The Trump administration was actually making headway on a national security issue that has bedeviled recent presidents: North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, shepherded the toughest economic sanctions yet against Kim Jong Un’s regime on Saturday, with the support of China and Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been building a “peaceful pressure” coalition for weeks, started a key diplomatic tour in Asia on Sunday.
Then President Donald Trump blew it all up with a few reckless words, threatening to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea.
As key advisers were forced Wednesday to clarify what our policy actually is, his comments Tuesday were described as off the cuff. They came hours after a news report that North Korea has succeeded in producing a miniature nuclear warhead, possibly to put on top of an ICBM that could conceivably reach California and the rest of the West Coast, even though if Trump had been listening to his intelligence briefings he already knew that.
By escalating unnecessarily, our hothead commander-in-chief has worsened the most serious foreign policy crisis of his young presidency. That’s one big problem.
The other is that Trump doesn’t have the trust of the American people for the possibly life-and-death decisions ahead. Because this president and his top aides have lied and misled so much, Trump’s credibility is at a low point. Only 24 percent of Americans say they trust all or most of what comes out of the White House. In another poll out this week, only 35 percent express confidence in Trump to handle North Korea.
So if the last resort of military action must happen, it will be far more difficult for Trump to make the case to the public and Congress and be believed. And if the leaders of our allies don’t trust what Trump says, that only makes matters worse.
Republicans and Democrats alike rightly criticized his “fire and fury” riff, while Trump’s defenders argued that his tough talk and unpredictability were aimed at deterring North Korea and pressuring China to do more. We certainly hope Trump’s interpreters are right. But when nuclear weapons and someone as unstable as Kim are involved, miscalculations could cost tens of thousands if not millions of lives.
With bellicose rhetoric very similar to North Korea’s, Trump set a “red line” of any more threats, even though that’s what the Kim regime does. The president is in danger of boxing himself into a forceful response.
But there are many, many diplomatic options to play out before considering military action, much less a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Even without an all-out war, any military operation would risk tens of thousands of civilian casualties; Seoul, a city of 10 million, is well within range of North Korean artillery. There are also 23,500 U.S. service members in Korea, plus 39,000 in Japan and 6,000 on Guam, which North Korea has threatened to obliterate in response to Trump.
Americans and our allies can hope that the current and former generals around Trump will calm him down. He needs to let them and his diplomats do their jobs. It’s essential that his administration speak with one voice on North Korea – without the dangerous distraction of the president popping off because he saw something on TV.