By Claude Salhani
Once again the Middle East, in its own predictable way, is outshining other troubled regions of the world by proving to be a harder egg to crack, even more so than reclusive North Korea.
Finding a solution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weaponry, until recently, was believed to be an impossible mission, yet it may turn out to be not so impossible after US President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
It is far too early to make concrete predictions as to what may ensue from these timid first steps taken by an American president into North Korea, 20 small steps in the DMZ. One certainty is that the outcome will be looked at through very different lenses in the Middle East, particularly in Iran and the Palestinian territories, two very different sets of problems.
Iran is struggling to develop its own nuclear programme, despite strong objections from the international community, particularly the United States and Israel, which worry that a country accused of supporting terrorism should acquire nuclear arms.
Any step towards the peaceful resolution of a conflict is highly commendable. Nevertheless, one should not give the store away in exchange for the opportunity to take some very expensive selfies with one of the worst dictators in history.
If Iran had any doubt about the value of obtaining a nuclear capability, Trump’s visit with Kim dissipated those doubts. As Trump proved by his stopover to meet with the North Koreans, having nuclear weapons buys a certain amount of respect.
However, Trump’s visit to the Korean Peninsula, for the sake of publicity for himself, belittles the symbolism and the prestige of the American presidency. Besides, taking such first steps into politically unchartered territory and in the charged atmosphere of global tensions will not go unnoticed.
There is no escaping that, had the North Koreans not had nuclear weapons, the United States — and Trump in particular — would not have given them the attention they received.
There are two ways one can look at Trump’s brief incursion into North Korea.
One is whether this highly publicised photo opportunity is just that, a brief re-election campaign stop made by a publicity-hungry presidential candidate? Or two, as one observer put it, “is it just political theatre” that may or may not lead to significant and serious diplomatic follow-up?
The jury is still out but the clear lesson from Trump’s Korean foray is the more means you have to scare others the more attention — and respect — you will get.
There should be no denying that the only reason that North Korea managed to wriggle itself onto the world political stage is because of its nuclear arsenal. As imperfect as it might be when compared to US and Western European nuclear arsenals, it still represents a great peril to the international community.
When it comes to a nuclear weapon, it does not matter how perfect or precise the device may be. One bomb is more than enough. One can serve as a “dirty bomb” and, within seconds, a city the size of Washington, Paris or London can be incapacitated.
“This could have implications for Trump’s attempt to break the logjam in the Middle East,” wrote Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post.
There may be some comparisons with North Korea when looking at Iran and its nuclear ambitions as well as the reasons that pushed both countries to pursue this highly volatile path.
It may be harder to detect any such similarities in the Palestinian territories where Trump has taken away what few cards they may have held in future negotiations with the Israelis.
The only real similarities in both conflicts is that, unlike the Korean Peninsula, where Trump will be pushing to remove all nuclear weapons, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli dispute the American president will join the rest of the international community in hiding their collective heads in the sand if attention is drawn to the fact that the only nuclear power in the Middle East is Israel. That is one very big taboo subject. The international community should not embarrass Trump about it.
In the long term, Trump’s North Korean whistle stop could give him much to brag about. Between now and Election Day he will embellish his achievement tenfold, even if this North Korean photo-op may or may not win him additional votes.
However, securing a fair and lasting settlement of the Palestinian issue will certainly not endear Trump to his ultraconservative and Evangelical support base. That kind of achievement might require more political courage that a last-minute adjustment of his Asia tour’s itinerary.