Sometimes there's just no way to win.
President Trump's Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is one of those times.
In a worst-case scenario, the summit could end with blustery insults flying in both directions as the two countries head for war. The best case would seem to be that the summit concludes with Trumpian fanfare and regal pronouncements heralding the glorious future of friendly bilateral relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
But even in that case, the consequences will ultimately be bad — for the United States, for East Asia, and for the world.
Let's roll through the possible outcomes — and why none should be celebrated.
1. A modest deal
The most likely result of this week's meetings is that Trump and Kim reach some kind of nominal nuke deal somewhat analogous to the one Bill Clinton put together with the government of Kim Jong Il in 1994. That deal did little to slow down the regime's progress toward developing a nuclear capability, and by 2002 it had broken down completely, eventually bringing us to where we are today — with North Korea possessing nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them on increasingly sophisticated missiles (some of which may be able to strike the United States).
Why the Trump administration would go for such an arrangement, especially when it just went out of its way to scuttle the similarly indecisive Iran nuclear deal, is a mystery that could only be unraveled by spelunking deep into the bottomless depths of the president's needy, grievance-driven soul. But whatever the motive, shouldn't we consider a deal that averts war on the Korean peninsula a win? Normally the answer would be yes. But this is an administration in which John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are running the show on foreign policy. Both men are instinctive hawks, with Bolton, especially, defaulting to the use of military force more consistently than just about anyone in the nation's war-loving foreign policy establishment. Can there be any doubt that these men will do everything in their power to push our know-nothing president to act precipitously at the first sign of North Korean noncompliance?
A token deal may delay war, but as long as Trump and his bellicose advisers remain in power clamoring for "regime change" in Pyongyang, the eventual outbreak of hostilities will remain likely.
2. No deal
Now, what if the summit ends in rancor? Then war would move from likely to a near certainty.
Such a bad outcome, with both parties stomping away angry and humiliated, is always possible with such a high-stakes meeting. But when the principals are Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump? There's no telling what could set off a cascade of venomous insults that ends with the skyline of the South Korean capital in flames. It's frankly too terrifying to think about.
3. A "great" deal
What if the summit ends with the North agreeing to give up its nukes, all kinds of promises made to advance peace on the peninsula, including the drawdown of American troops stationed in the South after nearly seven decades, and the setting of an ambitious agenda for future bilateral relations between Washington and Pyongyang? Wouldn't that be an outcome that's all upside?
Only if you think it's a good thing for our greatest geopolitical rival (China) to receive an enormous boost to its regional ambitions in the form of U.S. military withdrawal from its backyard.
Then there are the likely domestic political consequences, which could only be considered positive if you think it's a good thing for our mendacious, hapless, impetuous, racist president to enjoy an unprecedented boost to his popularity.
For most of his first year in office, Trump languished between 36 and 38 percent approval. In recent months he's risen to a new floor that floats in the low 40s. Banner headlines touting peace at the conclusion of the Singapore summit would undoubtedly raise him above at least 45 percent for the first time since the week of his inauguration. That's a level from which Republicans would be well-placed to hold onto Congress in November — and Trump himself would be strongly situated to mount a successful bid for re-election in 2020.
That would decidedly not be good news.
The point isn't that we should hope for a bad outcome of the Singapore summit. It's that in the Trump era, there are sometimes no good outcomes at all.