Carrying out a strategy of nuclear brinkmanship against North Korea without allowing it to veer into catastrophe would require a sober-minded, well-prepared and emotionally mature president at the helm.
We do not have that president. We have this one:
That Friday tweet comes after President Trump’s warning on Wednesday that he would inflict “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea continues to threaten the United States. It comes after his subsequent statement Thursday that maybe his “fire and fury” comment had underplayed the situation and hadn’t been tough enough. It also comes after reassurances leaked from saner voices inside the White House that Trump’s initial rhetoric had been impulsive, unplanned and not to be taken all that seriously.
Those voices of relative reason have since fallen silent.
It is possible, I suppose, that this is all part of some elaborate, well-staged plan to address the North Korea problem, and that the White House has this thing fully under its control. But ask yourself: Has this White House shown itself the slightest bit capable of hatching, let alone executing, an elaborate, well-staged plan on any issue? The ad hoc nature of Trump’s comments, combined with confusing, contradictory statements from the State Department, compound the sense that they’re just making this up on the fly.
Then there’s the president’s comments about Iran on Thursday.
“They are not in compliance with the (nuclear) agreement and they certainly are not in the spirit of the agreement in compliance,” Trump said, “and I think you’ll see some very strong things taking place if they don’t get themselves in compliance.”
There is no evidence that Iran is not in compliance. The International Atomic Energy Association, the official monitor of the Iran deal, has certified that Iran remains in compliance. Trump’s own administration has certified the same. More crucially at the moment, if you intend to carry out a serious, carefully thought-through policy of brinkmanship with North Korea, it would be exceedingly foolish to simultaneously pick a renewed fight with Iran and with our allies who helped craft the Iranian deal.
Yet that’s what we’re doing.
This is a bad mistake. In a confrontation like this, you want to preserve your entire range of options, including peaceful and diplomatic options, and you want to leave your opponent with options as well. You want both sides to have an escape route, a means to withdraw from confrontation without humiliation. Trump is in the process of ensuring that neither side has those options.
And while backing down would be difficult at this point for Trump, it is almost impossible for Kim Jung-on. His regime’s very existence depends on never showing weakness or fear. The likelihood that it will now turn into a docile little citizen of the world order, surrendering either its nuclear or missile capability, is nil.
And once begun, of course, war becomes a spiral of chaos. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would likely be killed in the opening hours, a toll that would rise to multiple millions if the fighting goes nuclear. China could also get drawn into the struggle, because it is not likely to sit back and watch as the United States conquers its North Korean client state in a region that it considers its own.
Now, it’s true that brinkmanship can be and has been used successfully by previous U.S. administrations. In fact, the strategy was given its name back in the heart of the Cold War era, when it was formalized by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. It was Dulles who, in a Life magazine profile, laid it out in blunt terms:
“The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”
In 1954-55, when China was threatening to invade and claim the islands of Quemoy and Matsu off the coast of Taiwan, Dulles put that strategy to work by warning the Chinese that if they attacked those islands, they would be met with the full force of American military power, including perhaps atomic weapons, against the Chinese mainland. The Chinese thought about it, weighed what they hoped to gain against what they had to lose, and then abandoned their invasion plans.
But consider the circumstances. Dulles was a seasoned statesman, with a good read on his opponents. His grandfather and uncle had both served as secretaries of state. His brother was the director of the CIA. Dulles himself had 35 years of diplomatic experience by the time he became secretary of state.
Today, we have former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson in that role.
We also have no ambassador to South Korea, because the Trump administration hasn’t bothered to nominate one yet. At the State Department we have no assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs; at the Defense Department, we have no assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs. In both cases, the Trump administration also hasn’t bothered to nominate anyone.
Now let’s look up the chain of command. The president to whom Dulles reported was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had served as supreme commander of allied forces in World War II. Eisenhower had seen war first hand; as a leader and a warrior, he had nothing that he needed to prove to anyone. His strengths as a military leader had been his judgment, his willingness to prepare and plan, and his calm demeanor that instilled confidence in others. He carried those attributes with him into the White House.
In short, he was everything that Donald Trump is not, and vice versa.
In the case of Quemoy and Matsu, those attributes — experience at top levels, careful planning and a demeanor that inspired confidence — made the policy of brinkmanship successful. Before confronting the Chinese, for example, Dulles and Eisenhower had sought a resolution of support from Congress, so that there would be no question about American unity and will. That resolution passed by strong bipartisan votes of 85 to 3 in the Senate and 409 to 3 in the House, giving Eisenhower the vote of confidence he needed.
Again, that’s a stark contrast with Trump, who is battling leaders of his own party even as he also takes on North Korea, Iran, the media, pollsters, his own Justice Department, his own State Department, our European allies, the FBI and just about everyone not named Vladimir Putin or Sean Hannity.
In short, he is not a man who picks his battles carefully or strategically. To him, conflict is not a necessary evil or a means to an end, it is his natural state of existence. And as president of the United States and commander in chief, he has been given the authority to drag the whole country, maybe even the whole world, along with him. This could get rough.