Those feisty Toyotas are back

Those machine guns are not OEM. (Getty Images/AFP)


Here I am on a Friday afternoon, lazily trawling through Twitter, and what do I spy but the picture above, capturing the 20th century’s ultimate war-wagon: the trusty Toyota Hilux pickup truck.

In this case, the little pickup that could is in the possession of pro-government Yemeni militias battling Houthi rebels in an effort to recapture, with the help of Saudi and UAE forces, the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah.

As I wrote back in October 2015, Toyota pickups in general, and the Hilux in particular, have long been a fixture of battlefields across the developing world, from Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula, to Syria, North Africa, and Latin America. ISIS loves them. The Sandinistas love them. Al Shabab loves them.

And now, it appears, so do the Yemenis. On both sides of the fight.

The Houthi use them too. (AP)
The Houthi use them too. (AP)


Concessions ‘R’ Us

Leaving Singapore, almost empty-handed. (Saul Loeb/Getty Images)
Leaving Singapore, almost empty-handed. (Saul Loeb/Getty Images)


So, Trump didn’t lose the farm in Singapore yesterday, but he did leave the summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a few prize cows short.

When I wrote about the Trump-Kim summit last month, it was on the heels of the news that Trump had backed out of the planned meeting after raising impossible-to-meet expectations of what he could accomplish. Having dealt himself an incredibly weak hand, Trump announced he would walk.

And then he came slinking back to the table just eight days later, having discarded demands for rapid North Korean denuclearization and relaxing the US posture of “maximum pressure” on the Kim regime. With expectations lowered to, in the president’s own words, a more modest “getting-to-know-you meeting, plus,” the summit was back on.

Now that it’s over, how what did the meeting produce? Let’s just say that Donald Trump, self-proclaimed master negotiator and deal maker, gave away a lot more than he got. Actually, that doesn’t quite capture it. Trump made all the concessions and got nothing new in return. Let’s break it down:

  • Trump gave up a one-on-one meeting with the president of the United States, a decades-long desire of the North Koreans. This is something that no previous American president has been willing to do in the absence of major concessions, in advance, on the part of North Korea.
  • Trump gave to Kim Jong Un both status and legitimacy, lavishing upon him effusive flattery, treating him as an equal, and granting him standing as a nuclear peer.
  • Trump declined to even mention human rights to the leader of what is widely considered to be the most horrifically repressive regime on the planet, one that maintains concentration camps, uses starvation to maintain control over its population, executes and assassinates political rivals, and routinely tortures prisoners and captives.
  • Trump raised the possibility of a formal peace agreement to end the Korean War, another long-standing desire of the North Korean regime, one that would grant the state both legitimacy and full recognition in the eyes of the international community.
  • Trump stated his desire to remove all American military forces from the Korean Peninsula, troops which serve as a deterrent to North Korean aggression by acting as a tripwire in the event of a North Korean invasion of the south.
  • Trump announced a suspension of all joint US-South Korea military exercises, repeating the very language of the North Korean regime by describing those maneuvers as “provocative” war games. The North Koreans consider these maneuvers dress rehearsals for a US invasion and have long demanded their end.

What did Trump get in exchange for all of these giveaways? A joint communique repeating the vague pledge to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” which had been made back in April. That, and a stated desire to work toward warmer relations. And that’s all.

No clarification of what each side means by denuclearization. No mention of timetables for moving forward. No mention of verification.

And not a single concession from Kim Jong Un. In fact nearly identical pledges were made by the North Korean regime back in 2005 and 1993. You see how closely those were honored.

Don’t get me wrong, granting unilateral concessions to your counterpart is an absolutely legitimate negotiating strategy, especially if the intention is to build goodwill and trust that will lead, down to road, to the other side reciprocating with some compromises of its own. But nothing in the long history of US-North Korea diplomacy leads me to believe such compromise will be forthcoming.

So in the end, all Donald Trump may have achieved in Singapore was a dramatic photo op. Of course, maybe that’s what he really wanted.

Trump folds

You might want to avoid following this advice.
You might want to avoid following his advice.


In what may be the least surprising development in Trump-era foreign policy, the president has backed out of his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Having impulsively agreed to meet with North Korean dictator, without preconditions, raising ridiculously high expectations for the outcome by giving in to his habitual hucksterism, declaring himself a shoe-in for the Nobel Peace Prize, then making impossible-to-meet demands on the Kim regime while offering no concessions, this was probably inevitable.

997E0290-7545-4247-9250-B52A8D51B080_cx0_cy12_cw0_w1023_r1_sAs I told the host of a local news radio program more than a week ago, I would believe the summit was going to happen when I saw the two leaders sitting down at the table together. Now the big question is what will the Trump administration going to do with all those commemorative coins they had made?

The United States was never going to get from the North Koreans what we said we wanted: immediate, complete, and independently verifiable denuclearization. And we had already gone a long way toward giving the Kim regime what it has long sought: Recognition as nuclear equals. That it has also forged closer ties with a South Korea spooked by the beating of war drums in Washington is just gravy.

When I teach negotiation, one of the cardinal rules I try to convey to my students is the need for negotiators to always have an eye on what’s called their “BATNA” — their best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It’s a simple idea. If any deal you could get would constitute a worse outcome then what happens if you walk away from the table, then you should walk. Even at the cost of what looks and feels like humiliation.

I wrote in this space last week that President Trump, due to all of those points raised at the top of this post, and more, had dealt himself an impossibly bad hand to play in a diplomatic game with incredibly high stakes. So rather than play out the hand, Trump did the only thing he could.

Having carelessly built the pot while holding a losing hand, he folded.

We’ll have to wait to see if that really was the best alternative.

How is Trump being played? Like a fiddle

Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump

On North Korea, impulsiveness, ignorance, towering ego, and a deeply insecure man’s weakness for flattery have led President Trump into a trap of his own making. It remains to be seen how he, and by extension the United States, gets out of it.

Writer David Frum describes the saga of the Trump-Kim Summit as a drama unfolding in multiple acts:

Act I: Trump impulsively agrees to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Perhaps unaware that the North Koreans have sought such a summit meeting for decades, Trump boasts that he has extracted a major concession.

Act II: Trump gradually comes to appreciate that he has been duped. To prove that he’s a winner, not a fool, he begins to oversell the summit, promising that the denuclearization of North Korea is at hand.

Act III: The North Koreans issue a public statement refuting Trump’s boasts. No, they will not denuclearize. And oh, by the way, it’s Trump who must pay tribute to them, not the other way around: If he wants his summit, he should cancel joint U.S.-South Korean exercises.

We’re in Act IV right now—and Act V has yet to be written.

As Frum writes, it was South Korean President Mood Jae-in that put the idea into Trump’s head, which he then leaped to make his own. And Kim Jong Un has reaped the rewards: an offer of a face-to-face meeting with the US president made without preconditions; de facto recognition as a nuclear equal; and leverage over a president who “Throughout his career … has coped with failure by brazenly misrepresenting failure as success.”

Kim has made clear that the expectations created by Trump – that North Korea will agree to complete and independently verifiable denuclearization – are never, ever, going to happen. So what crumbs will Trump actually accept in order to try to spin failure into something more than what it is? An end to North Korean nuclear testing? Kim has already offered that. After all, having successfully developed their weapons, actual tests are no longer necessary to continue to build out North Korea’s arsenal.

And more importantly, what will Trump give up in order to walk away a “winner” from the summit scheduled for June 12 in Singapore? An end to sanctions? An end to US-South Korean military exercises, something North Korea has wanted for decades? An announcement of partial withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula? A promise of a complete withdrawal?

While he may finally be recognizing the enormity of what’s at stake in these talks, I suspect Trump himself has no idea.  Nor does he appear inclined to try to figure it out:

With just one month until a scheduled sit-down with North Korea’s leader, President Donald Trump hasn’t set aside much time to prepare for meeting with Kim Jong Un, a stark contrast to the approach of past presidents.

“He doesn’t think he needs to,” said a senior administration official familiar with the President’s preparation. Aides plan to squeeze in time for Trump to learn more about Kim’s psychology and strategize on ways to respond to offers Kim may make in person, but so far a detailed plan hasn’t been laid out for getting Trump ready for the summit.

And this is a problem, because even a seasoned, skilled diplomat would have a hard time playing the cards that Trump has dealt himself. Of course Trump is neither of those things.  And having walked away from the nuclear agreement with Iran, which in all honesty offered the same basic deal on the table with Kim, significant economic benefits in exchange for giving up nuclear ambitions, Trump has made it all the more difficult to come out of a North Korean summit a winner.