Hey, remember how a few weeks ago I worried that “the Trump national security team seems convinced that North Korea cannot be deterred, and war is the inevitable outcome”? Throughout the holiday break, more stories and columns dribbled out sounding similar themes. I talked to a few more people inside the administration who evinced similar concerns.
I am far from certain about this hypothesis, however, and nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis sounded more sanguine writing about this in Foreign Policy late last month:
I think the Trumpkins are bluffing. They are, to borrow a Soviet phrase, just trying to “rattle the pots and pans,” hoping to frighten North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and China’s Xi Jinping. Of course, they may still get us all killed.
Nobody around Trump — not John Kelly, not H.R. McMaster, nobody — has the slightest idea how to fix the problem of North Korea. But they do know what the boss likes to hear. And he doesn’t want to see them on Fox & Friends admitting that there isn’t anything to be done about North Korea. …
The most likely scenario is still that we’ll muddle through without a nuclear war in 2018, and I’ll crow that McMaster and others were bluffing all along. And it will only be years later that Jim Mattis or someone writes a memoir letting us know that every day was a battle to stop McMaster from starting a nuclear war or that Trump kept asking for the launch codes.
This is certainly a possibility, and others have raised this point as well. It’s almost exactly how I felt in the summer. And it might even be true that some elements of the Trump administration *COUGH* McMaster *COUGH* are trying to use bluster like this to simultaneously please the commander-in-chief and bluff their way into North Korea making concessions.
Such a gambit requires pinpoint signaling, however. When I started writing this last night, I was prepared to marshal all the available evidence that the Trump foreign policy team is too dysfunctional to communicate this message effectively. There was Susan Glasser’s very disturbing Politico essay, in which she concluded, “I’ve come to believe that when it comes to Trump and the world, it’s not better than you think. It’s worse.” There was H.R. McMaster admitting to the New York Times’s Mark Landler that the president “has moved a lot of us out of our comfort zone, me included.” Or there was Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei’s post in Axios suggesting that Trump would be even less constrained on North Korea in 2018 than in his first year in office:
Trump seems most interested in discussing military options on North Korea in these meetings. He is surrounded by advisers who share his concern about the rogue state, but not his fixation on a military strike.
And some top officials have told us Trump’s belligerent rhetoric on the subject makes them nervous.
There is a reason the harshest assessments of Trump usually leak after North Korea meetings.
But, of course, as I was writing this, Donald Trump made my job that much easier:
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
In this tweet, Trump was
compensating for some personal inadequacies responding to Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day speech, in which he warned that, “The whole of [the U.S.] mainland is within the range of our nuclear strike and the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time; the United States needs to be clearly aware that this is not merely a threat but a reality.” In that same speech, however, Kim was far more cordial toward South Korea, proposing a dialogue.
While Seoul has responded positively, the Trump administration has not as Choe Sang-hun writes in the Times:
Speaking at the United Nations on Tuesday, the United States Ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, appeared to dismiss the potential for bilateral negotiations between North and South Korea.
“We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea,” she said. “We consider this to be a very reckless regime, we don’t think we need a Band-Aid; we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.”
It is a low bar, but at this moment in time Kim Jong Un is acting like a more mature person than the president of the United States. Even Lewis acknowledges this fact.
The problem is not that president Trump will escalate from puerile tweet to launching an attack later this month. Maybe tweets like these are just Trump’s way of venting frustration; remember, there is no button.
The problem is that tweets like these, combined with the administration’s past rhetoric, escalatate the number of pathways through which a war can break out. Whether it is a conscious preventive strike, or the North Koreans overestimating the likelihood of a preventive strike, or simply a border skirmish that neither side will back don from, the odds of an actual conflict keep going up.
It looks more and more dubious that Trump’s national security advisers know how to persuade him not to stumble his way into a conflict with North Korea. And Trump’s inability to coerce North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons will only cause him to make even more outlandish threats.
Or, to sum up: