When President George H. W. Bush was staring down Saddam Hussein after the Iraq dictator’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the former diplomat spoke in grand terms about international order and rule of law.
But Bush also made the conflict personal. In public speeches, he referred to the Iraqi tyrant only by his first name, as “Saddam”—a pointed discourtesy that drew global attention. For good measure, he mispronounced it—“Sad-um” instead of “Sa-dam”—in a way that sounded like the Arabic word for a barefoot beggar.
The ensuing conflict went America’s way: Iraq was quickly ejected from Kuwait in the 1990 Gulf War, a lightning-fast defeat that left the dictator humbled. But in hindsight, some Bush officials consider the way the president had talked about it – particularly his decision to personalize the conflict with man-to-man taunts— to have been a mistake. American troops stopped well before reaching Baghdad, Hussein clung to power, and the result was a clean victory that didn’t quite feel like one.
“All the emphasis on Saddam made it harder for [Bush] to justify ending the war with Saddam still in power,” said Richard Haass, a top Bush White House national security official at the time.
More than 25 years later, Donald Trump has quickly found himself in his own standoff with a blowhard dictator across the world, and has personalized far more than Bush ever did. Twice in the past week, on Twitter Sunday and in his Tuesday address to the United Nations, Trump has dubbed North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” in an apparent reference to a 1972 Elton John ballad that Trump often played at his campaign rallies – an exercise in high-level name-calling with little modern precedent.
Whether any larger strategy lies behind Trump’s mockery is unclear. Trump has long used nicknames to belittle and intimidate opponents, from Atlantic City business rivals to his 2016 challengers—including “Low Energy Jeb” Bush, “Little Marco” Rubio and “Crooked Hillary” Clinton. But experts and former U.S. officials warn that what worked in the Iowa primaries is liable to backfire on the larger and more complicated global stage, especially when it comes to nuclear diplomacy with millions of lives on the line.
For a dictator accustomed to honorifics like “Brilliant Leader” and “Guiding Sun Ray,” the nickname “will be perceived as an embarrassment of the highest order” in North Korea, said Ken Gause, an Asia analyst with the nonprofit research organization CNA.
“The relationship is already so bad that I’m not sure how much worse it could get,” added Joel Wit, a Koreas expert at Columbia University and the Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies. “But if there’s something guaranteed to make it worse, it’s hurling personal insults at their leader.”
Human psychology is an undeniable element of high-stakes international conflict, as any student of the Cuban Missile Crisis can explain, and world leaders can successfully unnerve one another. But the strategy can also backfire. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan branded the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi “the mad dog of the Middle East,” prompting the African strongman to retort that he would not bend to the “insults” of an “old man.” (Reagan wound up bombing Gaddafi into submission.)
President Barack Obama considered it a mistake to personalize foreign policy, though he couldn’t resist saying in 2013 that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “slouch” during their meetings made the Russian look like “the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” Putin was reportedly infuriated by the remark, which did nothing to improve faltering U.S.-Russia relations.
And as Bush discovered, it can be hard to close the door on a foreign policy problem once you’ve turned it into a man-to-man fight. With North Korea, a successful diplomatic solution might leave Kim in power—and Trump in much the same position as Bush: as a leader claiming a win even as critics cast him as a guy who couldn’t finish the shoving match he started
It remains unclear whether Trump’s remark is intended to unnerve Kim, whom he has previously both insulted (“a maniac”) and complimented (“a smart cookie”)—or whether it’s just to look tough to his domestic political base. Whatever the motive, there’s little sign it came from — or even ran through — key administration officials crafting North Korea policy.
Trump’s own national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, seemed caught off guard after Trump sent a tweet Sunday morning in which he described talking to South Korea’s leader about an unnamed “Rocket Man.” On an a Sunday interview with ABC News, host George Stephanopoulos asked McMaster, “I assume ‘Rocket Man’ is Kim Jong-un?”
“Well, it’s — it appears to be so,” McMaster said haltingly. “That is where the rockets and missiles are coming from, is North Korea.”
Since then, Trump officials have embraced the moniker more enthusiastically—even if they offer few particulars about how it aids America’s strategic position. A “President Trump original,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday. “As you know, he’s a master in branding.”
“Look, this is a way of, like, you know, getting people to talk about him,” Trump’s United Nations Ambassador, Nikki Haley, told ABC Wednesday.
A National Security Council spokesman did not respond when asked how Trump’s advisers feel about the nickname, and what effect Trump hopes it will have. Several Asia analysts said there would be no confusion about the name’s hostile intent among North Korea’s leaders. The insular county’s population is a different story. Even the few North Koreans familiar with Elton John wouldn’t likely have heard about Trump’s crack: The nation’s state media has yet to report the line, according to Adam Cathcart, an Asia historian at the University of Leeds.
Cathcart added that the country’s propaganda machine might even turn the line to Kim’s advantage, at least domestically, in a nation whose missile program is a point of pride.
“Insults like that generally don’t translate well,” he said, “and if anything the [North Korean] state media has made a habit of rephrasing things in a way that they want their people to hear them. So we might ultimately see some reference to Trump’s publicly stated fear of the ‘intercontinental missile capability advancing at extreme speed’ or something along those lines.”
Kim and his inner circle will have a clearer understanding of Trump’s intended meaning. But experts doubt that a North Korean leader whose family has defied the West for decades under threat of carpet bombing will be rattled by a reference to a 1970s pop hit. Some even worry that by focusing on Kim personally—something President Barack Obama avoided doing—Trump could elevate the North Korean leader’s stature and inflate his ego.
This kind of bluster will not only not deter North Korea, but Kim will call Trump’s bluff and conduct more weapons tests,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Moreover, Lee added, name-calling is typically the hallmark of the North Korean regime itself. Pyongyang’s blustery propaganda machine has branded George W. Bush “human scum,” Barack Obama a “wicked black monkey,” and Trump himself “a psychopath.”
“For the U.S. to descend to North Korea’s level is demeaning,” Lee said.
Powered by WPeMatico