War with North Korea Would Be Trump's Worst Decision Yet
In an effort to make his second year in office possibly his last after the world goes up in flames, President Donald Trump and national security advisor H.R. McMaster are pushing a “bloody nose” military strike against Kim Jong-Un. The plan entails bombing a North Korean weapons facility in an effort to show the Kim regime the cost of advancing toward a nuclear weapon capable of attacking the U.S.
Those who confuse war with a lively boxing match appear to believe that Kim is not likely to retaliate to such a hit, especially from the heavyweight champion U.S. As Micah Zenko, senior fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House has pointed out, that’s insane. To preventatively attack a regime predicated on the destruction of the United States, and gamble on its refusal to retaliate is naively dangerous. This could easily end up getting millions of people killed. It could even spark one of those apocalyptic nightmare Cold War scenarios that eventually doom the human race.
A group of writers at New York Magazine recently debated whether Trump was the worst president of all time. This was sparked by conservative commentator George Will’s argument in the affirmative, due to Trump’s endorsement of defeated Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. While it is premature to make such judgments, there is one thing that could kick his nomination into hyperdrive: his recklessness with North Korea. His seeming insistence on a military conflict that would lead to, by his own Defense Secretary’s reckoning, “the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetime” should disturb us more than Trump’s endless vulgarities and taunting tweets.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has persisted in refining his country’s nuclear capability in the face of international condemnation. Prompting heated rhetoric from Trump in reply, at one point promising “fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before” if North Korea continued to threaten the United States.
The U.S. has always traded barbs with the Kim family, but as the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos writes, this time feels different: “[t]he crisis has been hastened by fundamental changes in the leadership on both sides.” Kim Jong-un has tested twice as many missiles as his father and grandfather combined. Trump has expressed an openness to “preventive war,” and has reportedly told aides that “I will be judged how I handle this.” Suggesting a troubling aversion to backing down. Furthermore, Trump has an unsubtle desire to be perceived as great. American presidents who preside over a war poll favorably, and 75 percent of Americans see the North Korean nuclear program as a “major threat.”
George W. Bush called the Hermit Kingdom one-third of the Axis of Evil but was too distracted by other wars to pursue more than sanctions and frantic negotiations, even as Pyongyang persisted in their nuclear program. During the Clinton administration, plans were made to take out their burgeoning program but were abandoned over fears of starting a full war. President Obama said that North Korea would be the greatest foreign policy challenge of Trump’s administration. If Trump feels the urge to “fix” something he could spin as a failure of his predecessors, many of whom are Democrats, what or who would stop him?
Anonymous sources within the administration have leaked news recently of White House plans for a “bloody nose” attack that would show the U.S. is serious about stopping North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, which officials believe can be executed with retaliation. Senator Tammy Duckworth told Vox that the military is positioning itself to be ready when, and if, the command to attack comes in. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that diplomatic efforts will continue until “the first bomb drops.” It may all be fanciful bluster, but given Trump’s behavior and his political insecurities, we should not assume a first strike is out of the realm of possibility, or that his manner will not convince Kim that he means it, leading again to disaster.
The Korean War lasted three years, though technically it never ended, and was just set on pause for 60 years. The U.S. tends to dub it “the forgotten war,” even though some 33,000 American troops lost their lives and serious consideration given to the prospect of using nukes. More to the point, perhaps, more than 2.5 million Koreans died, and there has been a sizeable U.S. troop presence since on the southern peninsula. The north, meanwhile, has continually stewed over what it dubs American crimes. Though the country had been squashed by the Kim family and the cult of Juche since before the war, there are plenty of real horrors delivered by the U.S. that older North Koreans might remember first-hand. In short, we forgot
The Trump administration’s current fixation with “doing something” is based on the idea that a nuclear North Korea with an intercontinental capability (which they don’t yet have) would pose an imminent threat to the U.S., and is not subject to traditional theories of deterrence. According to this thinking, Kim Jong-un is a madman, a Joker-like character eager to watch the world burn. Stalwart hawk Senator Lindsey Graham said as much in a recent interview with the Atlantic.
But as James Acton, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, Kim is not “ . His actions since assuming North Korea’s leadership appear carefully designed to further his own interests.” Every leader, no matter how unhinged, extreme, or eager to possess nuclear weapons desperately wish to survive for another day, even if their country is imperiled as a result. Famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg even argues that it makes perfect sense for Kim to try to get and keep a few nukes so that he can have some bargaining chips on the world stage.
The risks of launching a preventive war far outweigh the risks of deterrence. Limited engagement is most likely impossible. North Korea possesses one of the largest artillery arsenals in the world, so a first strike would be met with an all-out assault on the south. One Pentagon estimate puts the number of people dead at close to one million, and that’s assuming nuclear weapons are not used. The presence of U.S., South Korean, and North Korean armies would mean “over 2 million mechanized forces, all converging on a total battle space the equivalent of the distance between Washington, D.C., and Boston ."
Back in February, Trump drew ire from across the political spectrum for defending Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian grip on Russia in an interview with now disgraced, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, saying “[y]ou think our country’s so innocent?” That moment of near self-awareness, and awareness of America’s, shall we say, occasional lack of greatness is intriguing.
The pundits and the press are right that Trump is an inept leader. But Trump is right that America has sins to confess. Going to war with North Korea would rank among its worst.
Jerrod A. Laber is a writer and Free Society Fellow with Young Voices.
Lucy Steigerwald is a journalist and an editor at Young Voices. Her twitter is @lucystag