Admiral James Stavridis joined me this morning to discuss the remarkable news that Mike Pompeo spent Easter in North Korea:
HH: I’m joined by Admiral James Stavridis. He’s dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, former commander of Southern Command, a life at sea. His great book, Sea Power, is a must-read for people who want to understand the world. Admiral, good morning, thank you for joining us.
JS: Good morning. How are we doing, Hugh?
HH: Great. I am amused and amazed by Mike Pompeo spending Easter in North Korea. But before I go there, you would have been a young admiral, or a young flag officer when Barbara Bush was First Lady. Did you ever meet her? Did you have any interaction with her?
JS: Yes, I met her on two different occasions in the Bush White House, as in the son’s White House. And she and George Bush, Sr. were there for a dinner which I was privileged to attend. And as everyone has said, she was a gracious without being cloying. She was so straightforward. She was like a breath of fresh sea air blowing over you. I loved talking to her in the two brief occasions I did so.
HH: A nice tribute to her. Now I want to talk to you about diplomacy. I am just stunned by Mike Pompeo spending Easter in North Korea. Tell me what your reaction is to that and what it means.
JS: I was honestly incredulous about two aspects of it. One is, and I’m sure you share this view, how did that not leak?
JS: I mean, really, I mean, in this town, you’ve got to be kidding me. So that’s pretty amazing, and you’ve got to give full credit to a CIA director. I mean, the guy’s still in that seat. I mean, and is a very visible figure. People recognize him, know his face, etc. You know, we all recognize North Korea is not exactly like flying into Hollywood or something, not a lot of media there. But still, remarkable that it didn’t leak, and he sort of pulled it off. Second thing, love the kind of symbolic, kind of coincidental, but the symbolism of Easter. I mean, that’s the time of resurrection. It’s the time of new hope. It’s the time of people coming back from terrible circumstances and renewal, so gosh, it’s hard not to admire it, and it is also a marvelous bit of theater. Here’s the question, Hugh. Is it really going to make a difference and really impact this process? I still continue to believe we’ve got, I think on the positive side, about a 70% chance of pulling this thing off diplomatically. But the bad news is I think there’s a 30% chance it goes back to the bad old days, and we’re back into the danger zone with Kim Jong Un. So we’ll see, but bottom line, all kudos to Mike Pompeo, and I think he did himself a great favor in terms of his confirmation, and the nation a great favor by undertaking a very surprising and fascinating mission.
HH: You know, discretion remains possible. I’m reminded of Kissinger going to China in ’71 and no one finding out about it for a year.
HH: But of course, it’s a bit euphoria-inducing to say we can pull that off. But you mentioned it, and I want to get to this. Reagan used to say trust, but verify. My theory about North Korea is verify, verify, verify again, and then trust. How does one, if, just assume that Kim Jong Un really does want to denuclearize because he’s afraid of regime-ending actions, or our maximum pressure has cut off his bank, whatever…
JS: Yeah, yeah.
HH: They’re supposed to be out of cash. How do you verify that he’s done it?
JS: I think it’s impossible to verify that, and that’s part of the game that he’s playing. And first of all, before we even get to that lovely moment that he really wants to denuclearize, I don’t think he does. I think what he wants is a deal that says you accept me as a nuclear power, I will freeze my number of weapons at 20-50, which is the range he’s in. I’ll be like Pakistan. I’ll be like India. I’ll be like Israel. He’ll say I want to be accepted as a nuclear power. And he will probably offer to really open it up for inspections. Now see Paragraph 1 by Hugh Hewitt, verify, verify, verify. That’s really the stumbling block here. So even before we get to this theory that he would want to get rid of those nukes, or permit us to take them away from him, you have to get over the threshold. So bottom line, very hard to verify. But before we even get to that, we have to understand whether he’s truly willing to give these up. I’m skeptical.
HH: Now you’ve done a lot of diplomacy both as the Southern Command…
HH: …and at NATO. When the President and flanked by his, I assume, Secretary of State Pompeo, and I would assume Secretary of Defense Mattis…
JS: Oh, yeah.
HH: Do you expect Mattis to go along to this?
JS: I do. I do.
JS: I was with General Mattis yesterday in the Pentagon. I expect him to go.
HH: So what, how do they open up the agenda? How does the agenda work in your mind? Visualize for us how that setting actually unfolds.
JS: They’ll be seated at a long table facing each other. The President will be in the center. Kim Jong Un will be in the center. They’ll be flanked by their ministers. It’ll be very symmetrical and parallel. It’ll be quite formal, at least initially. There’ll be statements read by the President and by Kim Jong Un. Then, I think you would, in what I’ve seen in the past, Hugh, you will neck down to probably three and three, and try and have a serious conversation at that point. And what I think the President will try and do, and he is a master negotiator, he’ll try and build it from the bottom up, which is to say what can we agree on before we get to the really hard questions of are you going to give up your nukes? You start off with hey, can we agree to reduce the level of tests that you’re doing, maybe the level of exercises we’re doing? Can we do something about the demilitarized zone itself and open it up for passage back and forth? Can we work toward ending a treaty? So I don’t think this is going to be a sudden epiphany and a global announcement followed by Nobel Peace Prizes for all my friends. I think this is going to be something that has to be built from the bottom up. The big question is does our president have the patience to do this?
HH: Now Admiral Stavridis, when do we flash the cash? And by that, I mean at some point…
HH: We’ve got to guarantee the regime, if they were actually going to denuclearize, and I know you’ve said that’s probably not on the table, but let’s assume for the moment that Trump is serious and that’s what he wants…
HH: But we’ll give you whatever it takes, and I mean, it’s worth billions to me to buy those nukes. When do you flash the cash in this?
JS: I would argue you build it up from the bottom. You don’t go in there and pull your roll of cash out of your pocket and wave it in front of Kim Jong Un. So I’d say it’s not going to happen on this first round, although as we all know with this president, kind of anything is possible. But I would say, Hugh, start by building some confidence in agreements, and then you have a second summit maybe in the fall, because the two big things on the table, Hugh, and we’ve named them both, are relief from sanctions, that’s the cash, effectively, plus a bonus, if you will, and getting rid of the nukes. It seems highly unlikely to me that we’re going to get to that deal immediately. That’s more a second or a third, again, you mentioned China. That was the work of years to really bring that relationship into the modern era. I think this one’s going to be a year or two to get it where it needs to be.
HH: Will there be along the way a side channel? And again, China is my model, but there have been some other negotiations where there’s been…
HH: …back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Remember John Scali, I can’t remember his name…
HH: …sitting down at the Washington restaurant with the ambassador from Russia saying we’ve got to, is there a side channel that develops here where the two countries don’t have to be at the summit, but continue to talk to each other unofficially, but officially?
JS: Unquestionably. And who that will be, not certain yet. I think at this point, Pompeo is too high level, too high visibility for that, so it’s going to have to be someone relatively low key. It won’t be a secret, I don’t think, throughout the process, but at least initially, there’ll need to be, as you say, a kind of a quiet side channel. Hugh, the other thing that has to happen is we’ve got to get to a four party talks. The idea that just the United States and North Korea are going to cut this deal without China and South Korea sitting at the table alongside, I think, is unlikely.
HH: And Japan, do you think, Admiral? Does Japan…
JS: Yeah, I think eventually, we are going to have to move to six party talks and bring in Japan and Russia.
JS: Because Russia has always been one of the resources for Kim Jong Un. So I think you go from these two party talks, build some confidence, go to four party talks, get close to a deal, and then you bring in Japan and Russia to, if you will, ratify the process. Again, I’m looking at a year to get all that done.
HH: Now Admiral, you’re very widely-respected on both sides of the aisle. Obviously, you were with General Mattis yesterday. Do you have advice for your friends in the Democratic Party about how to approach this unfolding process?
JS: I do, and I think this is a classic example of where as a nation, we ought to link hands and truly stand behind that old adage that foreign policy begins at the water’s edge, and domestic politics end at the water’s edge. And I would strongly urge the Democrats to get on board with this. And this is in everybody’s interest. It’s a global interest. If we could, think about it. If we could take that issue off the table, that’s all the more energy and resources, diplomacy, military, we can devote to solving other problems like Iran, like Syria, like Ukraine. Let’s get North Korea off the table if there’s a real opening here.
HH: All right, last question for you, Admiral, and thanks for the time this morning. The Navy that you were such an integral part of executed very well on Friday night and Saturday.
JS: They did.
HH: Are you at all surprised at how quickly that came together and integrated with our allies the United Kingdom and France and delivered that devastating blow to the chemical weapons facility?
JS: Not at all. And of course, Hugh, as you know quite well, we’ve been at this for 18 years since 9/11, 17 years. And we are very, very good at launching missiles. We need to get better at launching ideas. You need to be able to do both of those things, and you need a strategy to follow up. So all kudos to the Navy. Superb strike, flawlessly executed. I had the chance to say that to my very good friend, General, Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday. But we need to work collectively on a follow on strategy. And to your point, there aren’t Republicans and Democrats who are going to solve Syria. We have to do that together as a nation.
HH: It’s being reported that General Mattis had urged the President to seek Congressional approval, and the President didn’t. And he, any enlightenment on that?
JS: Did not come up in our conversation. I will tell you as a general proposition, military want as much of the country behind them as they can possibly have. I think people in the military would love to see the ability of the entire government to stand behind us. On the other hand, military people understand the need for real alacrity at times. So I think on that one, the military would say yeah, that was time to strike, we had to do that. As a general broader proposition, most folks in the military would support our Congress weighing in and demonstrating the American people are behind us.
HH: And finally, really my last question to you, did we learn anything about the S-400 system and its ability? Or did it not engage our missiles?
JS: It did not engage our missiles. And we will, when we put manned aircraft over Syria, and I unfortunately predict eventually we will hit that point, then we’re going to learn quite a bit about the S-400 and its capabilities. And that will be dangerous for our aviators. Let’s save a prayer for them.
HH: Admiral James Stavridis of the Tufts Fletcher School, thank you, my friend. Follow him, @StavridisJ. Get his book, Sea Power and The Leader’s Bookshelf. And he’ll be back soon.
End of interview.