Over the past six months, America has become accustomed, if not at ease, with having a president who routinely sprinkles his communications with bombastic rhetoric. But the apocalyptic threats that Donald Trump unleashed on North Korea Tuesday were beyond the pale — and beyond the bounds of reason and common sense.
It’s one thing for the president to engage in a Twitter-based tit-for-tat with lawmakers over health care or an imaginary wall along the Mexico border. But it’s quite another to threaten a country, particularly one ruled by a reckless despot, with nuclear annihilation amid the most tense global-power standoff since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world needs cool heads and firm diplomacy — not bluster.
There’s no disputing Trump’s contention that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has been “very threatening beyond a normal state.” This is particularly concerning given reports that Pyongyang has developed nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on ballistic missiles. But the president raised the stakes to dangerous heights when he told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey that North Korea’s threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended Trump’s remarks, saying that he was merely “sending a strong message.” But it’s unclear what that message was. Is he really prepared to use the nuclear option if Pyongyang continues its threats? Moreover, it’s not clear how his remark fits with his administration’s overall strategy of deterrence, if one exists. As with so many of Trump’s remarks — including his ban on transgender people in the military, which took even the Defense Department by surprise — his pronouncements often appear untethered to any working initiative. Is this part of a strategy or is it just another example of the president winging it?
Second, it also emerges at a time of immense volatility within the White House itself. In an editorial published on the same day, the right-leaning Wall Street Journal slammed senior adviser Steve Bannon for being at the root of much of the chaos in the administration including division over National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. “The former Breitbart publisher has been a White House survivor, but his warring habits have also been responsible for much of the White House dysfunction,” the editorial said. Amid all of this turmoil, is the White House even on the same page concerning North Korea let alone how to advise the president on his public comments?
In the end, it’s Trump’s choice of words that presents the greatest concern. Little is to be gained from such saber-rattling, especially in dealing with someone like Kim Jong Un who seems unwilling to back down from a war of words. This was confirmed on Wednesday when North Korea said it was “carefully examining” a plan to strike the US Pacific territory of Guam with missiles.
Tillerson tried to dial back concerns about Trump’s remarks saying that the nation should “sleep well at night.” But until Americans have assurances that cooler heads will prevail at the White House and that a preemptive nuclear strike against North Korea is not an option, nobody is likely to rest easy. Nor should they.