Senator to Donald Trump: Americans Deserve to Know the Costs of a North Korea Conflict
In a letter to the president, Tammy Duckworth cites the lack of debate before she was deployed to Iraq—and insists that it not happen again.
This morning, Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic senator from Illinois, wrote Donald Trump to demand an accounting of what the president and his advisers mean when they talk, with growing urgency these days, of “military options” against North Korea and its nuclear-weapons program. “We must never allow the consequences of war to be hidden from Americans,” she asserts in a letter obtained exclusively by The Atlantic.
Duckworth, a retired lieutenant colonel, lost her legs in 2004 when Iraqi insurgents shot down her Blackhawk helicopter. “When my colleagues start beating the drums of war, I want to be there, standing on my artificial legs under the great Capitol dome, to remind them what the true costs of war are,” Duckworth pledged a couple years ago.
Now the war drums are sounding, however faintly: Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, while administration officials have suggested that initiating a potentially catastrophic conflict on the Korean peninsula might be preferable to allowing Kim Jong Un to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States.
And Duckworth is standing up. On Tuesday, she announced her support for legislation that would restrict the president’s powers to take military action against North Korea without congressional authorization. On Wednesday, in her letter to the president, she argued that the U.S. government must avoid the wishful thinking and willful blindness that characterized the run-up to the Iraq War—and instead reckon honestly and openly with the possible economic and human toll of using military force.
“I fear the country is being deprived of an accurate assessment of what war against [North Korea] would entail,” Duckworth writes. “I am requesting you act swiftly to provide the public with declassified estimates of potential casualties, costs and a range of end states that could result from a limited or full-scale war against” North Korea. (A recent report by the Congressional Research Service noted that tens or hundreds of thousands of people could die in the first days of fighting on the Korean peninsula, even if no nuclear weapons are used. When I put this question to experts last spring, the casualty estimates ranged wildly from the thousands to the millions, highlighting just how unknowably risky a U.S. military campaign against North Korea would be.)
At a time when a majority of Americans favor taking military action against North Korea if diplomatic efforts to reverse Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program fail, Duckworth calls for a detailed breakdown of the costs in the Trump administration’s cost-benefit analysis ahead of any preemptive or preventive war. What she’s requesting is rare in the annals of war and impossible to predict with certainty. But it’s also largely absent from the current debate in the United States about how to deal with North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear arsenal.
“Before Americans can effectively determine whether to support military action or not, they need as much information as possible,” Duckworth writes. “This entails understanding how many families will watch their children deploy overseas and never return, how long the conflict will last, how much combat operations will cost and the continuing resources that will be required over the coming decades to properly care for Veterans who return home with service-related injuries.”
By: Uri Friedman
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