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.