Justin is under the weather, his column will return Friday.
Like the child who innocently asks “Where are the Emperor’s clothes?” Donald Trump has once again blurted out a truth that none of the “adults” in the room are supposed to acknowledge. In an interview with Reuters, the President averred:
“On the THAAD system, it’s about a billion dollars. I said, ‘Why are we paying? Why are we paying a billion dollars? We’re protecting. Why are we paying a billion dollars?’ So I informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid. Nobody’s going to do that. Why are we paying a billion dollars? It’s a billion dollar system. It’s phenomenal. It’s the most incredible equipment you’ve ever seen – shoots missiles right out of the sky. And it protects them and I want to protect them. We’re going to protect them. But they should pay for that, and they understand that."
Ah, but they don’t understand it – and neither does H. R. McMaster, Trump’s newly-appointed National Security Advisor, who rushed to assure Seoul that the President didn’t really mean what he clearly said. And the South Koreans, who are in the midst of a presidential election – the vote is on May 5 – are in a uproar.
Moon Jae-in, the liberal candidate who is favored to win, opposes the antimissile deployment, and criticizes the decision by his impeached predecessor to go ahead with it without seeking parliamentary approval. He is the author of a recent book wherein he writes that South Korea must learn to “say no to the United States.”
Installation of the system began in March, under the agreement between Washington and Seoul, but now Moon is raising questions about the nature of that agreement. The New York Times reports that “The gap between Mr. Trump’s comments and what South Koreans have been told by their government about the cost of the deployment ‘makes it clear that there was a serious flaw in the decision to deploy Thaad,’ [Moon spokesman] Mr. Youn said on Friday.”
Another candidate, Ahn Cheol Soo, Moon’s chief rival, raised the possibility of a secret clause to the deal, demanding that the interim government make clear whether Trump’s remarks are just “unilateral wishful thinking” or whether the truth about who’s paying is being withheld from the South Korean people.
The headline in the South China Morning Post really said it all: “South Korea’s presidential favorite Moon may force Trump to withdraw demand Seoul pay for ‘$1 billion THAAD missile system.’” We’re protecting them – but they’re “forcing” us! Funny how that works. The article cited Moon’s top foreign policy advisor, Kim Ki-jung, who says Seoul footing the bill for its own defense is “an impossible option.” Of course it is: after all, South Korea is essentially under US military occupation, a province of the Empire, and we are practitioners of a unique form of imperialism where everything goes out and nothing comes in. However much of an ingrate Mr. Ki-jung may be, he gets at the core issue: this is a matter of South Korean sovereignty. “Even if we purchase THAAD,” he says, “its main operation would be in the hands of the United States.” Because that’s what being an American protectorate is all about.
If the leaders of South Korea are worried about preserving their sovereignty, then why won’t they defend it – and shell out the necessary cash? If Moon Jae-in is so opposed to THAAD, then why must we impose it on him? It’s high time we cut these ingrates loose.
Unlike the colonial empires of the past, which extracted wealth in the form of raw materials from their satraps, the American imperium is a Bizarro World version of this arrangement: in exchange for allowing us to occupy their territory, and dictating their foreign policy, we give Seoul relatively free access to our markets while they impose tariffs on our products. Trump brought this up in his Reuters interview, announcing that he would be reviewing the trade agreement with the two countries:
“It’s unacceptable. It’s a horrible deal made by Hillary. It’s a horrible deal. And we’re going to renegotiate that deal, or terminate it.
“QUESTION: When will you announce it?
"Very soon. I’m announcing it now. By the way, with South Korea, just so you know. They’re ready for it. Mike Pence was representing me, he was just over there, he’s told them. And we have the five-year anniversary coming up very shortly. And we thought that would be a good time to start … It’s a great deal for South Korea. It’s a terrible deal for us.”
What’s a terrible deal for us is the policy of Bizarro imperialism, which not only drains us financially but also puts us at risk of war, from the DMZ to the Russo-Polish border. During the presidential campaign, Trump seemed to understand this on some level: once in office, however he reversed himself – e.g., on NATO, declaring that it’s “no longer obsolete” – and yet still his “America First” impulse continue to reassert itself. With this schizophrenic administration, however, it’s only a matter of time before US trade officials rush to “reinterpret” the President’s remarks on our trade relations with Seoul.
As I recently argued in the Los Angeles Times, Trump has reversed himself on every major foreign policy stance. We bombed Syria despite Trump’s earlier insistence that we stay out, a NATO that was “obsolete” is suddenly “no longer obsolete,” and now – mere months after candidate Trump opined “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” – his administration has taken up Russia-baiting. On Korea, Trump once told us that Seoul would have to start defending itself, and yet he told Reuters “There’s a chance that we could end up having a major, major, conflict with North Korea, absolutely.”
A “major, major conflict” has already broken out – within the mind of this President. Pulled this way and that by the various factions within his administration, and by his own mercurial nature, Trump has set the foreign policy of the United States adrift, without any clear direction. What is clear, however, is the danger this poses for the world: veering drunkenly from one extreme to another, he could stumble into a “major, major conflict” at any moment.
When it came to foreign policy, Trump 1.0 was interesting albeit problematic: Trump 2.0 is menacingly unpredictable. Those of us who saw in him some hope that the “America First” agenda he gave voice to would be implemented, at least to some degree, neglected to take into consideration the vital question of character. I ignored the protestations of some of his critics, who said Trump was unstable, without core principles, and therefore perfectly capable of reversing himself in the name of making a supposedly smart deal. The first one-hundred days of his administration have proved them right.
This doesn’t mean the Trump presidency is a total wash: far from it. As I’ve written in this space on previous occasions, the value of Trump 1.0 is that his campaign mobilized a constituency that is hostile to foreign wars and converted several leading conservatives into staunch opponents of interventionism. That’s fine, but one has to wonder if the price we may have to pay is worth it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.