea but China as well, he’s coming out swinging at all of them rather than trying to build support and coordination. It just looks so haphazard.”

It does because it is.

To take an optimistic view of Trump’s approach, it’s reminiscent of Nixon’s “madman theory,” which, as his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was later to write, Nixon discussed with him in the following terms: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. ‘For God’s sake, you know that Nixon is obsessed with communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry, and has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Of course, we know how well that worked: Nixon eventually withdrew our troops from his losing war in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was long dead when North Vietnam overran the south in 1975.

More importantly, there’s a rather large difference between Nixon’s hoping China and their North Vietnamese friends would think he was crazy and the madman approach of the current Republican president.

In 1970, the height of the Vietnam War, Nixon was an experienced internationalist, a former vice president, especially well versed in the foreign policy of the Cold War. He understood the tactical versus the strategic reality of dealing with China and the Soviet Union. Trump has no foreign policy experience. His shoot-from-hip style is not a ploy: it’s who he is, it’s Trump.

The real risk is not that Trump will suddenly order an attack against North Korea, but rather that, as the rhetoric heats up, events accelerate: a border incident, more provocative tweeting by Trump, another North Korean missile launch, more active US-South Korean military maneuvers, another North Korean hydrogen bomb test, some Koreans with itchy fingers firing across the DMZ. A few soldiers are killed on both sides, heightened border action, more, and more aggressive, Trump tweets, larger US-South Korean maneuvers with B-1 overflights, increasingly violent border incidents — and all at once, it inadvertently spirals out of control.

Certainly, the odds are enormously against a war breaking out in the Korean peninsula. But then the opening salvos of World War I were totally unplanned. Stirring up the Korean pot is — at least so far — the most dangerous maneuver of Trump’s failing presidency.

But it’s not the only pot Trump is stirring. According to Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the UN, Trump is considering abrogating the Iran nuclear deal, justifying such an approach with the claim that “US law requires the president to also look at whether the deal is appropriate, proportionate and in our national security interests.”

Why limit one’s horizons to that of a catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula when ditching the Iran deal can offer up an almost identical risk in the Middle East.

And we’ve still got over three more years to deal with this more realistic, less theoretical, version of a madman in the White House.