President Trump on Tuesday issued a stern warning to North Korea, saying that if its threats to the United States continue, the outcast nation will be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Trump comments came as North Korea spurned a new round of sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council and pledged to continue to press forward with development of nuclear weapons that could reach the U.S. mainland.
The president’s rhetoric, many noted on social media, sounded a lot like what we hear out of North Korea — both foolish and unhinged. Trump’s language was swiftly criticized by politicians on both sides to the aisle. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stated: “I don’t know what he’s saying and I’ve long ago given up trying to interpret what he says.” He added, “That kind of rhetoric, I’m not sure how it helps.” He observed, “I take exception to the president’s words because you got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.” Indeed, was Trump threatening military action if Kim Jong Un made more verbal threats? If Kim conducted more missile tests?
Democrats likewise urged the president to tone it down. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) urged diplomatic engagement and chided the president. “President Trump is not helping the situation with his bombastic comments,” she said. Ben Cardin (Md.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement that read in part: “President Trump’s comments were not helpful and once again show that he lacks the temperament and judgement to deal with the serious crisis the United States confronts. We should not be engaging in the same kind of blustery and provocative statements as North Korea about nuclear war. ”
Sounding like the same kind of cartoon villain we face in Pyongyang, Trump managed only to inspire ridicule and tempt Kim to make yet another threat. (The regime suggested it was considering striking Guam.)
At a moment of nuclear brinksmanship like this, any citizen of the United States wants a few things from a leader. You want someone who they can trust to tell the truth, and who foreign leaders view as credible, so that threats and statements alike are taken seriously. You want someone who is know to able to carefully sift through a lot of evidence and assess upsides from downsides. You want someone who has a team of expert advisers whose judgment he trusts and takes seriously. And you want someone who is able to take bad news.
The problem is that Trump has none of these characteristics.
Moreover, as Graham points out, neither adversaries nor allies believe much of what Trump says. Hence, “An adversary has no idea whether to take threats from Trump seriously (to say nothing of literally). He’s a man who has made empty threats throughout his career, repeatedly threatening to sue people who say and do things he doesn’t like. In many cases, he has not followed through on those threats.” The result may be a failure to take the U.S. president seriously when he does mean it, or tragically, to overreact in ways that demand a U.S. response.
So if alarmist rhetoric and empty threats don’t work and military action would almost certainly set off a catastrophic war putting cities in South Korea, not to mention U.S. troops stationed there, in peril, what can we do?
Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration, recently advised a number of steps: “Flooding the zone” with information (designed to break the regime’s grip on information and provide dissenters with ways to counter the regime’s propaganda), emphasizing human rights and peaceful reunification, imposing sanctions on but not entirely isolating North Korea, strengthening our alliances with South Korea and other Asian democracies, and using intermediaries to warn North Korean elites. None is a quick, certain remedy, but Malinowski argues that we should recall the Cold War, when “the spread of democratic ideas and culture, aided by people-to-people ties and communications technologies, and our principled insistence on respect for human rights” were critical to victory.
Several former administration officials under President George W. Bush with whom I spoke praised that approach, not as a cure-all, but as part of a holistic approach to defusing the North Korean threat. However, one exasperated former official observed, “The Trump administration, from Trump to [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson in particular, seems to have zero understanding of the war of ideas and how we won the Cold War.”
Other critics of Trump’s foreign policy point out that there is no certain time frame for such an effort and remind us that China has emphatically resisted reunification. Former ambassador Eric Edelman cautions that “our [military] deterrent has degraded and we need to take steps to reinforce deterrence. That also requires a carefully calibrated declaratory policy, and exclamations of impending ‘fire and fury’ are not what I have in mind.” He adds, “Absent concrete steps like resuscitating the TLAM-N (nuclear-armed version of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile), opening a discussion about the possible return of other tactical nuclear systems to the peninsula, etc., the threats could end up being quite counterproductive.”
In sum, newly appointed Chief of Staff John F. Kelly this week failed to exercise the sort of discipline this White House desperately needs. He needs to carefully script the president and impress upon him the need for more modulated statements that will increase, not decrease, his stature and leverage. Whether Kelly can put together a policy process with rational steps to address the crisis remains to be seen. At the very least, however, he needs to get the president to pipe down. This isn’t merely about politics — this is about war and peace, and the danger of a novice, intemperate president making a blunder of giant proportions.