Let me give you, dear reader, a piece of free advice (since this blog is on the nice side of the TAI paywall): When something happens that confronts you with the proverbial choice of whether to laugh or cry, choose to laugh.
Case in point: In today’s Washington Post (in an article titled, in print, “President: U.S. won’t seek to force Kim out,” with the telling subtitle, “He contradicts Bolton’s call for ‘Libya model’ in disarming North Korea”), David Nakamura and Philip Rucker are essentially forced to enter into a competition with the President and with Kim Jong-un to see who is the most ignorant of recent history. The result of the competition is, if not an infinite regression, a regression all the same, in which everyone loses.
First let’s straighten out what has just happened, and then we can mess it up again.
When John Bolton invoked “the Libya Model” a couple of days ago in reference to North Korea, he clearly meant the model, from 2003-04, in which the U.S. government, in the form of the George W. Bush Administration, persuaded the Libyan government to hand over its WMD program stuff in return for a pledge that the United States would not seek to put Muammar Qaddafi’s head on the wall at the Pentagon or in Langley. We made a deal, using the leverage of the recent rout of the Iraqi Army, to get the Libyans to turn “state’s evidence” in return for a no-regime-change pledge. Something reasonably similar is the obvious deal to be had with the North Koreans now.
Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sealed that particular deal in the spring of 2004. At the time this event did not make front-page Washington Post news, because it was not supposed to. It entered public awareness later. John Bolton knew about it because he was involved in it as Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation Affairs. I knew about it because my office in Policy Planning (S/P) on the seventh floor of the State Department building was just down the hall from his. We used the same men’s room—that’s how close our offices were to each other.
Apparently, when Kim Jong-un got a load of Bolton’s mention of the phrase “Libya Model,” he mistook it for what happened years later, in 2011, under a different Administration: The Obama Administration’s “betrayal” of the promise of its predecessor, leading to the death of Qaddafi and the overthrow of the Libyan regime.
Now of course it was not as simple as that: The Obama Administration did not start out, exactly, to betray a promise and seek regime change in Libya. As was obvious to some even at the time, it merely tried to use military means to achieve declared humanitarian ends—protecting civilians—amid an incipient civil war, which made choosing targets a very slippery slope and rendered the distinction between protecting civilians and tanking the regime essentially impossible to maintain. So regime change happened anyway. Since then, assuming that the Obama Administration was dissembling about its real intentions from the get-go, the Russians, Chinese, and by extension the North Koreans, have conflated all that into their understanding of what the “Libya Model” means.
Of course, the Libya business circa March 2011 raises an interesting question in practical moral philosophy: Is it justifiable to double-cross a bad actor like Muammar Qaddafi—a man with plenty of innocent blood on his hands, including American blood—if the chance arises to do it? Do we have to keep our word, no matter what? It’s a practical question because of the shadow behavior like that casts—just ask Kim Jong-un. But it’s a practical question of a different sort, too, for those who castigate the Trump Administration in exaggerated tropes for “betraying” its predecessor over the Iran deal withdrawal without ever mentioning the equally exaggerated Obama “betrayal” of his predecessor’s Administration.
But back to current reality: It is possible that Kim’s sudden shift on the possibility and content of next month’s now-“maybe” summit in Singapore was touched off by Bolton’s invocation of the original meaning of the phrase “Libya Model.” In any event, President Trump reacted by affirming, essentially, the Russian-Chinese-Nork interpretation of the phrase because, in his encyclopedic ignorance of such matters, he knows nothing of the aforementioned history: “The Libya model isn’t the model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea. In Libya, we decimated that country.” (We, with our British and France allies, did no such thing of course—but never mind.)
Now it gets even better. Having said that, Nakamura and Rucker, or maybe a clueless editor of theirs, thinking that Kim’s understanding of “Libya Model” was what Bolton meant, then concluded that the President contradicted Bolton. No, no, no, no, no! The President affirmed the meaning of what Bolton meant, even as he accepted Kim’s misunderstanding of what Bolton said. Got that? Bolton got it right, but Kim got it wrong, so the President got it wrong (because, again, he obviously doesn’t know any better) and then tried to make it right.
Cry if you want, but to me this is fall-on-the-floor funny. It’s a shame Abbot and Costello aren’t still around: Nothing will ever top their “who’s on first?” routine, but the potential is clearly here for something nearly as good.
My guess is that John Bolton is about as exasperated right now as he ever gets. It could well be that in future years, whenever John hears the phrase “Libya Model,” he will totally lose his shit, cross his left leg slowly toward his right hip, and begin to shout at the source of those two words: “Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch…”
As for me, well, do I empathize with John right now? Maybe a little, but he’s the one, after all, who decided he wanted to work for this President. If he’s surprised by what has just happened, it’s the kind of surprise he all but asked for.
And by the way, just because I shared a State Department men’s room with John (and others, to be sure) for a couple of years doesn’t mean we agreed then on all points anymore than we do now. Peeing at adjacent urinals does not imply agreeing on adjunctive principles.