Weird as it sounds, the North Korea nuclear crisis has created two significant benefits – though unfortunately neither has yet created either establishment or popular pressure to change an increasingly reckless American approach.
Still, it’s promising that dictator Kim Jong Un’s rapid development of nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S. homeland is not only revealing that America’s longstanding approach to defense alliances is now exposing the nation to the risk of nuclear attack even when its own security is not directly at stake. It’s also more recently begun exposing America’s many foreign policy and other elite mainstays either as ignoramuses or (much more likely) shameful hypocrites.
The reason? They profess to be shocked, just shocked (Google “Casablanca” and “Louis Renault”) that President Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in order “to defend itself or its allies.” As if they’ve never heard of “nuclear deterrence.” And don’t know that such saber-rattling has been U.S. policy for decades.
To review briefly, since fairly early in the Cold War, and especially since the former Soviet Union developed its own impressive nuclear forces, American leaders have overwhelmingly concluded that the only reasonable uses of these weapons was preventing a nuclear attack on the United States itself, or a similar strike or conventional military assault on one of the countries it was treaty-bound to protect. The idea was that even nuclear-armed potential aggressors the Soviets and Chinese (and the North Koreans, once they crossed the threshhold) would think at least twice before moving on targets if they had reason to fear that the United States would launch its own nukes against those countries.
From time to time, some politicians and analysts suggested that the effects of such nuclear weapons use could be restricted to efforts to take out the enemy’s remaining nuclear weapons or otherwise fall short of “totally destroying” that adversary. But for the most part, the idea of limited nuclear war has been rejected in favor of vowing annihilation. And except for disarmament types on the Left and super-hawks on the Right (who supported the aforementioned “counterforce” approach), the political class comprised of office-holders and journalists and think tankers was just fine with the nuclear element of U.S. alliance strategy.
It’s completely bizarre, therefore, that almost none of the press coverage – including “experts'” analyses – of Mr. Trump’s September 19 statement evinces any awareness of any of this history. Instead, it’s portrayed the “totally destroy” threat as appallingly monstrous, unhinged rhetoric from an unprecedentedly erratic chief executive. Just as bad, President Trump is accused of playing right into Kim’s hands and shoring up his support with the North Korean populace.
For instance, here’s how Washington Post reporter Ana Fifield yesterday described the consensus of of North Korea specialists she had just surveyed:
“Kim Jong Un’s regime tells the North Korean people every day that the United States wants to destroy them and their country. Now, they will hear it from another source: the president of the United States himself.
“In his maiden address to the United Nations on Tuesday, President Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea.” Analysts noted that he did not even differentiate between the Kim regime, as President George W. Bush did with his infamous “axis of evil” speech, and the 25 million people of North Korea.”
Here’s the New York Times‘ take, from chief White House correspondent Peter Baker and foreign policy reporter Rick Gladstone:
“President Trump brought the same confrontational style of leadership he has used at home to the world’s most prominent stage on Tuesday as he vowed to ‘totally destroy North Korea‘ if it threatened the United States….”
Similarly, USAToday‘s David Jackson described the Trump speech as “a stark address to the United Nations that raised the specter of nuclear warfare” and contended that “Trump’s choice of words on North Korea is in keeping with the bellicose rhetoric he’s already used to describe the tensions that have escalated throughout his eight months in office.”
As for the Associated Press, the world’s most important news wire service, it was content to offer readers a stunning dose of moral equivalence: “In a region well used to Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons generating a seemingly never-ending cycle of threats and counter-threats, Mr. Trump’s comments stood out.“
CNN‘s approach? It quoted a “senior UN diplomat” as claiming that “it was the first time in his memory that a world leader has called for the obliteration of another state at the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly], noting even Iran’s most fiery leaders didn’t similarly threaten Israel.”
For good measure, reporter Nicole Gaouette added, “The threat is likely to ratchet up tensions with North Korea while doing little to reassure US allies in Asia, said analysts who added that the President now also runs the risk of appearing weak if he doesn’t follow through.”
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Stewart Patrick, who served on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff under former President George W. Bush, told the BBC that the Trump threat is implausible, and that “I think the folks in the Pentagon when they look at military options are just aghast at the potential loss of life that could occur with at a minimum hundreds of thousands of South Koreans killed in Seoul.”
For David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and protege of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who went on to edit FOREIGNPOLICY magazine (where I worked many years before), the problem is much simpler: “The president of the United States chose, in a forum dedicated to diplomacy, to threaten to wipe another nation — a much smaller one — off the face of the earth in language that was not so much hard-line rhetoric as it was schoolboy bullying complete with childish name-calling.”
Many members of the U.S. Congress were no better. Said California Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein: “Trump’s bombastic threat to destroy North Korea and his refusal to present any positive pathways forward on the many global challenges we face are severe disappointments. He aims to unify the world through tactics of intimidation, but in reality he only further isolates the United States.”
Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey brought up a war powers angle: “The more the president talks about the total destruction of North Korea, the more it’s necessary for the country and the Congress to have a debate over what the authority of a president is to launch nuclear weapons against another country.”
What’s of course especially ironic about Markey’s words is that such a U.S. policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons would effectively destroy the American alliances that liberals like Markey have become enamored with lately, and that President Trump is often charged by these same liberals as attempting to dismantle.
Some other news organizations and websites have behaved even more strangely – lambasting the Trump threat but then acknowledging deep inside their accounts that the President said nothing fundamentally new.
For example, the viscerally anti-Trump Vox.com website predictably led off one of its accounts with, “On September 19, President Donald Trump gave his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly. His harsh rhetoric toward North Korea stood out — mostly because he threatened to obliterate the country of 25.4 million people.”
Six paragraphs later, writer Alex Ward got around to mentioning that “A few [specialists] noted that it was similar to what other presidents, including President Obama, have said before.”
And in an Atlantic post titled, “A Presidential Misunderstanding of Deterrence,” author Ankit Panda of The Diplomat newspaper accused President Trump of using “apocalyptic rhetoric” and threatening “to commit a horrific act expressly forbidden by international humanitarian law….”
But then he immediately turned around and admitted,
“The remarks echoed similar, countless deterrent threats levied against North Korea by past U.S. presidents with more subtlety and innuendo, perhaps allowing for a more calibrated and flexible response. But ultimately vowing to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea if America or its allies come under attack is, in fact, not all that sharp a break from existing U.S. policy.”
If these treatments of the North Korea crisis were simply efforts to demonize President Trump by abusing history, that would be contemptible enough, but what else is new from America’s too often incompetent and scapegoat-addicted elites?
But something much more dangerous is at work here. Individuals who, for good reasons, have not been regarded as kooks are using Never Trump-ism to foster a genuinely kooky idea. They’re suggesting that the alliances so central to America’s foreign policy making for decades should be viewed as little more than kumbaya symbols, and that anyone speaking frankly about their possibly deadly and indeed horrific implications is beyond the pale – even though the proliferation of nuclear weapons has unmistakably rendered these arrangements far more perilous.
In other words, they’re spreading the worst, and most childish, of all canards about foreign policy, or about any dimension of public policy – not that a particular set of choices is sound or not (that’s almost always legitimately debatable), but that hard choices never need to be made at all.