Korea’s mainstream media have been plastered with articles and editorials that repeat the storyline that Victor Cha expressed concerns about the so-called “bloody nose” strike on North Korea in his talks with the Trump White House and was dropped as a candidate for ambassador to Korea as a result.
But such a narrative does not hold up to even the most elementary scrutiny. Nor does the claim that Victor Cha is an urbane and highly respected expert on North Korea hold much water.
To start with, Cha has been silent over the past year as Trump advocated for an unprovoked (possibly nuclear) attack against North Korea and took numerous steps in his approach to diplomacy that have destroyed the State Department and led most senior diplomats to resign, or be dismissed.
Cha has also been silent regarding the blatantly racist comments made by Trump or other illegal uses of the Department of Justice’s authority.
But before we get into the details of what might actually be going on, let us consider the significance of this failure to appoint an ambassador to South Korea for more than a year after the launch of the administration.
Some pundits note that other ambassadorships remain open, but, in fact, the major positions in East Asia, and the world, have been filled.
Moreover, granted that Trump is talking about North Korea practically every week, saying that it is the most important security issue, the slight is obvious.
The failure to appoint an ambassador, or even to start the nomination procedures at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, should be interpreted as a major insult.
Mysteriously, the Moon administration has been silent about this Lese-majeste. The conservatives, who ought to be standing up for Korea’s sovereignty, are rather attacking the progressives for failure to be blindly loyal to the Trump administration.
In fact, it is the longest time that Korea has been without an American ambassador since Edwin Morgan was sent back to Washington D.C.
Wait a minute ― who is Edwin Morgan?
Well, the last time that we witnessed such a delay in replacing the US ambassador was when Theodore Roosevelt turned a blind eye on the Japanese absorption of the Korean Empire of Emperor Gojong and ordered Secretary of State Elihu Root to telegraph Ambassador Edwin Morgan instructions to “withdraw from Korea and return to the United States” on November 24, l905. The next US ambassador to arrive was John Muccio ― 45 years later.
Korea has not become a colony this time, but its relationship with the U.S. has clearly been downgraded by this action. Moon is being smothered in kind words from Trump about an end to “Korea passing” while Korea was all so politely kicked down the stairs and forced to act like a loyal ally even as tariffs were imposed unilaterally and demands were even made that it follow a security policy in which Korea had no voice in formulating.
But what lies behind the passing over of Cha, who was willing to put up with so much for this opportunity?
The grimmest assessment of the situation is that some factions in the military are planning to force a military conflict no matter what anyone thinks and they do not want anyone who could subject that process to an open discussion to get in the way. We cannot dismiss such a serious risk, but we should not assume it is an inevitable outcome at this point.
An alternative interpretation is that Trump’s opponents within the beltway delivered a message to him that was sufficiently powerful to make Cha step back from Trump and effectively end his candidacy.
In a larger sense, it looks as if this failure to nominate Cha signifies the end of civilian command for the American presence on the Korean Peninsula and is rather part of a larger trend towards militarization throughout the federal government.
Actually, that militarization of diplomacy has been going on in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere for some time. Everyone knows that ambassadors to major Middle East countries do not have much say about anything except whether the shrimp are fried or boiled at banquets.
We observe that process of militarization at the highest level in the unprecedented number of former military officers in the Trump cabinet, and also in the federal government, such as the army general Mark Inch being appointed Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
And it does not stop there. Consider the appointment of Marine Corps General John Allen as president of the Brookings Institution, the top-ranked think tank in the U.S., last November. Brookings previously was headed by Strobe Talbott clearly a highly educated and effective civilian (whether you agree with him or not), and before him the talented diplomat Michael Armacost.
That is not to suggest that Cha is an advocate for civilian rule or respect for the US constitution and the UN charter. When he served in the Bush administration he had no trouble turning a blind eye to any number of illegal actions and he promoted the fiction ever since that North Korea was the principal cause for the collapse of the Agreed Framework.
His books like “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future” have put forth a fantasy world image of North Korea that would make for entertaining science fiction if it were not so offensively reductionist, suggesting that North Koreans are unlike anyone anywhere else.
Moreover, Victor Cha’s rise to power over the past 15 years cannot be separated from the downward slide of the think tank that promoted him, CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies).
Once an extremely valuable source of information on international relations, it has been reduced to a consulting firm overseeing the privatization of the state functions of diplomacy and security.
Back 12 years ago, even misfits like myself were invited as presenters at CSIS seminars. It may not have been the world’s most open institution, but there was room for some meaningful discussion.
The balance was formed by the interaction of the two lodestones of American foreign policy.
In the one corner, you had Henry Kissinger, who made a fortune by privatizing diplomatic and security policy, using CSIS as a means to siphon off contracts to his Kissinger and Associates. Kissinger got started on the path to power, money and more money by his close relationship with President Richard Nixon, one of the most cynical politicians in American history.
But on the other side, you had Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former adviser to President Jimmy Carter, who was certainly open to working with a variety of people ― good and not so good ― but who saw himself as a scholar and public servant, and not just someone seeking wealth.
When I defend Brzezinski in writing, I am often subject to severe attacks from those who perceive him as the architect of the U.S. debacle in Afghanistan and the unrepentant Cold Warrior who slapped Russia’s hand at every chance.
I do not want to argue with this assessment, but my experience was quite different. I saw numerous occasions on which Brzezinski went out of his way to support people who stood up to political bullies, and he used strong words to condemn the drive for war with Iran.
He wrote me back several times detailed letters in response to suggestions I made regarding the importance of climate change in security policy. He took his job seriously and would reach out to people who were similarly serious.
After Brzezinski grew ill and then died last year, the CSIS has taken a tremendous slide, increasingly dominated by programs funded by military contractors and foreign governments. Moreover, the government functions of security and diplomacy are increasingly outsourced from the federal government to what has become in effect a political consulting firm.
I sometimes wonder whether his passing was as much a factor as the rise of Trump in the onslaught of policy chaos.
Victor Cha is a product of the CSIS and perhaps he thought that it would be his ace in the hole to have Kissinger’s support. But the institutional foundations of the American government are so rotten, and the conflicts between the factions (whether between the FBI and CIA or between white nationalists and globalists) are growing so severe, that even the likes of Victor Cha are being driven out.
It is like a bar fight. During the first round, everyone is attracted by the scuffle. But after a few minutes, the only ones still in the fight are the toughest and meanest guys.
Finally, it is not unreasonable to assume there was a racist strand in this policy decision. Cha may have been willing to go along with a lot of actions he thought were unwise wise if he could have the ambassadorial position. But the factions in the military, and in local politics, who remain loyal to Trump, and advise him on the most sensitive decisions, remains deeply xenophobic.
Among them are no small number who see the ultimate threat to the U.S. to be not Mexicans and Arabs, but rather Asians and Jews.