The Atlantic has long been one of America’s most important magazines, so we all have a stake in doing what we can to keep its quality as high as possible. And it’s in that spirit, that I offer the magazine’s editors this advice: If you’re going to keep running pieces on the North Korea nuclear weapons crisis, make sure that your authors read your own previous coverage of the North Korea nuclear weapons crisis. That way, you’ll avoid embarrassments like that resulting from recent posts by contributing editors Peter Beinart and Kori Schake, and by staff writer Uri Friedman.
According to both Beinart and Schake, President Trump’s positions on North Korea depart dramatically from those of his predecessors. The main reason? He’s considering launching preventive strikes aimed at destroying North Korea’s nuclear arsenal before it can be used against America’s allies in Asia, or against the United States itself.
In Beinart’s words, Mr. Trump’s mulling of this action, which aims “not at stopping an imminent North Korean attack, but at stopping North Korea from gaining the means to launch such an attack” is “the equivalent of shooting a man because he’s on his way to the store to purchase a pistol or because he’s at a firing range checking to see if it works.”
As such, his stance is both “something that Americans once considered monstrous” and “barbaric,” as well as an option rejected by Cold War presidents “while Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong—two leaders every bit as brutal and rhetorically chilling as Kim Jong Un—developed nuclear weapons. Instead, America’s leaders responded with deterrence.”
As Schake puts it, Mr. Trump’s suggestions that preventive war is on the table as a U.S. option ignore the reality that “the constraint on Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, is the same one he faces. That constraint is the 30 million South Koreans and 130,000 Americans living within artillery and rocket range of North Korea’s conventional forces. Trump’s predecessors weren’t being nice to Pyongyang; they were recognizing that the risks of preventative war to remove the North Korean threat aren’t worth starting a war that will inevitably incur ghastly damage.”
My point here isn’t to debate whether these assertions are true. It’s to point out that, just a few months before these pieces came out, folks who follow foreign policy closely may well have read the following statement in a major magazine: “Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all considered preemptive military strikes against North Korea’s nuclear sites….”
And where did this statement appear? In an article by Atlantic staff writer Friedman.
Friedman also made clear that all three former presidents rejected this option – although his account makes no mention of philosophical principles or a more narrowly based refusal to risk causing mass casualties in this particular instance.
He may be wrong, too. But don’t Beinart and Schake read Friedman? Doesn’t he read Beinart and Schake? Didn’t anyone on The Atlantic‘s staff notice the stark contradiction? Indeed, what happened to the magazine’s fact-checking operation? According to this article, it still existed as of 2012 – and was incredibly rigorous. Has it been phased out? Is it gone completely?
The Atlantic continues to publish enough valuable content that I’ll keep monitoring its website and reading many articles and posts. I’d recommend it to RealityChek readers and everyone else, too. But here’s something else I’d recommend – read these regulars, at least, with a little more than the usual healthy skepticism.