My hope for the new year is that the United States doesn’t bluster and blunder its way into a tragic, needless war.
My fear is that the Trump administration is capable of doing just that.
I confess to having paid less attention than I should to the increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric from the administration about the nuclear threat from North Korea. I’m not talking about President Donald Trump’s juvenile tweets calling Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man” and making fun of his weight. I mean statements by officials such as H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, who unlike the president is not known for meaningless blather.
The potential for war with North Korea “is increasing every day,” McMaster said last month at a defense forum. “Time is running out” for a peaceful solution, he declared in another public appearance. “I don’t think we can tolerate that risk” of a nuclear-armed North Korea with advanced ballistic missiles, he told CBS in an interview.
What is alarming is that the situation McMaster describes as intolerable is the situation that exists today. And while he warns that time is running out for a peaceful end to the standoff, he has also said that “there can’t be negotiations under these current conditions.”
I worry that with such absolutist rhetoric, the United States is ruling out the realistic options for peace — and putting us on a path that may lead inexorably to war.
No amount of threatening is likely to make Kim surrender his nuclear weapons, because he sees them as an insurance policy. The North Koreans watched as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein gave up their nuclear ambitions — and ended up being deposed and killed. Kim has no intention of making the same mistake.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test while George W. Bush was president, four more while Barack Obama was president and another under Trump. U.S. policy throughout has been remarkably consistent — warnings, sanctions, more warnings, more sanctions, attempts at multiparty talks — and remarkably futile.
What good does it do for McMaster to say the United States cannot tolerate what it is presently tolerating? North Korea has nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles; it may or may not be able to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile and fire it accurately. If the United States launches an attack to try to destroy those weapons or take them away, the North Korean regime almost surely would be able to fire off a response that kills many thousands or even millions.
I understand why no U.S. administration wants to be the one to accept the fact that North Korea has joined the exclusive club of nations with nuclear arsenals. But this is, indeed, a fact. Trump and his advisers need to deal with reality as it is, rather than as they would like it to be.
McMaster and others should frame the North Korea situation as a threat to be ameliorated and stop speaking in terms that should be reserved for a full-blown crisis. A threat can be dealt with over time. A crisis, however, requires urgent action — and at present there are no good options.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to his credit, has been trying to cool things down. He even offered to begin talks with the North Koreans with no preconditions, though this overture was quickly nixed by the White House. Tillerson’s instinct is the right one: Slow down, stop shouting, start talking.