December 08, 2017

Trump’s Scare Tactics on North Korea Scare Us

Source: New York Times


North Korea’s launch last week of a type of missile that may soon be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States mainland set off the Trump administration on a troubling new trajectory.

In the space of a week:

  • Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, warned that tensions with North Korea made it an “open question” whether American athletes would be able to compete in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. (The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, later said that while there had been no official decision on participating, “the goal is to do so.”)
  • Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, said the risk of war with North Korea was “increasing every day, which means that we are in a race, really, we are in a race to be able to solve this problem.”
  • Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican leader on national security, warned that “we’re getting close to a military conflict” and that the Pentagon should stop sending the families of the 28,000 American troops in South Korea to live with them at military bases there.

The bellicose comments come against the backdrop of air force drills the United States and South Korea began on Monday with plans to simulate strikes on North Korean nuclear and missile testing sites. Although part of an annual exercise, the maneuvers involved an unusually fearsome array of American warplanes, including B1-B Lancer bombers and the largest deployment of stealth aircraft to South Korea, F-35 Lightning II fighters and F-22 Raptors.

It’s all in line with President Trump’s previous threats to unleash “fire and fury” and to “totally destroy North Korea.” The administration hopes to scare North Korea into giving up its arsenal of at least 20 nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. The administration is placing inordinate faith in China, North Korea’s main trading partner, to ratchet up the pressure by cutting off fuel supplies to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, if not to its knees.

The nuclear program must be the only thing that matters to North Koreans, because millions are starving for it.

Whatever the goal, the rhetoric is disturbingly reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s propaganda campaign that prepared America for war against Saddam Hussein. Outside experts are increasingly concluding that the Trump administration’s threats may not be empty and that officials are seriously contemplating attacking North Korea and its nuclear weapons and missile arsenal.

“Most Americans don’t realize how close we are to this war,” Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois who lost both her legs while serving in Iraq, told Vox.

A recent Congressional Research Service report concluded that any military move could have “catastrophic consequences” for the Korean Peninsula, Japan and the region, resulting in “tens of thousands of casualties in South Korea” alone; possible use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by North Korea; and intervention by China.

That slaughter is alarming enough, but administration officials reportedly have also convinced themselves they can keep North Korea from retaliating, a dubious proposition. “I have strong reason to believe this is not an act,” Jon Wolfsthal, a former security adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted. “There are still people at the very top who believe certain military action, even now, can prevent North Korea from threatening the U.S. They are dangerously deluded.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis showed welcome prudence and levelheadedness when he seemed to implicitly rebuke General McMaster and Senator Graham in comments to reporters this week and stressed efforts to “resolve this with diplomatic means.” Mr. Mattis endorsed efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, to arrange a multination meeting of foreign ministers in Vancouver, British Columbia, next month to explore diplomatic options on North Korea. And his Pentagon denied it had plans to evacuate thousands of American military dependents from South Korea, which would be interpreted as a sign that America expected military action and would feel to South Korea, an ally, like abandonment.

While North Korea’s dash to become a nuclear power was well underway before Mr. Trump got to the White House, the program is now far more advanced and dangerous, and he cannot ignore it. But military action is not the answer when there is still a chance that diplomacy (backed by tougher sanctions) and deterrence can contain the threat.

By:  Editorial Board