There is no pre-emptive military option against North Korea. None. No first strike, no Syria-style “surgical” message, no Israeli-style Osirak bombast, no special-ops bravura. Not unless we’re prepared for immediately triggering war and causing hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of deaths. The only justifiable attack would be in response to a North Korean first strike. And that’s not about to happen. A missile test in the area of Guam is a provocation, not an attack, and no more and no less of a provocation than a nuclear-armed U.S. sub periscoping North Korean shores from the Sea of Japan. It doesn’t count. Contrary to our president’s hallucinations, the Pacific is not an elementary school playground.
Kim Jong-un may be delusional. But he’s not suicidal. No regime devoted first and last to its own survival ever is. He could fire first. He could drop a nuclear bomb on Guam or even conventional missiles on Seoul. If he did, he would invite the sort of destruction that would assure his and his country’s end. Retaliation for a North Korean first strike would be justified, even if it went nuclear. It would have the entire world’s backing, Russia’s and China’s included. But we’re not there. We’re nowhere near. Or were nowhere near, until our own deranged president started acting like a Kim Jong-un doppelganger. Donald Trump is arming the warheads, not the other guy with the weird hair.
That doesn’t change the military option. It emphasizes the fact that there isn’t one. There is only diplomacy, and if the Korean leader isn’t interested, there is containment. There is living with risk. We lived with far worse for far longer with far more at stake during the Cold War, when we lived with the certainty of complete obliteration from Alaska to South Florida from thousands of Soviet warheads, including warheads a few miles from Flagler County’s shore, in Soviet subs. A pre-emptive strike was never considered past the demented frothings of Gen. Curtis LeMay, whose tenure as head of the Strategic Air Command gave us “Dr. Strangelove,” or the equally demented pleas by Douglas MacArthur to nuke China during the Korean War. A pre-emptive strike should not be considered against North Korea for the same reason, even if the damage may be contained to the Korean peninsula. That would not be much containment on a peninsula inhabited by 75 million people.
Unfortunately Dr. Strangelove in this case is not just a rogue commander but a president, and I’m not referring to Kim Jong-un. The threatening language Trump is using is identical to the projectile rhetoric of people like Kim Jong-un, Saddam Hussein and Nikita Khrushchev of shoe-banging fame. To ratchet down the tensions, he could start by doing something more effective than all the military power at his disposal. He could shut up.
Assuming he can be contained–a foolish assumption–that still leaves his administration wanting of a clear strategy toward North Korea. But the administration is at war internally. It is managing to look more ridiculous than Kim Jong-un’s toy-soldier dictatorship and letting Kim sneer at Trump as he calls his bluff. Deflecting blame from Trump by pretending that his “locked-and-loaded” bluster is more Trump being Trump, that it’s not to be taken literally, isn’t reassurance. To the contrary. It legitimizes what got us to this dangerous point. Words, his words, matter, whether he intends them literally or not. They’re no less dangerous if he doesn’t intend them literally. The end result is the same: they heighten the risk of miscalculation by sending the wrong signals and setting things in motion he can’t control. “We’re just operating in this world where you cannot believe the things he says,” Eliot Cohen, a former official with the State Department in the George W. Bush administration told Michiko Kakutani in a piece she wrote on Trump’s use of language, soon after his inauguration. “It will have large consequences for our allies and our adversaries, and it’s going to greatly magnify the danger of miscalculation by all kinds of people.”
That, after all, is how World War I started, from miscalculations, stupid assumptions, dogmatic posturing, as Barbara Tuchman’s “Guns of August” reminds us–the book that had just come out before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that John Kennedy had fortunately just read when he confronted Khrushchev. He knew of what Tuchman described as “the inevitable phrase when military plans dictate policy—’and once settled it cannot be altered.’” He altered what would otherwise have been a fatal course. He blinked, cautiously, resisting a mob of advisers’ pressure to bomb Cuba, Curtis LeMay among them.
To now say that Trump is a different kind of president who “tells it like it is” masks recklessness with failed marketing in hopes of covering up what we knew going in the moment he declared himself a candidate: the man is not only not fit to be president (never was), he is not capable of being president. We’ve had conventional proof by the day so far. We now have radioactive proof. He can’t even keep his secretary of state and secretary of defense on his page. He has no page. He has no idea. He blusters, he sniffs and growls, he tweets, he improvises. And he hurtles us toward war. “There was an aura about 1914 that caused those who sensed it to shiver for mankind,” Shiver for 2017.
But we have to assume–we have no choice–that if reason still has a chance in this administration, if Trump is to be reined in, if both these idiots are to be reined in, the only viable strategy remains containment.
So the immediate and obvious question is: should we be willing to sit idle and risk an attack from North Korea? The answer is: of course. It is a million times safer, wiser and more morally defensible to risk an attack that would be very unlikely anyway, than to pre-empt an attack that would replace the remote risk of a cataclysm caused by North Korea with the absolute certainty of a cataclysm caused by us. Put another way, attacking North Korea first will certainly result in a slaughter on both sides anyway, even if we “win.” The slaughter will be much worse than anything North Korea can pull off with a first strike. So risking that first strike is worth the wait, because if it comes, we’re getting our slaughter anyway. There’s no sense inviting it. Pre-emption is not self-defense. It’s an invitation to mass murder.
Retaliation for a North Korean first strike makes us the heroes. Pre-emption, no matter what the reasons are–and no rhetoric, no missile test, no threats would justify a first strike–would make us the aggressors. We would be the war criminals. We would be the instigators of genocide. We would start something we could not finish nor control, nor would want to own even if we could finish and control it: if you think a broken Iraq was impossible to rebuild after the 2003 invasion, North Korea would call for the sort of commitment that ends empires at a time when our own is already teetering thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of course China is sitting all this out. It’s the spectator to what would be America’s spectacular downfall, as this military “win” against North Korea would be–economically, politically, morally. All because of what one military analyst yesterday on CNN described as a pimple on America’s ass. He was referring to North Korea, though the description looks tragically appropriate for the man with America’s nuclear codes.
Trump wants his war. He wants something to pull him out of that 38 percent approval cellar no president in history has known in his first year. His election may have been legitimate. His presidency no longer is. The crime clotting his motives is that he’s willing to go this far, to risk a catastrophe on an inhuman scale to salve his unpopularity, to stroke his bruised ego while masking the bruises as an affront to American pride.
But not even the generals see North Korea’s taunts as an affront. Nor does Congress. Nor does the mass of Americans.No one does, because Kim Jung-un is a zero, a never been, a mascot with nukes. Only an equal could elevate his status to something seemingly–not truly–threatening. Trump has. Let’s hope the generals have the moral sense to disobey his orders to strike, should he tweet them.