President Donald Trump's muted response to North Korea's missile launch provides some reassurance from a chief executive who frequently fires off tweets without regard to the consequences. Yet the missile provides the first significant test of this administration on the world stage, and there is little indication it is prepared for even this unsophisticated jab. While Trump did not react with the bluster that could have escalated the situation, his foreign policy team remains unsteady and unprepared to deal with genuine crises.
North Korea's volatile dictator, Kim Jong Un, took full advantage of the propaganda opportunity created by Sunday's launch and claimed he watched from an observation deck after giving the order to fire. If North Korea's assertion that it launched a missile using solid fuel for the first time is accurate, experts say that would be a significant step toward increasing its capabilities and posing a further threat to South Korea and Japan — where thousands of U.S. troops are stationed. The missile also could have tested technology needed for the development a long-range nuclear missile that could reach the United States.
In the short term, this is another cry for attention by a young dictator in a rogue nation isolated from the rest of the world. It probably is no coincidence that the missile launch came as Trump was entertaining the Japanese prime minister, who promptly provided a more thorough condemnation of the launch — calling it "absolutely intolerable" — than did the president. More concerning is that the Trump administration is in no position to respond in a sophisticated fashion to North Korea or anyone else.
Less than a month into the administration, there is deep division and suspicion among Trump aides. The Washington Post reported that national security adviser Michael Flynn discussed sanctions against Russia with Russia's ambassador to the United States before Trump's inauguration. It is illegal for private American citizens to engage in U.S. diplomacy, and Flynn's close ties to Russia are well-documented. Vice President Mike Pence had publicly denied Flynn talked about the sanctions, and Flynn reportedly has now privately acknowledged sanctions may have been mentioned in his talks with the ambassador. That acknowledgement — and allowing the vice president to lie for him — should be firing offenses.
Then there is former Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon, perhaps the most dangerous man in the administration. Trump signed an executive order giving Bannon a seat on the National Security Council and reducing the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence. That put Bannon on the same level as Flynn, and the former head of a website that promoted white nationalists and global conspiracies has no business being in White House, much less holding a seat on the security council. Political advisers, particularly one with Bannon's background, should be banned from attending security council meetings. No wonder the New York Times reports widespread concern among hundreds of civil servants who serve as security council staffers and provide advice on foreign policy and other issues.
Response to North Korea's missile launch unfolded along predictable lines Monday. The United Nations secretary-general condemned it before a U.N. Security Council meeting, and China opposed the launch while blaming North Korea's frustrations with South Korea and the United States. In the chaotic early weeks of the Trump administration, normal is good. But sooner rather than later, the president should stop tweeting about Nordstrom and billionaire Mark Cuban and start focusing on building a respectable team that can craft thoughtful foreign policy toward North Korea and other trouble spots. As this weekend demonstrated, circumstances may force Trump to do it on the fly if he doesn't take the initiative now.