March 22, 2017 5:20 pm JST
Keith B. Richburg

Trump's North Korea credibility crisis

Tough talk on Pyongyang falls flat as domestic scandals linger

Three dramatic developments over recent days involving U.S. President Donald Trump's two-month old administration underscore how the world, and particularly Asia, have neared a dangerous inflection point. The stakes are as high as war and peace.

First came the remarkable congressional testimony by James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Comey officially acknowledged that the FBI is investigating whether there was collusion between Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence services to meddle in the 2016 American presidential election, and the probe could drag on for months or even years.

The second development, from that same hearing, was more predictable, but no less stunning; the leaders of the FBI and the National Security Agency emphatically debunked Trump's baseless claim that his telephones were illegally tapped by former President Barack Obama. Few actually believed Trump's accusation, but the public takedown of the president by his own intelligence chiefs was a stunning rebuke.

The third development, over the March 18-19 weekend, was almost forgotten in the blur of recent headlines. In Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined a new policy approach to North Korea, announcing the end of Washington's "strategic patience," or efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang. In doing so, he suggested a military strike on the North's nuclear facilities was now a serious policy option.

What do those three events have to do with each other? Everything.

If Trump were to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea, he would need to convince the American people, and the world, that U.S. intelligence about the North's nuclear capabilities was solid, that a threat from Pyongyang was imminent, that all other non-military options were exhausted, and that he had a plan for success. He would essentially have to say: "Trust me."

But Trump would be launching a potentially catastrophic military action under a cloud of suspicion and amid questions about his legitimacy, as the probe into the Russia connections drags on. And with the debunking of the claim that his phones were being tapped, he would be acting with severely diminished credibility. In short, he is now known to be a president who simply makes things up and tweets out falsehoods.

'Wag the dog'

There are precedents for American presidents using overseas crises to distract attention from domestic scandals -- or at least having their motives questioned.

President Richard Nixon, at the height of the Watergate scandal in1973, ordered U.S. military forces worldwide onto full alert status, purportedly as a response to Soviet troop movements in the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War. Journalists repeatedly questioned whether the mobilization was an attempt to change the subject away from his firing of the Watergate special prosecutor.

In August 1998, after President Bill Clinton's extra-marital affair with a White House intern was exposed and he was called to testify before a grand jury, Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes against al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Later, in December, as the House of Representatives started impeachment proceedings, Clinton ordered four days of military strikes against Iraq. The attacks were roundly condemned by Republicans as a diversionary tactic.

If Trump does decide on a military option to rein in North Korea, will it be seen as a way to distract attention from the Russia probe? And if he cites intelligence sources saying Pyongyang was close to launching an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching U.S. soil, will he be believed? Or will any Trump "sales job" on the North Korean threat be automatically seen as the same kind of fabrication and aggrandizement that gave us claims of the largest inauguration crowd in history and three million people voting illegally for Hillary Clinton?

If presidents use foreign crises to distract, there is also ample evidence that America's rivals can sense a weakened president as a time to test and provoke.

North Korea has already conducted a series of missile tests in the region, with some falling as close as 193km  from Japan's shoreline, and U.S. officials expect more tests in the coming days. Kim Jong-un's regime has also been implicated in the February assassination in Malaysia of the leader's half brother, Kim Jong-nam.

The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, in his Monday briefing said there was "growing concern about North Korea." He said Trump was meeting at that very hour with Tillerson, fresh from his Asia trip, and "we expect China to increase its role in persuading North Korea to move away from nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development."

Ordinarily, the tough talk on North Korea and the president and his aides gaming out options might have been the headline story from the briefing. But Spicer that day was peppered with questions about the FBI investigation, various Trump aides who met with Russian officials, and the president's now-discredited claim that Obama wiretapped his telephones.

Trump now faces a credibility gap, and his administration remains under the cloud of a potentially criminal investigation by the FBI. The danger is that you can bet North Korea is paying very close attention.

Keith B. Richburg, a former foreign editor of The Washington Post, is director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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