According to The Washington Post, Barack Obama offered to Donald Trump in their only Oval Office meeting a warning about North Korea as a global threat. The problem is that Trump failed to grasp just what that might mean.
Or he forgot about it entirely.
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According to an excerpt in Bob Woodward's new book, "Fear," published in the Washington Post, at a National Security Council meeting on January 19, 2017, when Trump was told about the special intelligence operation that allowed the US to detect a North Korean missile launch in seven seconds, Woodward reported that Trump asked why the government was spending any resources on this region at all.
"We're doing this in order to prevent World War III," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly replied thinly.
Such an existential threat and a host of other real or only narrowly averted catastrophic errors are now, with the first taste of Woodward's book, coming into sharp focus. But for many world leaders, they long ago began seeking ways to work around the vast gulf between Trump fantasies and hard realities.
Indeed, the incendiary op-ed the New York Times attributed to an anonymous senior administration official quickly upstaged even the Woodward book late on Wednesday, suggested the most unsettling thing is that "President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators...and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations."
This can hardly be lost on most western leaders and diplomats, any who seek to reach some acceptable, civilized condominium with Trump and his White House.
The Woodward book will only confirm to most the wisdom of their actions, and the urgency to complete these workarounds before everything comes unglued, as the writer of the anonymous op-ed so eloquently suggests.
So let's take a quick tour of the highlights from the Woodward book and the horrors it suggests:
One month into his presidency, as Woodward reports in the Post excerpt, Trump asked General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a plan for a preemptive military strike on North Korea, which badly shook the ordinarily unflappable officer. Not long afterwards, Trump accelerated the confrontation with his speech before the United Nations, labeling leader Kim Jong Un "Little Rocket Man."
Yet barely six months later, a South Korean delegation walked into the Oval Office with a surprise letter from Kim inviting Trump to a summit meeting that would eventually be held in Singapore. This invitation was the culmination of a series of unprecedented discussions that took place without any American input.
Even so, the South Koreans wanted to be sure to be on hand as Trump sought to pull off a delicate operation that the American President seemed to consider as little more than another episode of "The Apprentice."
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was instrumental in launching the process, wanted a place at the table at the Singapore summit. He was right to fight for one, since Trump told Fox News airily In November 2017, "I'm the only one that matters."
Now, most unsettling to the world and especially to the leadership in Seoul, the North Korean question seems to be on the verge of returning to where it all began -- mano à mano between Trump and Kim. Perhaps all that could preserve peace on the Korean Peninsula would be a South Korean-brokered peace treaty bringing an end, after six decades, to the war between North and South -- and convincing Trump that was his idea in the first place.
According to the Post's Woodward book excerpt, Trump wanted to deal with Syria once and for all. Following Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town, Trump phoned Mattis and shouted, "Let's f***ing kill him! Let's kill the f***ing lot of them." Mattis hung up the phone and told a senior staffer, "We're not going to do any of that. We're going to be much more measured." Of course, Trump denied his rant and Mattis has issued a statement denying quotes attributed to him.
"It felt like we were walking along the edge of the cliff perpetually," Woodward quotes Trump's former staff secretary Rob Porter as saying. "Other times, we would fall over the edge, and an action would be taken." In a note to the readers of his book, Woodward has said that where he attributes exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions to named people, the information may come from that person directly or it may come from a "colleague with direct knowledge, from meeting notes, or from diaries, files, or government or personal documents."
Now, with the Syrian civil war entering what is perhaps its final act, the West and the Arab world have chosen simply to leave Trump out. Certainly, Trump touched off the process by announcing last month he'd be pulling back $230 million in relief funds and persuaded other countries in the region to pony up $300 million instead, according to the State Department -- abrogating America's hard-won leadership position in the Middle East.
At the same time, Russia, Iran and Turkey were meeting to discuss how to respond to the persistence of various insurgent groups in Syria, with hardly a nod to the Trump administration.
Perhaps the most toxic zone on the planet is Iran, particularly with the next round of Trump-ordered sanctions to go into effect on November 4.
No voice of reason has succeeded in introducing itself into the Oval Office, and with Trump determined to torpedo the pact, European signatories to the nuclear treaty are simply finding their own way around any American sanctions to keep the pact alive.
European leaders are examining creation of a replacement for the electronic money transfer SWIFT, regulated and dominated by American institutions and banks, that would allow European businesses and banks to continue operating in Iran.
But the issue goes far beyond Iran and western businesses. "Europe can no longer rely on the United States for its security," French President Emmanuel Macron said last month.
Macron would clearly like to create a European security force that would march to its own drummer. And while no European leader has gone so far as to suggest an open break with Trump, many of the themes raised in the Woodward book will only provide ammunition for those advocating a more outward break.
Trump clearly has little patience with the pace of what appears to be an endless war in Afghanistan. Woodward's Post excerpt describes a July 2017 National Security Council meeting where Trump spent 25 minutes complaining to his generals that the United States was doing nothing but losing there.
"The soldiers on the ground could run things much better than you," Trump reportedly told them, according to the Post's Woodward excerpt. "They could do a much better job. I don't know what the hell we're doing." And he continued, "How many more deaths? How many more lost limbs? How much longer are we going to be there?"
Yet Trump has done little to improve matters. Rather than try to persuade the new leadership in Pakistan to ease off their support of the Taliban and Haqqani fighters, he has simply ordered a cutoff of an additional $300 million in aid to Pakistan. (The US has accused Pakistan of sponsoring the Taliban, but Pakistan has denied it supports these groups.)
NATO, which has maintained a multi-national force in Afghanistan, may be the only viable bulwark against Taliban expansion if Trump continues to urge a total withdrawal of US troops.
And then there's Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. "Donald, I'm worried about this investigation," the Egyptian leader said, according to Woodward's book excerpt, after Trump had called seeking the release of an imprisoned American charity worker. "Are you going to be around?" Trump called the comment "like a kick in the nuts," as he told his lawyer John Dowd, according to the Washington Post's reporting on Woodward's book.
But like so many other world leaders, Sisi was no doubt simply wondering how long a leash he might have to work his will in counterpoint to any Trump policy, or whim.
All of this, of course, is only the vaguest outline of potentially catastrophic outcomes in virtually every part of the world. There are conflicts across the African continent, in Yemen, the South China Sea, and vast economic dislocations from the trade war that Trump seems determined to fight to the bitter end.
Diplomatic imagination has rarely been as essential as it is today.