Since I’ve made my living through writing of various kinds, and have been blogging furiously here for the last few years, I’m not often at a loss for words. This morning was (briefly) one of those exceptions, when I began reading a Washington Post Outlook article titled “This is how nuclear war with North Korea would unfold.” My verbal paralysis came not from the military details of the scenario presented by prominent arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis. It came from the author’s disgraceful effort to pin much of the blame for the nightmare scenario he lays out on President Trump. The only word I literally could come up with was “unspeakable.”
At least Lewis didn’t portray Mr. Trump as an unhinged leader who, out of a simple fit of pique, decided needlessly to trigger a disastrous nuclear exchange that winds up killing millions on both sides of the Pacific. But for being subtler and (arguably) more sophisticated, this example of Trump Derangement Syndrome was all the more insidious.
Specifically, according to the author, it’s completely legitimate to suppose that, at a key point in the escalation of hostilities on the Korean peninsula, the president will turn a fraught situation into an unprecedented and nearly irretrievable disaster. How? With “an idle Twitter threat” that convinces North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un that both the United States and South Korea will use the unfolding conflict “as a pretext for the invasion he had wanted all along.” His response? He fires some of his own nuclear weapons “against U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan” and “slaughters” them “as they slept in their barracks or as they arrived at ports and airfields.”
Shortly afterwards, Lewis’ scenario continues, in the penultimate blunder of this tragedy, the Trump administration ignores the intercontinental North Korean nuclear-armed missiles still at Kim’s disposal, and tries to decapitate his regime and defang these forces with a conventional attack that, however massive, was too weak to accomplish its mission. In retaliation, Kim launches these missiles at the United States, and enough of them hit their targets to kill nearly 1.5 million Americans.
Whether you’re a Never Trump-er or not, you have to acknowledge two related flaws that are not only fatal, but completely irresponsible to overlook. The first is that even Lewis recognizes that, in order to look credible, the speculative exercise he describes needs to start with actions and miscalculations by the North and South Koreans, for which Mr. Trump couldn’t possibly be held responsible. The only way he can figure out how to blame the president for a dramatic worsening of the situation is to hide behind a charge from his own creations – fictional “surviving members of the [South Korean] Moon administration [who] insist that things would have been fine had President Trump not picked up his smartphone” and tweeted.
Second, Lewis seems to think, a la these South Korean officials, that following South Korean retaliatory missile strikes on North Korean air defense systems and “select leadership targets throughout North Korea,” there was any significant chance that nuclear weapons would remain sheathed.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone take the time to read this kind of intellectually dishonest claptrap. But Lewis’ exercise in slander does usefully reinforce one point about the Korean crisis that I’ve been making for years – and in fact the most important point for any American: The only reason that the United States could become sucked into a war with nuclear potential on the Korean peninsula – and thus expose its own cities to the unprecedented disaster of nuclear attack – is that tens of thousands of American troops and their families are still sitting directly in harm’s way.
During the decades when the United States could destroy North Korea with nuclear weapons and the North could not place millions of Americans at risk with its own nukes, this strategy could be defended as a reasonable gamble capable of deterring an attack by the North on South Korea – by making North Korea’s nuclear destruction inevitable. Now that the North can pose such a threat to the American homeland, this strategy unconscionably places American cities in North Korea’s nuclear cross-hairs. Worse, it achieves this result not to defend the United States itself, but to defend a South Korea amply wealthy enough to mount its own successful conventional defense.
The policy conclusion that must be drawn couldn’t be more obvious: Whatever you think of President Trump, the only way to remove this North Korean threat is to get U.S. forces out of this tinderbox immediately, if not sooner. The longer they remain the longer Kim has any reason to even threaten, much less attack, the United States if events, as is all too likely, start spinning out of control.