Second, reiterating that diplomacy is not an acceptable route right now puts us at odds with our allies, most particularly South Korea, where officials understand the only viable option for their population is a negotiated agreement. McMaster’s remarks are also at odds with what his boss said just last month. In a joint statement with Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-in, Trump declared:
President Trump and President Moon pledged to maintain close consultation, coordination, and cooperation on North Korea policy. The two presidents urged North Korea to abandon its illicit weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs, which deepen its diplomatic isolation and economic hardship. The two presidents affirmed their full support and commitment to the coordinated global pressure to bring North Korea back to authentic and credible denuclearization talks.
If talks are not in the cards, someone should tell South Korea.
Third, if McMaster is serious, he’s committing the United States to war, one that would entail the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and have vast geopolitical repercussions throughout the region. Some think that this is precisely what McMaster and others in the administration intend. “I don’t think McMaster misspoke,” former State Department official Max Bergmann, now with the Center for American Progress, emailed Right Turn. “The war drums over at the Pentagon are pounding in a way we haven’t seen since the run up to the Iraq invasion. With the President being Trump and with the State Department on the sidelines, there is also no one to hold back can-do Generals waving around a plan.” He adds, “Not all problems have solutions and unless they have some Ocean’s 11-style operation up their sleeves to take out the regime (which they don’t), we are bumbling into a major catastrophe.”
Now a more benign explanation is that U.S. policy has always been that we will not “accept” a nuclear-armed North Korea. In that sense McMaster can claim he is technically being consistent with past presidents. However, the words are not precisely the same and the music is altogether different. For one thing, saying that we rule out negotiations and simultaneously won’t tolerate the weapons logically compels one to conclude war is the only way out of this, a conclusion that seems to be under serious consideration in an administration dominated by generals and ex-generals.
It is not hard to see how a nuanced policy with some chance of success becomes an unhinged march to war. “I mean, [Trump] is still incredibly erratic and unpredictable,” says Max Boot in a Politico interview. “And you see that now with the saber-rattling that he’s engaged in with North Korea. I mean, I can actually approve of some of his North Korea policy, the sanctions, for example, doing things that other presidents would have done. But it’s impossible to imagine any other president going before the U.N. General Assembly and referring to the dictator of North Korea as ‘Rocket Man,’ or issuing this series of blustery threats, which, frankly, are terrifying, and are raising the risk of a needless war.”
With Trump, the distinct possibility always exists that he doesn’t mean (or understand) what he is saying and his advisers who parrot him don’t speak authoritatively on foreign policy. (No one can with a president like this.) That leaves us hoping Trump, as he often does, has no intention of carrying through on his rhetoric. Cohen in that same Politico interview explains:
Chinese are not going to bail us out of this one, and there’s basically a binary choice. And the binary choice is either he backs down on things that he and his subordinates have said about, you know, that we’re going to denuclearize the peninsula. And that, by the way, would be a bigger climb down than Obama’s red line in Syria, which was a debacle in itself. A bigger debacle here because those nukes are pointed at us. Or we go to war. And that . . .would be an unnecessary war, and it could also be both extraordinarily destructive in the immediate sense of civilians getting killed and whatnot, but also in terms of international politics in the region, and all over the globe.
In other words, the best-case scenario is that Trump has made a red-line blunder far worse than President Barack Obama’s about-face.
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