Friedman and Bruni

The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Solving the Korea Crisis by Teaching a Horse to Sing,” says America is the odd man out in the drama on the Korean Peninsula.  In “The Mortification of Jeff Sessions” Mr. Bruni invites us to behold the wages of drawing too close to Donald Trump.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Seoul:

Some stories have to be experienced to fully grasp — the Korea crisis is one of them. I arrived in Seoul on the evening of May 28. As I was dressing for breakfast the next morning, I was jarred by a news alert ringing on my phone: North Korea had just fired a short-range ballistic missile that had landed in the sea off its east coast.

I waited for the sirens to tell us to go to the hotel shelter, as happened when I was in Israel during a Hamas rocket attack. But there were no sirens. Nothing. The breakfast buffet was packed. The mood was: Another North Korean missile test? Oh, pay no attention to our crazy cousins. Could you pass the kimchi, please?

I was immediately reminded of my favorite quote from when I lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, where people also became inured to the constant threat of violence. It was from a Beirut hostess who asked her dinner guests, “Would you like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire?”

A few hours after the missile test, two U.S. B-1B Lancer strategic bombers out of Guam flew right up to the North’s border on what North Korea called “a nuclear bomb dropping drill.” No matter. The South Korean stock market didn’t flinch.

In fact, one of the most popular housing markets for young Koreans today is Musan, located just south of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone separating the South from the North. It’s an easy commute to Seoul, and young people have gamed out that if the North launched rockets or artillery shells, they would likely go over their heads because they are so close to the border! Human beings! God love ’em. Their ability to adapt never ceases to amaze me.

I interviewed a group of South Korean college students at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, and here’s what some said: “The fear has been diluted — as time goes by you just get used to it.” “We don’t really believe that North Korea can harm us or launch war, because we think we are stronger than them economically and militarily.” “We heard the G.D.P. gap between us and North Korea is 20 times, and we don’t want to pay more taxes to fix them up.” “When I went to the U.S. I freaked out [over] why people there care more about North Korea than me.”

After a couple of days of such discussions, I realized that America is now the odd man out in this drama. Why? Because China and South Korea have one thing in common: The thing they fear most is not a North Korean nuclear missile blowing them up. It’s North Korea either blowing itself up — economically collapsing under the weight of sanctions — or being blown up by America.

That would spill refugees and fissile material into China and South Korea, presenting both with a huge cleanup bill and China with a possible united Korea with a nuclear weapon next door.

The U.S. — by contrast — now fears North Korea blowing us up, or at least Los Angeles. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Washington fears North Korea more than ever, while China and South Korea fear a unilateral U.S. strike on North Korea more than ever.

Or, as Rob Litwak, the Wilson Center Korea arms control expert, described it: Seoul’s fear that Donald Trump could draw it into a catastrophic conflict on the Korean Peninsula “brings to mind Charles de Gaulle’s admonition during the Cuban missile crisis that being a U.S. ally ran the risk of ‘annihilation without representation.’”

And that’s why the U.S. has dispatched to South Korea Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile batteries. But the new South Korean president is delaying their full deployment, fearing it will provoke the North or alienate China — which doesn’t like a U.S. antimissile system near its border that can also cover its airspace; China has imposed a partial economic boycott on Seoul to make that clear.

Chaibong Hahm, president of the Asan Institute, explained, “When North Korea started to develop weapons of mass destruction that threatened us, the U.S. tried to assure us and Japan that ‘we will protect you.’” Hahm said: “And the big question then was: ‘Is the U.S. deterrence real? Will it really protect us?’”

But when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un also started threatening the U.S. by building a long-range nuclear missile, the story shifted for America. “It was not about reassuring us anymore but its own people,” added Hahm, “which means that Washington does not have to consult us. It can do what it needs to do.” And Trump’s America-first rhetoric only amplifies the worry here that he will. Some people “are more scared of [Trump] than Kim Jong-un,” concluded Hahm. “Kim Jong-un they understand.”

North Korea gets 95 percent of its oil from China. Beijing could shut down the North’s economy overnight by shutting off that oil. But it hasn’t. It has suspended purchases of North Korean coal, hurting Pyongyang financially, but not enough to stop missile testing. For now, it appears that China will do just enough to keep Trump at bay — by keeping North Korea from putting the last screws on a nuclear missile that can hit the U.S. — but never enough to collapse the regime or definitively end its nuclear program.

What about diplomacy? For now, North Korea shows no willingness to trade its nuclear arsenal for guarantees that the U.S. will not pursue regime change, and Trump is not going to give such guarantees without total denuclearization.

In sum, China and South Korea don’t dare starve the North for fear it could collapse. They don’t dare shoot it for fear it could shoot back. They and the Americans don’t dare negotiate with Kim for fear that they will end up blessing his nukes — and because they don’t trust him to keep any deal. And they don’t dare ignore him, because he keeps getting stronger.

So we all wait — for something.

Indeed, the whole situation reminds me of the medieval fable of the criminal hauled before the king to plead for his life and successfully does so by promising that if the king spared his life for a year he could teach the king’s favorite horse to sing.

When the criminal got back to his cell, his cellmate scoffed at him: You could never teach the king’s horse to sing if you had a lifetime. And the man said: “No matter. I have a year now that I didn’t have before. And a lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”

And that is our North Korea policy. Waiting for something to solve this insoluble problem. Waiting for a horse to sing.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

The appearance of Jeff Sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday didn’t bring us much closer to understanding what did or didn’t happen between Donald Trump and the Russians, or what the president has or hasn’t done to cover it up. Sessions batted away many questions. His answers to others were gauzy and useless.

But as I watched him, a flustered Gump in the headlights, I saw a broader story, a dark parable of bets misplaced and souls under siege. This is what happens when you draw too close to Trump.

You’re diminished at best, mortified at worst. You’ve either done work dirtier than you meant to or told fibs bigger than you ought to or been sullied by contact or been thrown to the wolves.

One day, you’re riding high on the myth of Trump as a transformative figure and reasoning that some tweaking of norms and maybe even breaking of rules are an inevitable part of the unconventional equation.

The next, you’re ensnared in his recklessness, at the mercy of his tempestuousness and quite possibly the butt of his rage: the case with Sessions, who sank low enough that he felt compelled last month to offer Trump his resignation.

“It’s just like through the looking glass: What is this?” Sessions said during his Senate testimony, and while he was alluding to the suggestion that he and the Russian ambassador had plotted together to steal a presidential election, he could just as easily have been referring to the warped topography of Trumplandia.

It’s a reputation-savaging place. Ask Rod Rosenstein for sure. Herbert McMaster, too. Also James Mattis. Sean Spicer. Reince Priebus. Rex Tillerson. Dan Coats. All have been under pressure, undercut or contradicted. They’ve been asked to pledge their fidelity to — even proclaim their adoration for — a man who adores only himself.

My God, that video, the one of the cabinet in full session at long last. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the most chilling measure yet of Trump’s narcissism, and it’s a breathtaking glimpse into what that means for the people around him.

They don’t volunteer purplish flattery like that because it’s their wont. He wants it so badly that they cough it up. To buoy his ego, they debase themselves, and what you heard them doing in that meeting wasn’t just swallowing their pride but choking on it. They looked like hostages — hostages in need of the Heimlich.

Well, most of them. Mike Pence has discovered a freaky talent for such freakish sycophancy, and called it “the greatest privilege of my life” to assist “the president who’s keeping his word to the American people.” (Which word is that?) He sounded like he believed it. The mysteries of faith, indeed.

A few others in the meeting summoned less ardor. “It’s an honor,” Mattis said, but then continued, “to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense.” Trump turned away just then, as if the absence of his name equaled the loss of his interest.

Mattis has suffered the humiliation of assuring allies of our commitment to NATO just before Trump, without warning him, sowed doubts about precisely that. McMaster, whose book “Dereliction of Duty” is expressly about talking truth to power, found himself at a lectern doing damage control for his damage-prone boss. He vouched that Trump’s divulgence of classified information to Russian officials at the White House was no big deal.

No one in Trump’s administration was forced into this service and its compromises. Some hungered for power, in whatever bastard package delivered it. At least a few, like Sessions, had poisoned reputations already.

But there were those with higher motives, too, and they find themselves in a White House governed by dread. Who’s next to be shamed? What tweet or tantrum awaits? They thought that they’d be bolstering a leader. They see now that they’re holding a grenade.

You could sense the stress of that in Sessions, who endorsed Trump before any other senator did, won the prize of attorney general but on Tuesday was the prosecuted, not the prosecutor.

At times he had a hurt, helpless air. He cried foul at the “secret innuendo being leaked out there about me.”

He called the suggestion that he’d conspired with Russia “an appalling and detestable lie.”

“I did not recuse myself from defending my honor against scurrilous and false allegations,” he declared. No, but he made it a hell of a lot harder the moment he took Trump’s hand.

For all Trump’s career and all his campaign, he played the part of Midas, claiming that everything he touched turned to gold. That was never true. This is: Almost everyone who touches him is tarnished, whether testifying or not.

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