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White House urges key U.S. ally to look past Trump's rhetoric

Donald Trump told South Korea to pay for U.S. protection. The White House said the opposite.
Buddhist lanterns line a public garden in Seoul celebrating the Buddha's birthday. That morning the author met Mrs. Shin Kyung Hee who gave up her infant...
Buddhist lanterns line a public garden in Seoul celebrating the Buddha's birthday. That morning the author met Mrs. Shin Kyung Hee who gave up her infant...
While the United States deals with the possibility of a crisis with North Korea, Donald Trump decided last week would be a good time to pick a fight with, of all countries, South Korea.The American president had already taken some steps to alienate South Korea, a longtime U.S. ally. When Trump lied about dispatching an "armada," led by an aircraft carrier, towards the peninsula, South Koreans weren't pleased. When Trump falsely said Korean Peninsula "used to be a part of China," that didn't go over especially well, either.Late last week, Trump made matters vastly worse, condemning the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as Korus, and threatening to trash the deal. He then said he wants to deploy a missile-defense system -- Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (Thaad) -- in South Korea to help protect against a North Korean attack,  but only if South Korea pays for the technology."On the THAAD system, it's about a billion dollars," Trump told Reuters. "I said, 'Why are we paying? Why are we paying a billion dollars? We're protecting. Why are we paying a billion dollars?' So I informed South Korea it would be appropriate if they paid." Trump made similar comments in a Washington Times interview, adding, "We're going to protect them. But they should pay for that."The president's National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, soon after told his South Korean counterpart the opposite. The Wall Street Journal reported:

In a 35-minute phone call Sunday morning, Gen. McMaster told Kim Kwan-jin, South Korea's national-security adviser, that the U.S. would finance Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, as agreed to by the two countries last year, according to a statement from South Korea's presidential Blue House.During the phone call, Gen. McMaster also praised the U.S. alliance with South Korea as "the most solid alliance" and as Washington's priority in the region, saying that "the U.S. will be with the Republic of Korea 100%," using the formal name for South Korea.

There was no apparent explanation for why the U.S. White House effectively said South Korea should overlook the demands of the U.S. president.Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) yesterday advised American allies around the world, "Watch what the president does, rather than what he says." Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered a similar assessment last week, saying, "Do not pay much attention to Trump's words."That's certainly good advice, but it points to an alarming dynamic in which the declarations made by the sitting president of the United States are basically meaningless -- little more than punch lines to a joke no one understands -- and in no way reflect the actual foreign policy embraced by the president's administration.Not to put too fine a point on this, but such an approach to international affairs is madness. It's also, tragically, become almost routine.Last week, Trump administration officials reaffirmed an agreement with Australia that Trump had personally threatened to tear up, with U.S. officials effectively telling their Australian counterparts, "Never mind what Trump said."There have been similar instances in which Trump's words have been rendered meaningless in relation to China, NATO, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Syria.In politics, a president's enemies often work hard to destroy his credibility. In this White House, Trump's detractors don't have to bother -- because he's destroyed his credibility all by himself.