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Col. Larry Wilkerson: Trump’s threats, Bolton’s inexperience, combined with the military exercises in the region is putting the North Korean peace talks at risk. It is inexplicable form of diplomacy, unless you want the talks to fail

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. At a press conference with NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, at the White House, President Trump threatened Kim Jong-un with the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya if the North Korean leader fails to make a deal about his nuclear weapons program. Let’s listen. 

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But the Libyan model was a much different model. We decimated that country. We never said to Gaddafi, “Oh, we’re going to give you protection, we’re going to give you military strength, we’re going to give you all of these things.” We went in and decimated him. And we did the same thing with Iraq. That model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy. 

If you look at Syria if you look at- or if you look anywhere around the Middle East- you look at Iraq, you look at Libya. With Libya, certainly they didn’t have protection. They had the exact opposite. That was- that was absolute decimation. And that’s what we plan to do, and that’s what we did. 

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, these comments were in reply to a journalist in the room asking about the comments that John Bolton had made a few days earlier about the fate of the North Korean leader, and North Korea itself, on Face the Nation. Let’s have a look. 

JOHN BOLTON: I think that’s right. I think we’re looking at the Libya model of 2003, 2004. We’re also looking at what North Korea itself has committed to previously. In the case of Libya, for example- and it’s a different situation in some respects. Those negotiations were carried out in private, they were not known publicly. But one thing that Libya did that led us to overcome our skepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear related sites. So, it wasn’t a question of relying on international mechanisms. We saw them in ways we had never seen before. 

SHARMINI PERIES: On to talk about all of this with me is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and now, a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Thanks for joining us, Larry. 

LARRY WILKERSON: Good to be with you, Sharmini. 

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry. Let’s take this a chunk at a time. First, what do you make of the comments that President Donald Trump made about Libya? 

LARRY WILKERSON: I think what we’re seeing here from Trump, from Bolton, from even Pompeo- what little remarks he’s made to this point, I was reading some of them just a moment ago. What we’re seeing- and Brian Hook for that matter, the policy planning guy. What we’re seeing is- I won’t say total confusion or utter confusion, but we are seeing enormous confusion. And I think this is because we did all this without any plan, any strategy, any way of moving from point A to point B to point C in a rational, reasonable way. And now, we’re trying to play catch-up. 

It sounds to me as if my prediction that this group of rank amateurs, and in that I include Pompeo and Bolton, is going to make a mess of this. And I want to call everyone’s attention to the principal player in all of this who’s probably political fate rests on what this team of amateurs pulls off or doesn’t pull off. And that’s the President of South Korea, our treaty ally on the peninsula. 

Moon Jae-in’s entire political life rests on the success or failure of these negotiations. We’ve made it that way on purpose, apparently. I’m not sure that Trump even cares or knew that he was doing it, but we’ve made it that way. We’ll put a conservative government back in in Seoul, probably quicker than Moon Jai-in can say Jack Robinson, because the polls are going to plummet for him if this deal falls apart, and it’s looking ever more like it’s going to. 

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, Moon Jae-in is on his way to Washington next week, and one of the issues that the North Koreans are complaining about- A, John Bolton and his, he says, unilateral declarations on what North Korea should and should not be doing, seems to be bothering the North Koreans. And then, two, Larry- the military exercises that are underway in the region with South Korea is also a point of tough contestation here when it comes to the talks that are going on with the North Koreans. Now, if you could comment on each of them, that would be very good. 

LARRY WILKERSON: I don’t know why John Bolton is being so impolitic. I could surmise several possibilities, one of which is probably true. One is, he doesn’t want this to succeed, and so he’s doing everything he can without seeming too apparent to Trump, to keep it from happening. To keep any success from happening. Or two, he’s just so inexpert at this level of diplomacy- and John really has never been at this level of diplomacy. John’s negotiated “Article 98” agreements with bilateral treaties with countries around the world and such mundane things, but he’s never been at this level, not really. 

So, I don’t know whether this is just his unwilling impolitic remarks that are compromising things- his remarks about Libya, for example, were just horrible. I mean, let’s just face it, what we did in Libya was despicable, and I’m sure Kim Jong-un would not like to find that fate. I’d back out if I were he just based on what John Bolton has said about Libya, so far- the Libya model, and so forth. I just don’t know whether he’s trying to screw the deal up or whether he’s just so inexpert, he’s doing it. 

As for the exercises, I find that to be inexplicable- that we would go into this kind of exquisite diplomacy, this kind of extraordinary diplomacy, and everyone hoping in South Korea, in the United States, in the world, indeed, that this will succeed- that we would go into this with this kind of amateurism, and amateurism that might even bespeak the military commander on the peninsula, not even knowing what was going on, in the sense that he went ahead with these exercises, rather than cutting them off. 

Or at the top- Donald Trump, John Bolton, Jim Mattis, even, Mike Pompeo, thinking that this would not be provocative. Do they want to kill the deal before they even get started? Did they realize they don’t have the skill, the talent, the diplomatic knowledge to carry this out, and so they want to screw it up? This is really looking amateurish and stupid, Sharmini, frankly. 

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry. Now, if left to the administration, they would say that they need this kind of a threat over North Korea’s head before and while the negotiations are going on, so that it is, or it appears, real- these threats. What do you make of that as a diplomatic point of negotiation? 

LARRY WILKERSON: Well it’s patently absurd, Sharmini, frankly. They’ve gotten what they wanted. They’ve gotten Moon Jai-in and Kim Jong-un to talk to one another, they’ve gotten a date- a date certain for a meeting in Singapore, they’ve had preliminary dealings. You don’t compromise the negotiations that are inevitably going to be difficult before you even get to the negotiations unless, as I said, you are a rank amateur and you’re playing this off for your base audience in the United States and have absolutely no interest in real negotiations. Or, you are, in some sort of profane way, trying to screw the deal yourself before you even get started. 

And I would attribute that motivation to a John Bolton before I would to a Donald Trump, who frankly is nothing but a reality TV star, even as he tries to conduct negotiations. And then you’ve got it all compounded, Sharmini, by what’s going on with the Mueller investigation, which is, you know, about six months out of Watergate time right now. It took about one-and-a-half years to get Richard Nixon and to remove him from office. So, Robert Mueller is as good as any Watergate prosecutor, so we’re probably looking at three to six months, and things are really going to turn bad for Donald Trump. 

So, I don’t know how much that is motivating them to try and get images of this looming future off the TV screen, and so forth. This administration, if there’s anything I have come to know about it- from my students doing research on it, from my own insights into it, it is more motivated by domestic politics than any administration we’ve had since World War II, and that’s saying something. That’s really saying something. 

So, you have to always consider what’s happening to Donald Trump as you try to figure out why he’s doing something in the world. That’s probably the most dangerous thing about this kind of international diplomacy, is- as the German Foreign Minister said about the JCPOA, it has nothing to do with security or foreign policy and everything to do with Donald Trump’s domestic political policy. 

SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, this reminds me of the last time you were actually on The Real News about the North Korean agreement, and you said that we had been here before, in terms of an agreement with North Korea. 

LARRY WILKERSON: Well, both sides screwed it up. In my estimation, the United States had the largest responsibility for screwing it up. We did not deliver the heavy fuel oil in the quantities and on times that we specified we would. And even more importantly, we only broke ground for and began the foundation of one of the light water reactors. We promised two. And that was way behind schedule. And the Korean Energy Development Organization, the group that was supposed to oversee all of this, let us know, in no uncertain terms, periodically, that we were not living up to our agreed obligations under the framework. 

I said later that one of the problems President Obama would have with the JCPOA- and I suspect it was a problem in the secret talks, at least, was that we had been so terrible a partner, an international partner, in the Agreed Framework with North Korea, and the Iranians knew it. And now, look at what we’ve done with the JCPOA. I daresay American Presidents will have a really hard time securing any kind of agreement with anyone in the world from now on. 

SHARMINI PERIES: And Larry, then there’s the question of what this does to the South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in, who is headed to Washington, but also, about his role in all of this. 

LARRY WILKERSON: Throughout the Bush administration, those of us who knew the Pacific kept telling the President and the National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense and others, you have to think about your ally on the peninsula, South Korea. South Korea is cheek and jowl with North Korea. We forget that. When you sacrifice South Korea for some politics in the United States, you are the lowest form of government in my mind. 

Well, that is apparently what this administration is planning on doing, forfeiting the solid relationship we have with South Korea in order to achieve something with North Korea, whether it breaks apart and isn’t achieved in the long run, or whether it is achieved, South Korea is going to be just an ancillary product of that. That’s really sad. And that’s going to send another signal to all of our allies in the world, from Australia to Thailand to the Philippines, to all of those allies who are so important in the transatlantic relationship, once again, that the United States is no longer a trustworthy power. And they’re all going to start doing things on their own, and that’s going to be to the ultimate detriment of this country. 

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry, we’ll leave it there for now. I thank you so much for joining us today. 

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. 

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network. 

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.