It is hard to say the world has been peaceful over the last 6 months, but it has more or less maintained the status quo. That’s been the only sigh of relief in the Trump Administration. The terror has been his rampage against our democracy, both by who he is and the actions of his administration, namely the DOJ. He hasn’t, as we say, been “tested”.
North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment.
That Washington Post story was just the first terrifying news of the day. The second was the reaction of Donald Trump.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Now. North Korea having the capability to launch nuclear missiles is not Donald Trump’s fault, despite his belligerence and incompetence. It was not Barack Obama’s fault. It wasn’t even absolutely the fault of George W. Bush, who pulled out of a treaty and essentially ignored NK while they developed their first weapon.
In some ways, this was inevitable. There is a limit to the force the international community can put on a country that is content to be lawless and ignore, when needed, the basic needs of its citizens. The regime calculates exactly what pressure it can withstand internally and externally. It knows China doesn’t want it to collapse, and the military might it projects, no matter how briefly, onto Seoul makes the thought of war nearly unbearable.
That isn’t to say it had to play out this way, and I am sure that actual NK experts could have gamed out other scenarios. But what happened, with NK consistently pushing the envelope and withstanding sanctions, was probably the most likely one. Options were very few.
To say that Donald Trump doesn’t understand this is redundant; he doesn’t understand anything. He knows nothing about North Korea except that he could maybe get a better deal there, whatever that means. And he knows nothing about history or military strategy. He just knows that he needs to sound tough.
In a way, there is a case to be made for his rhetoric today. Right now, we are playing a very delicate game, where the regime needs to be appeased, and hopefully back down. In order to do that, they have to be convinced that they have crossed a very dangerous line and that they are in existential danger. Because Kim Jong Un isn’t a madman. He’s done an incredible job of maintaining and consolidating power despite being seen as a weak poof when entering office. And he’s not suicidal.
So the trick is to convince him that he needs that pushing this further would be suicidal while hoping that new sanctions, including by Russia and China, work (getting them on–board with sanctions is more a matter of North Korean intransigence and menace, but if the Trump admin wants to claim a diplomatic victory, I’m happy to give it to them. It isn’t entirely unearned). But you want to do this without stumbling into war.
That’s what frightens me. Going to the brink only works if you think the other guy is going to blink. It only works if you know the exact level of menace you can enact without crossing the line into actual nuclear war. You have to understand your enemy, and you have to act with a level head while pretending not to.
Both sides are doing this. One is led by a child dictator (who while not a madman can’t be seen as a genius, either). The other is led by a monomaniacal know-nothing who thinks he’s tough. This is very delicate, and I don’t know if Un has the ability to play it right. I know Trump doesn’t.
There are a few mitigating factors. One is that, despite some hysteria, I do think Trump knows that nuclear war is bad. He’s not eloquent about it, and he sometimes likes to talk about it like it is NBD, but that’s just to seem tough. I think he’d be too scared to pursue things. I also think he’s too lazy to really want to do anything other than issue tough-sounding statements. He wants to outsource actual problems to other people. that Kelly, Mattis, McMaster, et al have a protocol to keep him from doing something
And, if I am wrong on that, I’m banking (hoping, even praying) that Kelly, Mattis, McMaster, et al have a protocol to keep him from doing something catastrophic.
But even these comforts are really very cold. He is the President, and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He has to be taken seriously, even if he shouldn’t be. What he says and does matters, and he doesn’t know anything, refuses to learn anything, and acts entirely based on how he thinks it will make him look.
This is the real horror of the idiot Presidency. That nuclear war depends, to a large or small extent, but inarguably to some extent, on the most shallow, vain, and ignorant man in American public life, and maybe overall. This is the terror wrought because some people want to piss off liberals.
They’ll cheer for him with this. They’ll think this ridiculous baby is tough. I hope it works, obviously. I hope that the new sanctions force Un to back down while saving face. But Trump is making it nearly impossible for him to have a face-saving out. And that’s when things start to explode.