Foreign Affairs

* Guam, as we’ve been seeing, is the U.S. territory in North Korea’s most immediate nuclear cross hairs. One blatantly obvious factor in the nuclear drumbeat is the rhetorically and temperamentally unhinged Donald Trump. Locals are understandably worried. And how ironic that those 170,000 American territory residents can’t even vote for the president of the United States, the very person with access to the nuclear codes.

* On Monday (Aug. 21), the U.S. and South Korea will begin their annual military exercises that always antagonize North Korea. Should these be postponed, it would send a signal–to not only North Korea, but to China and others–that Donald Trump is big enough to back away from the brink, no longer channeling Gen. Curtis LeMay and ready to play a responsible diplomatic card–not a vintage Trump card.

* Another regrettable byproduct of Trump’s impulsive peril is his claim that he’s not ruling out “military” action in Venezuela. Just when Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, was coming down on Venezuela for its flagrant violation of Democratic norms, Trump gives Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro an opening to play the common-enemy, interventionist Yanqui card against the U.S. He knows that Trump is less popular in the region than he is.

No surprise that Bolivian President Evo Morales, a Maduro ally, jumped in right away. “Now the world knows that those who were against Maduro were only looking for a military intervention from the empire,” he said. Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia–and no buddy of Maduro’s–chipped in with: “Friends have to tell each other the truth. (Military intervention) shouldn’t even be considered.” Former Mexican President Vicente Fox minced no words. “Donald, get it together!” he urged. … “Venezuela needs a way out, but not through violence. Take a dive into history. You’re wrecking the U.S., don’t wreck the world.”

And this from David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America: “This will undoubtedly galvanize (Maduro’s) coalition.”

How’s that for a North Korean diversion?

Foreign Fodder

* Arguably more important than what the U.S. says or how it sanctions Nicolas Maduro about the devolving democracy of Venezuela is what others in South American say–and do. It’s, therefore, significant that the South American trade bloc Mercosur has moved to suspend Venezuela for failing to follow democratic norms. Your own continental peers know best.

Mercosur accounts for three quarters of South America’s economic activity. Its combined markets encompass more than 250 million people. It’s likened to the European Union–only four times larger in size. Mercosur’s member states are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Associate states are Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

* North Korea: It will take give-and-take. It always does, even with the quizzically provocative regime of Kim Jong-un. As the world’s pre-eminent nuclear power, with a major share of the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons, the U.S. is big enough to make a concession without conceding any national security disadvantage.

As important as China is, the key leverage piece is really American troops along the Cold War, trip-wire border of North and South Korea and regular military exercises on the peninsula. To date, these have been off the negotiating table for the U.S., resulting in continued motivation for the North Koreans to keep pushing their nuclear envelope. At some point, this zero-sum scenario could literally go ballistic.

For North Korea, “final victory” means peninsula unification, not hitting Chicago with an ICBM. Maybe that should be the call of Koreans.

Foreign Fodder

* University of Montana student Guthrie McLean was recently arrested in China over reportedly injuring a taxi driver in defense of his mother, who is deaf. Chinese authorities threatened to imprison him for up to three years if a $7,400 fine wasn’t paid. According to Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, the family didn’t pay that amount–and declined further comment. Guthrie has since been released.

The takeaway after reading between the lines: This isn’t North Korea. Relatively modest extortion can be negotiated.

* We all know that the key to having any chance of reining in North Korea is China. It subsidizes Kim Jong-un’s “economy” and enables his unhinged autocracy. We also have to wonder what impact last month’s arms sales to Taiwan will have. Rex Tillerson’s state department approved $1.4 billion in missiles, torpedoes and technical support. That might be enough right there to offset any diplomatic gains from Trump’s hosting of Xi Jinping and his wife at that Mar-a-Lago dinner date.

Cold War Reflections

For most Americans, it was a one-and-done news item. Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor of Germany, had died. He was 87. And in other news … .

But Kohl, who harkened back to another era, left an important legacy. He had been chancellor of WEST Germany and then presided over its reunification with the East. He helped demolish the Berlin Wall and thaw the Cold War.

To me, Kohl was a reminder of a world that–for all of the anxiety and angst over Communist-Democratic hostility and ideological enmity–was a better place than the one we now inhabit. I’m not exactly nostalgic for the Cold War, but it never approached the ubiquitous, paranoid–“see something, say something”–existential threat now represented by the utter incompatibility of radical Islam and the West.

Whether it was the Cuban Missile crisis or an allies-Soviet standoff in Berlin, there was always one key constant: Nobody wanted to die. Ultimately, an accommodation could be reached and face–and lives–could be saved. Put it this way: It’s not inconceivable to say, in effect, to a would-be jihadist, “I’ll kill you” and have the response be: “Thank you.” Not much leverage when the afterlife and a gaggle of virgins beckon.

Frankly, it’s a lot less scary when the opposition is referencing The Communist Manifesto instead of cherrypicking a holy book. It might not be the height of rationalization to prefer being the bourgeoisie rather than the infidel.

The death of Kohl also transported me back to the ’70s when, as an ingenuous free-lancer, I found myself at “Checkpoint Charlie,” the East-West tripwire in Berlin on a blustery, cold February day. Willy Brandt was the chancellor then. I was interviewing American G.I.s in their grim, little guard house, plopped down in the middle of Friedrichstrasse.

In the middle of mini interviews that were equal parts informal and awkward–was I actually a spy with a spot-on Philadelphia accent?– the sergeant in charge leaned in and handed me his binoculars. He said to focus on the guard tower on the other side of the wall about 50 yards  away. “Check it out,” he said.

I did. And what I saw took me aback. It was an East German guard staring back at me through his binoculars. I was tempted to wave, but thought that might be a rules-of-engagement reach. I’ve often wondered what that guard’s response would have been had I given him that friendly salute. He just might have responded in kind. We had something in common. We were all cold, and nobody wanted to die.

Those were the days.

A Pathological President

What to make of President Donald Trump’s blustery hint that he just might have had his own Comey tapes?

At one level, it was business as usual: another day at the oval office for the prevaricator in chief who has morphed into the “Apprentice” host as president. It was a network tease. Stay tuned. Maybe even intimidation gamesmanship, although, ironically, if that were the case, it obviously backfired.

Much more worrisome than embarrassing, however, is that Trump’s pathological lying, which long predates “birther” charges and “wiretapping” accusations, has a ripple effect beyond our borders that reflects on much more than his proven, problematic character. It once again reinforces–to friend and foe alike–that the president of the United States cannot be taken at his word. Neither by Justin Trudeau, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, nor by Nicolás Maduro, Raúl Castro, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

Imagine the first real crisis where Trump has to address the nation–and the world. What kind of credibility would his devalued presidency yield? Is he exaggerating? Bluffing? Lying?

Now, it’s no longer embarrassing. Just scary.

Whoring Out Over Cuba

Not that we needed another reminder, but when the ideologically clueless, politically prostituting  Donald Trump came to South Florida with Rick Scott, Marco Rubio and Mario Diaz-Balart in tow, you knew nothing good would result. Nothing good did.

The only consolation. It could have been worse.

The new policy directive by a president who wouldn’t know Fulgencio Batista from Arturo Fuente is a blatant nod to the hard-line, exile community that makes it more challenging to travel to Cuba. It also lessens U.S. influence. All in the hypocritical name of addressing cherry-picked human rights violations.

We’ve gone over the specifics all too often, so there’s no need to traffic in the obvious again about what the U.S. gets from normalizing relations with Cuba and why it makes sense to continue distancing ourselves from a Cold War policy that has been counterproductive for more than half a century.

The bottom line should be this: “Treat Cuba like a sovereign county.” That’s how Vicente Amor, vice president of ASC International USA, a Tampa travel company, put it. What a concept.

Evil Incarnate

We know that, ISIS and Vladimir Putin notwithstanding, North Korea is still the world’s existential trip wire. Kim Jong-unHinged prizes nuclear leverage over food for his people. Heinous priority would be an upgrade.

But the case of Otto Warmbier, 22, bespeaks of a new, depraved low. Imagine capital punishment, in effect, for treating a propaganda poster as a souvenir. Evil incarnate.

Foreign Affairs

* How much longer can Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stay on board? T-Rex is a billionaire and a global player–with all of the attendant pride and ego. And there’s surely a limit on how long he can represent an administration that remains in perplexing, turbulence mode. To wit:

<He wanted the U.S. to stay in the Paris climate agreement.

<He wanted a more reasoned approach to Qatar–not a loud rebuke.

<He was reportedly incensed and embarrassed by the Oval Office quip session that resulted in the president passing along classified information to Russian envoys.

<He’s said to have received less-than-welcome, diplomatic blow-back from certain NATO allies and EU partners after unexpected, Trumpian pronouncements.

* Granted, all things Donald Trump and international terrorism tend to drain oxygen from the news cycles. But still it was surprising that more wasn’t made of South Korea–with its newly elected, willing-to-talk-to-North Korea president–deciding not to employ that new missile defense system proffered by the U.S. SK is hardly left unprotected, but not moving on the much-touted upgrade seems noteworthy–as well as a rationale for something approaching good news at the planet’s consummate flash point.

* “(Human rights is) something that’s very strong to him. It’s one of the reasons that he’s reviewing the Cuba policy.” That was what White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said this week about what motivates the president when it comes to Cuba. But as we know, human rights is no deal breaker when it comes to authoritarian, Mideast monarchies that are pragmatic allies and buy billions in military equipment from U.S. contractors.

Speaking of Cuba, this Cold War-era anomaly should be, first and foremost, about the enlightened self interest of the U.S. Our citizens’ rights, our cooperative efforts regarding the environment and drug smuggling, our economic benefits and our hemispheric relationships are foremost priorities. As opposed to the selective, personal-vendetta self-interest of the politically-aggressive exile community that still exercises inordinate influence thanks to the preening patriotism and disingenuous complicity of Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz-Balart and the usual suspects.

Terror Check

* They may be the most telling eight words ever spoken. They are Manchester bomber Salman Abedi’s last words–in his goodbye call to his mother in Libya. “Please forgive me for anything I did wrong.”

“Forgive” the unassailably unforgiveable? “Wrong”? This isn’t forgetting your mother’s birthday. This isn’t writing a bad check. This is an unconscionably heinous, barbaric, evil act that disqualifies one from human classification. Wrong? This says chilling volumes about who and what the civilized world confronts.

* A little-known facet of Islamic terrorism: Sometimes there is a backup terrorist–with a remote detonator–involved. Just in case the sacrificial volunteer-terrorist chickens out. They sometimes do. Brutal. Not even the prospect of a 72-virgin consolation prize.

Iranian Reality

“Iran Decides Its Future” was the Tampa Bay Times headline chronicling the big (57 percent) win by incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. So, the Iranian electorate (74 percent of it, actually) has spoken, and the moderate (still a relative term) Rouhani will serve another 4-year term.

This is certainly better than the alternative–a win by the hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi–but the Rouhani victory is well shy of decisive. That will be the day Iranian citizens can vote on a supreme leader, such as the current one, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He’s the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution. He’s also the one who still has final say on all the really important issues facing Iran–regardless of what the average Iranian thinks.

As someone who has spent some time in Iran, I would say this. Iran is not ISIS or North Korea: Iranians can be dealt with. They resent typecasting. They are Persians–not Arabs–and they speak Farsi–not Arabic.

They have a middle class, and they have affluent enclaves, such as north Tehran, where Western dress, DVDs and alcohol are well indulged behind closed doors. They have a university system that has more female students than male. And as opposed to some Middle Eastern countries, Islamic Studies is not the most popular major. They like the outside world and are enamored of consumer imports. And they are frustrated with high unemployment and low foreign investment.

But Rouhani can only do so much.