Littwin: Not to be alarmist, but what happens if Kim does fire those missiles toward Guam?

It’s time to move past all the locked-and-loaded psychoanalysis of the president and all the commentary on his immature bluster and all the annotated absurdities of his Thursday news conference/photo op and even past the dashed hopes of anyone foolish enough to believe John Kelly would be a positive influence, or any kind of influence, in the Oval Office.

All that’s well and good for another day, say when Donald Trump is contenting himself with bumping up against Mitch McConnell or Rosie O’Donnell.

But now that we’ve reached the triple-dog-dare moment in the North Korea crisis — and the question is who plays the role of Flick — we need to seriously ask ourselves what happens next. What if Kim Jong Un actually does fire missiles toward Guam? What would Trump do?

We shouldn’t be facing this question, of course. Trump set the stage with his rainy-vacation-day “fire and fury” ad lib that threatened something terrible, something the world has never seen, if North Korea continued to threaten the United States and its allies. The problem, of course, is that North Korea’s entire foreign policy is built on making bizarre yet unfulfilled threats while also making real nukes with real missiles to carry them.

And so, with Trump’s ill-considered red-line warning about threats, Kim Jong Un responded by threatening to bomb the waters around Guam. And before you knew it, Trump was saying that “fire and fury” wasn’t tough enough and then he was tweeting out photos of America might as if anyone doubted America’s might. I mean anyone other than Trump, who spent his entire presidential campaign saying that America’s military was in shambles, but who is now saying that he has personally put the nuclear program right.

So, that’s where we are. Kim is not threatening to hit Guam with missiles, remember. He’s threatening to consider launching four missiles that, if all went right (meaning, terribly wrong), would land somewhere near Guam. He wouldn’t dare hit Guam, at least not intentionally, because that would guarantee the conflagration would begin, meaning hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would likely die and the absurdity of the bully-boy smackdown would conclude with the end of Kim and the likely end of North Korea at a cost too terrible to imagine.

But what if Kim does, as threatened, fire the missiles that land 20 miles from Guam? That could happen. Kim could take brinkmanship all the way to the brink. Kim left himself a major out, saying his military would present a plan for him to consider. He could consider and reject it. He could consider and say he’s putting it on hold depending on America’s response. Or he could take the chance that Trump’s golf-club threats and early-morning tweets shouldn’t be taken seriously and see if America tries to shoot the missiles out of the sky.

Listen, I’m not trying to alarmist here. I think the risk of war remains small. There’s no evidence that Kim, tyrant that he is, envisions suicide by nuclear holocaust. And even with Trump in office, I still have enough faith in history and in the understanding by everyone, including Trump, the cataclysm any attack on North Korea would risk, and especially in the fact that North Korea had learned in the hardest possible way what “fire and fury” meant during the Korean War.

Whatever the rules of combat say, there are many generals Trump would have to fight his way through before starting a such a war. When Defense Secretary James Mattis was asked Thursday to estimate the death toll from a nuclear war, he guided reporters back toward diplomacy and the recent unanimous United Nations vote on sanctions against North Korea.

“The American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results and I want to stay right there right now,” Mattis said. “The tragedy of war is well-enough known it doesn’t need another characterization beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic.”

A nuclear war may be unthinkable, but a nuclear North Korea is a reality. Diplomacy with North Korea has repeatedly failed, as Trump has noted, but, as most experts seem to be advising, containment has not failed. There is the option of accepting a nuclear North Korea and moving from there. Accepting that the Soviet Union was a nuclear power, and a far more dangerous one, is how we survived the Cold War.

I read an interesting piece by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how John Kennedy had, just prior to the showdown, read the “Guns of August,” Barbara Tuchman’s epic book on World War I in which she described a world stumbling into a war that no one wanted, a war that brought ruin to a continent and served as prologue to the even more disastrous world war to come. Kennedy said reading the book gave him real insight into the crisis he faced.

But as Gerson notes, Trump doesn’t read. He watches TV, becomes infected with cable-news rage and then tweets. It’s not the same thing.

Here’s what Kennedy said in explaining how he resisted the advice to risk war against the Soviet Union during the missile crisis, “Above all, while defending our vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war.”

And yet here is Trump pushing Kim Jong Un toward that very choice, one locked-and-loaded tweet, one ill-considered ad lib, one double-down threat, one triple-down ultimatum at a time.

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers en route to Guam from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas alongside two South Korea F-15s. Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Kamaile Chan, via Flickr: Creative Commons.


  1. I disagree with Littwin on several fronts:
    1. Kim has never said he is going to “bomb” around Guam; just fire 4 missiles into international waters around Guam. That said, we wouldn’t know if that was a ploy meant to hesitate the US from shooting them down. Trump won’t take that chance and I predict will take them out as soon as they are launched. Kim’s and Donalds reaction at this point will be decisive. Does Kim launch the 1000 missiles at South Korea? Does Trump try and stop this with the nuclear B83 bombs dialed to full power of 175 kilotons? [Hiroshima was approx. 17] Donald has to stop those 1000 missiles before they are launched; otherwise, there is no possibility of stopping even 25% of them from their armageddon path to South Korea. Then what? Each B1 is capable of holding 16 of the B83’s. I think they will continue on through North Korea high priority targets and bomb them into submission.
    If Kim fires those 4 missiles, there is no stopping the escalation.

  2. Elections have consequences.

    “Hiding news that doesn’t fit an ideological or a partisan agenda is perhaps the worst form of media bias. And it’s one more reason the public holds the press is such low esteem.” – Investor’s Business Daily

    “(Mr. Trump) won’t be president. He was sliding in the polls before the video, and the video now means that he has no way to climb back. Which independent voter, which suburban woman, which Main Street Republican on the fence is going to vote for Trump now?” – Mike Littwin

    “And while I’m generally anti-filibuster, I make one exception for any and all years in which Donald Trump is president.” – Mike Littwin


    Mr. Littwin’s baseless and fact-free suggestion that President Trump’s “fire and fury” ad lib” is somehow responsible for the current “triple-dog-dare moment” with North Korea is beyond preposterous. It’s fantasy before reality. It’s agitprop masquerading as truth.

    The fact that President Trump did not begin this crisis seems to have escaped Mr. Littwin. No where—-no where!—- does he mention the failed attempts by the three previous administrations to deal with North Korea. His analysis is childish! It’s partisan political blather.

    Here’s what former vice-president Al Gore said about the current situation with North Korea:

    “(Al) Gore also opined on Trump’s ongoing war of words with North Korea. On Tuesday the president promised to unleash “fire and fury” on the country if it continued to threaten the U.S. Trump doubled down on his remarks on Thursday, when he said the military was “locked and loaded.”

    The former VP says “his intemperate comments on North Korea were really unwise,” but reasons, “I think it’s only fair to point out he inherited this crisis. The previous three presidents were not able to find an adequate solution [to the North Korea crisis], so he can’t be blamed for all this.”

    So how does Mr. Littwin reconcile his version of events with Al Gore’s? He doesn’t he simply ignores it, along with the fact that three previous administrations have failed to solve a problem that today has become a crisis.

    Here’s how The Huffington Post analyzed Barack Obama’s North Korean game plan:

    “Obama offered negotiations in his inaugural speech, but North Korea responded with missile and nuclear tests. The administration quickly changed to a policy of strategic patience, essentially a commitment to denuclearization as a precondition for talks, conducted in close alliance with Seoul and the other members of the Six-Party Talks.

    Ultimately, the nuclear test and rocket launch this year prove that the Obama administration was no more successful than its predecessors in stopping the progress of North Korea’s weapons development.

    This from Newsweek:

    President Donald Trump’s chosen words and terse manner as he delivered his threatening message Tuesday to North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un has led to significant backlash, as many worry that the president’s rhetoric brings the U.S. closer to war on the Korean Peninsula.

    But Trump, who throughout his public and now political life has been well known to go off-script, most certainly was not the first U.S. president to use such hyperbolic language or threats toward the North or its leader at the time.

    Indeed, Trump inherited the global threat that is North Korea not only from his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, but also from Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And the truth is the country’s last three commanders in chief have all used various forms of diplomacy, strong language and even direct communication with North Korean leaders only to end up making little to no progress.”

    And this analysis (which will never, ever appear in one of Mr. Littwin’s columns) from Thomas H. Lee, professor of International Law at Fordham University and a former Naval intelligence officer:

    “because of Trump’s “somewhat unhinged, off the cuff rhetoric,” North Korea, China and Russia actually believe a military strike on the North is possible, which in turn led the two other superpowers to agree to the most recent United Nations’ sanctions against Kim Jong Un’s regime. That’s a kind of power or leverage Obama’s administration didn’t necessarily possess or effectively convey.”

    And what was Mr. Littwin’s reaction to Barack Obama last year when he said “We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals”? Mr. Littwin had no reaction because, true to form, he simply ignored it.

    But to demonstrate how unserious Mr. Littwin’s column is he posits this scenario: “But what if Kim does, as threatened, fire the missiles that land 20 miles from Guam?” Does Mr. Littwin honestly believe North Korea possesses the technological expertise and capability to fire missiles that would intentionally land 20 miles short of Guam? That’s not brinksmanship, that’s suicide. If North Korea aims missiles at Guam they were intended to hit Guam and the response should be the same as if they did.

    And here’s where Mr. Littwin shows his true color (hint: it rhymes with mellow): “There is the option of accepting a nuclear North Korea and moving from there.”

    In other words, appeasement or, as Obama called it “strategic patience”.

    Mr. Littwin should stick to writing about things he actually understands like, well, ……………..

    November 08, 2016

    “’Cause I don’t have no use
    For what you loosely call the truth” – Tina Turner

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