Is Trump talking himself into war?“Hell is truth seen too late.” – Thomas Hobbes.
Does Pyongyang’s third ICBM test last week mark a tipping point in the U.S. policy debate and put it on a course of a U.S. military confrontation with North Korea?
If so, the fate of hundreds of thousands, including some 200,000 Americans in Greater Metropolitan Seoul on any given day, may be at stake.
Suddenly, deterrence seems to have become a dirty word. For half a century, we lived with 30,000 Soviet nuclear weapons. Since 1964, we have lived with Chinese nuclear weapons — which at the time sparked fears that crazy communist Mao Zedong shouldn’t be allowed to have them. Containment and deterrence have a spotless track record. But apparently that’s not good enough for the Trumpkins.
While it is not completely clear, at times, Trump has hinted that a North Korea with an ICBM that could deliver a nuclear weapon on a U.S. city would be an unacceptable threat and that he “would totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
But at other times, the adults in his administration, notably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have framed U.S. military action as a response to North Korean action: “Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming,” he told CNN in September.
However, Senator Lindsey Graham has the impression that mere possession of an operational ICBM would trigger a Trump military strike. After the latest ICBM test, Graham told CNN, “If we have to go to war to stop this, we will. We’re headed toward a war if things don’t change.” Trump’s national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, has suggested a “preventive war,” and said Trump “is willing to do anything necessary” to prevent North Korea from threatening the U.S. with nuclear weapons.
But there are a few little problems that those who define simply having a military capability a causis belli won’t talk about. For starters, we don’t actually know what tunnels and mountains North Korea hides its mobile ballistic missiles in. Nor do we know exactly how many nuclear weapons Kim has — or where they are. And finally, we don’t know how many UEU facilities they have to manufacture fissile material or where they all are. So, how do you destroy their nuclear and missile program — at the risk of escalation to a nuclear war — if you don’t know where most of the targets are?
But there is a more ominous problem that those advocating “preventive” or “pre-emptive” strikes don’t talk about. They essentially argue, that denuclearization efforts have failed and that it is better to strike now when Pyongyang has relatively few nukes, however horrific the consequences, than wait until it has larger arsenal and the damage would be even greater. Most estimates that have gamed a military conflict suggest that several hundred thousand may die in short order — including several thousand Americans.
But they are betting that no diplomatic outcome would be possible, sanctions or other developments won’t at some point, change Pyongyang’s behavior after a period of enhanced containment/deterrence. Either admit that or shut up. That is likely why no political leader will go near it. Recall the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy and Khrushchev went to the edge before backing down. But Trump is neither a statesman nor an ordinary politician.
It must be said that those who argue the enhancing containment and deterrence of North Korea is the least bad option also entertain risks. The deterrence case is based on the assumption that Pyongyang’s top priority is regime survival, and therefore, they would not start a war, knowing that as Trump has promised they would be “totally destroyed.” But there is concern that once Pyongyang has the ability to hit the U.S. mainland, they will seek to coerce the United States off the Korean Peninsula and perhaps coerce the ROK into unification on Kim’s terms with the threat of limited nuclear war.
“The North Koreans have shown, through their words and actions, their intention to blackmail the United States into abandoning our South Korean ally, potentially clearing the path for a second Korean War,” General McMaster has said “The president’s been very clear about it,” he said at another point. “He said he’s not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States.” McMaster has said more than once that “preventive war” may be necessary if diplomacy fails.
Americans, with a “can do” mindset, tend to think all problems have solutions in timeframes we want. But some problems can only be managed until circumstances change. But in any case, before the U.S. acts, the administration must be honest about the costs and risks.
(An earlier version of this article appered in The Hill online.)
*The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-12. Tweet: @Rmanning4
Robert A. Manning