President Trump disparages the idea of diplomatic negotiations with North Korea. He went to the United Nations and vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” (not just its military capacity). The Senate and our top commanders have been buzzing about whether a first strike order from Trump would be illegal and hence could be ignored.

One element missing from the discussion is whether the American people would support such action. This is not an incidental concern. If public opinion runs against a preemptive action, Congress and the military will be far more inclined to restrict the president or even defy him. If the public is persuaded that we cannot live with a North Korea that can strike the United States with nuclear weapons on intercontinental ballistic missiles, Trump will be much more likely to take action.

The good news is that Trump has done little to persuade the public of the merits of preemptive action, which in the context of North Korea would likely entail mass destruction and human causalities on a scale not seen since World War II. The bad news is that they don’t seem adamantly opposed to it, which is surprising given the experience of the Iraq War, when preemptive military action turned out to be based on erroneous intelligence.

Half say using military force against countries that may seriously threaten the U.S. – but have not attacked it – can often (12%) or sometimes (38%) be justified, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in October. About as many (48%) say such pre-emptive use of military force can rarely (28%) or never (20%) be justified.
A recent report by the Center found that the share of Americans who see North Korea’s nuclear program as a major threat to the U.S. is as high as at any point since 2005. A separate report found that growing shares of Americans think the regime in Pyongyang is capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear missile and willing to follow through on threats to do so.

Nevertheless, the public is more sober than it used to be.

In November 2009, during President Barack Obama’s first year in office and amid debate about drawing down U.S. troop levels in Iraq, 52% of Americans said the use of pre-emptive military force by the U.S. was sometimes or often justified, compared with 41% who said it was rarely or never justified (8% did not offer a view). The share who say pre-emptive military force is rarely or never justified is up 7 percentage points from 2009.

As one might expect the partisan gap is wide with nearly 70 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners saying, “the use of force against countries that may seriously threaten the U.S. but have not attacked it can often or sometimes be justified.” Among Democrats and Democratic leaners 61 percent say, “it can rarely or never be justified.”  That number was only 48 percent under Obama.

Frankly, responsible politicians and officials have done a poor job of explaining the stakes to the American people and the scope of destruction we are talking about. It behooves Congress to conduct some oversight hearings to illustrate and debate the human toll that would result from preemptive military action (nuclear or conventional). In the abstract, a preemptive strike can sound clean, surgical and efficient. In reality, hundreds of thousands would likely die and the counterstrikes North Korea is likely to launch could destroy Seoul, Tokyo and other major cities.

Those concerned about errant action by the president and obliviousness on the part of voters should start educating the public about the real stakes here — before it is too late to reverse momentum in favor of a military “solution.”