National security adviser H.R. McMaster in July. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

CNN reports:

White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said in an interview Tuesday that the United States doesn’t want to risk coexisting with a nuclear North Korea.

“We can’t tolerate that risk,” he told CBS in an interview Tuesday morning. “If North Korea has a nuclear weapon, who are you going to try to prevent getting one? Look at the regime, the hostility of this regime to the whole world.”

When asked whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s high profile disagreements with President Donald Trump undermines him when working overseas, McMaster said no.

“The President has made very clear that on North Korea for example, now is not the time to talk,” McMaster responded. “And what he means is, there can’t be negotiations under these current conditions … The problem is now that their programs have advanced so far we don’t have time to do that again and so we can’t repeat the failed pattern of the past.”

This is frightful on multiple levels.

First, by all accounts, North Korea has a nuclear weapon — several of them. That means, if McMaster is to be believed, the grounds for going to war exist right now. “What’s disturbing here, beyond the fact that North Korea already has nuclear weapons, is that the implication of General McMaster’s remarks is that the choice is binary: either Pyongyang gives up nuclear weapons, or we forcibly eliminate them,” frequent Trump critic Eliot Cohen says in email to us. “They won’t do the former, which means that we are stuck with the latter, i.e., war.”

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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