It was inevitable. Eventually, President Donald Trump would treat a foreign adversary as harshly as Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was on the receiving end of the alliteration heard around the world, when Trump promised “fire and fury” if Pyongyang continued to threaten the United States.
It was classic Trump—a memorably pungent expression that dominated the news cycle and probably didn’t reflect more than about 30 seconds of thought. See? It really is a working vacation.
An American president has said this kind of thing before, although, it must be noted, he was actually in the act of waging a nuclear war. Truman said of the Japanese after Hiroshima, "They may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth." And no one could doubt that he meant it.
As cable TV prepared to go to DEFCON 1, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson popped up to reassure everyone that no, the missiles weren’t about to fly and smooth everything over with a generous helping of diplo-speak.
Tillerson supported what Trump said, but at times took a tone of polite distance from the president for whom he works. “I think,” the secretary of state said, “Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.” This particular rhetoric? It was his boss and the president of the United States speaking.
Tillerson seemed to leave a little opening for the possibility that he didn’t know what was happening within the government he serves, over a foreign crisis that should be directly in his purview: “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued his own, much tougher statement. So the administration has something for everyone. You can choose the president’s bellicosity, the secretary of defense’s firmness, or the secretary of state’s palaver. Which reflects the administration’s true posture? Who knows? Does the Trump administration?
In his own mind, Trump’s intention may really be to use military force to deny North Korea the capability to threaten the United States with a nuclear-armed ICBM. The goal is obviously a worthy one, but it wouldn’t involve a no-fuss, no-muss exemplary strike of the sort the president launched against Syria.
A raid against North Korea, even one conceived as quite limited, would have the potential to spin into something much broader.
For a military operation that sober-minded people believe could, at the outer bounds of its destructiveness, cause more than a million casualties, the president should probably get authorization from Congress—when it’s not obvious that Congress can even pass a budget.
He’d need to undertake extensive war and postwar planning, working through every possible permutation and mustering all relevant agencies of the U.S. government—when it’s still in doubt whether his new chief of staff can even succeed in keeping order within the confines of the Oval Office.
He’d need to get regional allies on board for a war that could bring untold destruction to their countries—when South Korea just elected a dovish president and we don’t even have an ambassador in Seoul.
He’d need to commit himself to an enterprise that would require all of his attention in high-stress conditions for an extended period of time—when he couldn’t stick with one position on the House-passed health care bill for more than a couple of weeks.
So it’s hard to see the president cashing this particular rhetorical check.
At least Trump’s words reflect a desire to do—or at least say—something different after three decades of bipartisan failure on North Korea. His is the rhetoric of strategic impatience, and given the history, the impulse is understandable.
For years, we have pursued desultory sanctions against Pyongyang with intermittent negotiations conducted through a prism of self-delusion. The strategy of negotiating over a nuclear capability that you develop while talks are ongoing is a North Korea invention, borrowed, with great success, by the Iranians.
It’d be nice if Tillerson showed any awareness of this background as he mouths foreign-service talking points. What he is saying is completely absurd, but no one notices because it is couched in terms that the Beltway is conditioned to consider the height of thoughtfulness. According to Tillerson, we are not North Korea’s enemy, we don’t seek regime change, and we just want to sit down and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula like good, reasonable people.
One theory is that Trump and Tillerson are deliberately playing different roles. But there’s good cop/bad cop, and then there’s Keystone Kops. Some unpredictability at the top can be welcome, so long as it’s calculated unpredictability, not random popping off that catches a president’s own foreign-policy team off-guard.
The middle ground between Trump’s saber-rattling and Tillerson’s diplomatic pleading would be a comprehensive policy toward the goal of regime change. As former Bush administration official Robert Joseph argues, such a strategy would involve cutting off the North from the international financial system, interdicting its weapons trafficking, undertaking an intense information campaign publicizing its human-rights abuses, and perhaps shooting down its test missiles or instituting a blockade.
Such an approach would have its own risks—it wouldn’t be guaranteed to collapse the regime or to avoid military conflict. But at least it would be a strategy. If the Trump administration wants to really send a signal to Kim Jong Un, it should get itself together and pick one.