U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent attempt to look tough in his blistering war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has sowed divisions with Tokyo and Seoul — America’s two key allies in Asia — risking a rift that could give the reclusive regime a strategic advantage, a former top White House official has warned.
In an interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo last week, Ben Rhodes, ex-deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said Trump’s out-of-the-blue threat to engulf Pyongyang in “fire and fury” indicated the U.S. leader is ignoring a diplomatic code his predecessor had always kept in mind: to alert the allies to Washington’s unveiling of new language or policy directions on North Korea.
“It does cause some strain when that doesn’t happen,” said Rhodes, a self-acknowledged Trump critic.
“If you’re sitting in the U.S. making threats to North Korea to look tough, I think that’s a very irresponsible thing to do for allies, because if you’re sitting in Seoul or Tokyo, you’re within the range of those missiles,” the former White House official said, adding that the war of words with Kim amounted to Trump “creating a crisis” for people in Japan and South Korea, “who are much more at risk.”
“North Korea likes to drive wedges between the U.S. and its allies,” Rhodes said, claiming that negotiations and pressure tactics work best if there is a “perception that U.S., South Korea and Japan are all united.”
Earlier this month — to the likely dismay of Tokyo and Seoul — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham revealed in an interview that Trump had once told him firsthand that, should there be a war with North Korea, it would kill people “over there” in Northeast Asia, not “over here” in the United States.
The apparent suggestion by Trump that he cares less about the fate of his allies in Asia than his own country, Rhodes said, is a “fundamentally flawed concept.”
“The whole purpose of alliances is that you frankly don’t distinguish between over here and over there. We’re all on the same team here,” he said.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Americans living in South Korea and Japan, too, so it’s not even accurate to suggest that an attack on either of these places is not going to take a lot of American lives,” he added.
Still, Rhodes is nonetheless convinced that Trump would defend Japan and South Korea in the event they are attacked by the North — even risking retaliation from a regime that has twice successfully tested a long-range missile that experts say is capable of striking the continental U.S.
The alliances with the two nations, he said, are “such an ingrained part of American doctrine” that he expects any U.S. president — even one as unorthodox as Trump — to follow through on America’s commitment to their defense.
For this reason, he argues that Tokyo and Seoul should count on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” and that, even in the face of Pyongyang’s ever-evolving atomic weapons technology, the two allies have no legitimate right or need to go nuclear themselves.
Rhodes, who worked with Obama for the whole of his eight-year presidency, also served as his top speechwriter, playing a pivotal role in crafting a historic speech the leader delivered on his historic visit to the A-bombed city of Hiroshima in May last year.
Rhodes said he penned the first draft of that speech.
More than a year later, he still recalls the dedication Obama displayed in toiling over it, rewriting the speech until the very last minute. During his stay in Ise, Mie Prefecture, to attend the Group of Seven summit, Obama busied himself by editing the speech by hand, Rhodes said.
“I was literally inputting his final edits to the speech right before we got on a helicopter to fly to Hiroshima,” he said.
Obama was particularly insistent, he said, that the speech begin with a simple but deeply evocative line that would immediately recall the moment of destruction that wiped away countless lives in the blink of an eye: “death fell from the sky.”
“That was his line,” Rhodes said.
“I had a line similar to that somewhere in the body of the speech, but he wanted to lead the speech with that,” he said, adding that Obama had wanted to put the listeners “back in the moment” of the attack.
Obama also viewed two hibakusha he embraced at the ceremony as symbolic of that entire community, he said.
A photograph of the U.S. president hugging one of the two was widely shared on social media.
“President Obama told me personally, as soon as we left the ceremony, that by far the most powerful moment to him was when he greeted the two survivors and embraced them. It meant a lot to him,” Rhodes said.
“He said that one of the survivors he embraced told him that, ‘I’ve been waiting my whole life for you,’ which is very powerful in showing how important it was for the U.S. president to come and recognize what happened and pay tribute to what the survivors had done.”
As the White House sorted out the details of Obama’s Hiroshima trip in early 2016, the question of whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would visit Pearl Harbor also came up, Rhodes said. But neither Washington nor Tokyo, he said, wanted to make it look as if the two visits were linked.
“We wanted to make clear we felt it was worth, important to go to Hiroshima (in) its own right,” Rhodes said. “In other words, we won’t go to Hiroshima so that Prime Minister Abe will come to Pearl Harbor. We wanted to make clear we’re going to Hiroshima because we believed it was the right thing to do.”
The successful outcome of Obama’s Hiroshima visit, he said, almost made Abe’s reciprocal trip to Pearl Harbor a matter of time, with the two sides finalizing the details when they met at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima last November.
A speech the president delivered at the USS Arizona Memorial — in remembrance of the more than 2,400 Americans who perished in the surprise attack by Japan in 1941 — contained a passage that both served as a not-so-veiled rebuke of Trump and epitomized, in Rhodes’ words, Obama’s “entire political identity.”
Even in the throes of hatred and tribalism, Obama said at the time, “we must resist the urge to turn inward. We must resist the urge to demonize those who are different.”
“President Obama’s entire political identity (was) wrapped up in avoiding the kind of nationalism” that defined Trump’s election campaign and Britain’s historic vote to exit the European Union last year, Rhodes said, referring to the drift toward the “politics of us versus them”.
“So I think in the series of his final speeches, including that one, he wanted to essentially make a warning that we shouldn’t go back to defining our countries or communities in opposition to other people,” Rhodes said.