Note (again) to hypothetical reader: this is about as fun as the last post.
I just finished writing about the moral ambiguity surrounding an epochal decision of a great American President, who used nuclear weapons to bring a decisive end to a horrible war. As it happens, that same President presided over the war on the Korean Peninsula that haunts us to this day – almost unbelievably, a war on hold for over 60 years, paused, but not officially over. Today it seems more not over than ever.
For Americans, who’d lately become used to absolute victories and the unconditional surrender of their enemies, the Korean War was a deeply unsatisfying affair, winding up in a lingering stalemate that merely reestablished the status quo antebellum. Yet Truman squelched all notions of using nuclear weapons to win the conflict, even after the Chinese intervened, understanding that the stakes were nowhere near high enough to cross that terrifying rubicon. Stalemate, in which the independence of the previously conquered South was secured, would have to do. Hotheads who disagreed, even those as eminent and self-important as Douglas Fucking MacArthur, could go along with that, or enjoy a well-earned retirement.
I waxed all nostalgic about Truman yesterday, and wished we had someone like him at the helm today. Oh, how I wish that, now more than ever. The Korean Peninsula is heating up again, as it does from time to time, and this time we have a moron sitting behind the Resolute desk, a preening mouth artist with the instincts of a street thug. Sadly, that makes two of them in this scenario, and I fear theirs is a whole lot smarter than ours.
These are not the sort of words that the leader of the world’s only superpower should be chucking around:
North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.
They best not be makin’ any more of them threats, eh? Them’s fightin’ words, sure as shit. Them’s like sayin’ “anybody want to slap leather with me?” You hear that, and all the chairs scrape away from the table, and the bartender ducks below the counter. Thars a-gonna be shootin’ irons out their holsters now, boy, it’s down to hot lead, sure as Clem over there is an idjut.
Oh, for the love of Christ. Fire and fury and frankly, power. And maybe wrath and righteous indignation too, Donald? Jesus. You know who talks like that? Kim Jong-un. That sort of “sea of fire” crap is right up his alley, and sure enough, responding in kind, Kim – who is crazy like Machiavelli – threatened to destroy Guam, a crucial Pacific military base that is now within reach of his ballistic missiles. This is an empty threat, since he still hasn’t quite reached the point at which he can arm those missiles with nuclear warheads, though we learned today that he’s awfully close. Still, one (hopefully) empty threat deserves another.
The problem with Trump’s bombast is that he’s painting himself into a corner, while undermining his Secretary of State, who is even now meeting with Asian counterparts in an attempt to advance diplomatic efforts and turn the heat down before things get out of control. Perhaps Trump has already decided to take military action. If so, it wouldn’t be surprising if poor Rex Tillerson was the last to know. He sure must be missing the good old days at Exxon about now.
At this point you half expect Trump to tweet out his command to attack, though after the transgender fiasco, maybe the Donald realizes that the Joint Chiefs don’t jump to attention every time 140 characters dribble out of his twitter feed. Actually, it would be better if Trump hadn’t learned that lesson – one wonders, at this point, what the Joint Chiefs will do if Donald has another one of his spells, but this time adheres to protocol. This time, he may do things through appropriate channels. This time, following the correct procedures may make him impossible to ignore. God help us.
There are no good military options to solve this quickly. Back in the day, when confronted with implacable dictators who boasted about their nuclear arsenals – potentates like Mao and Stalin, who were, all things considered, a lot more credible and threatening than the man atop the dung heap in the Hermit Kingdom – we used to rely on an old geopolitical concept known as deterrence. With small fry like Kim, this would be an understanding that he may be able to nuke L.A. until it glows, but neither he nor anyone in his country would survive that action for more than 30 minutes. Massive retaliation, you know. You hurt us, and we’ll kill you. With more credible enemies, say Vlad the Impaler over there in Russia, it amounts to mutual assertions along the lines of “You do that and I’ll kill us both“. That works too. It’s not clean and satisfying, but it does the trick.
Within deterrence theory, it’s sub-optimal if North Korea acquires nuclear capabilities, but it doesn’t rock our world. It’s just one more guy in a military uniform, another character in a big hat who likes to review his goose-stepping legions in a big public square, who needs to understand, as surely Kim does, that first use of nuclear weapons makes no sense. Indeed Kim, who I maintain is not crazy, is simply prosecuting his own deterrence strategy. His threat is to use the nukes if we hit him first. He saw what happened to Qaddafi and Hussein, two thugs who didn’t have the bomb. He saw how the Mullahs in Iran, who did have the bomb, or near enough, managed to drive a bargain rather than swing slowly in the breeze. Lesson learned. You don’t want to end up at the end of a rope, nukes are the way to go. You can even rattle them sometimes, when you want more food aid. They’re handy.
This contest is political and psychological. It needn’t escalate to actual warfare, but if Trump doesn’t shut his yip, it just might. Corner a rat like Kim, and he’ll lash out. After that, anything could happen, including Japan, China and Russia getting sucked right in. We don’t want to go there. We don’t need to go there. This can be managed. South Korean soldiers can continue to stare across the DMZ at their stony-faced Northern equivalents for 60 more years, if need be. Kim can be deterred – he’s hardly the first of his kind, and we’ve dealt with his sort of autocrat before. Deterrence, even at its most effective, can drag on interminably, it’s true. The enemy may never attack, but he doesn’t go away, either. That’s not particularly cheering – but this is one Gordian knot that doesn’t unravel when you cut it. It blows up in your face.
So Donald, pretty please, just this once: shut your goddam pie hole.