Opinion writer

Interviewed on ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who may miss the wise counsel of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), evidenced a bit of the foolish thinking that has gotten the United States into the position of giving Kim Jong Un an international stage — and maybe more — for nothing.

He suggested, “Peace, where we have a win-win solution; military force where they — we devastate the North Korean regime and stop their program by force; or to capitulate like we’ve done in the past.” He added, “Donald Trump is not going to capitulate, so there’s really only two options — peace or war.”

That is rubbish. We are not at war, nor do we have an entirely peaceful relationship with Pyongyang (although Trump may decide to sign a meaningless peace treaty giving Kim yet another win). War, with hundreds of thousands of American troops (as would be necessary to eliminate all nuclear weapons), the potential for hundreds of thousands of casualties and the possible destruction of South Korea’s capital, is not within the realm of possibility. Any president would have a steep road to climb to convince the Congress and public that there were no other options, or that we faced an immediate threat. With this president, it’s doubtful he’ll ever have the backing of the American people.

Graham made another ill-conceived argument: “So here’s the question for my Democratic colleagues. If diplomacy fails, will you support my efforts to authorize the use of military force as a last resort to convince North Korea and China things are going to be different this time?” For God’s sake, no! After watching Trump’s performance over the past 16 months, does anyone really trust his judgment on a matter of such consequence? If Graham does, I suspect he is one of the few who would give Trump encouragement on this front.

If the Republicans intend to take the position that a vote for them is a vote to authorize Trump to go to war with North Korea, I suspect the blue wave will become a tsunami.

Appearing on the same program, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was blunt: “I’m not ready to give an authorization for the use of military force to this president or any other one until I understand that the path for peace is not attainable.” Given that Menendez is among the most hawkish of the Democrats, I’d venture a guess that Trump wouldn’t get a single Democratic vote for use of force against North Korea.

Menendez explained, “I think success has to be defined not as a grand moment in which you say, ‘We have peace in our time’ when, in fact, we don’t have the verifiable elements of a denuclearization.” He went on, “To the extent that Kim Jong Un has already gone from international pariah to being normalized internationally, you have to say that he’s had some success here” –and therefore, Menendez might have added, has even less incentive to give up his weapons.

Let’s take a step back. Trump’s impulsivity, combined with his team’s inexperience and willingness to go along with an all-or-nothing approach, has needlessly painted the administration into a corner. If Trump can not stomach yet another diplomatic failure he will be inclined to give far more to Pyongyang than did his predecessors and receive just as little. Trump reportedly has taken human rights off the table, another concession and sign of desperation.

Given that no one seriously thinks North Korea will give up all its nuclear weapons, the administration should have avoided a leader-to-leader meeting (especially with an ignoramus as president) and begun discussions about lesser measures to reduce the threat of war. As Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations put it, “The question for China is whether it is prepared to put enough pressure on North Korea so that it accepts meaningful constraints on its nuclear and missile programs. The question for the US is whether it is willing to embrace a diplomatic outcome that stabilizes the nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula but does not resolve it for the foreseeable future.”

In other words, setting up the choice as binary between North Korea’s total denuclearization and war is a grave error. Giving Trump authority to use force would be horribly reckless. The best path, frankly, is the one we are on — gradually tightening sanctions and pressure to contain and reduce Pyongyang’s arsenal. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to set up a U.S. interests office (much as we had in Cuba) for the purpose of reducing tensions and developing a better understanding of the regime.