- By Ned PriceNed Price served in the Obama administration as a special assistant to the president and as a National Security Council spokesperson.
For several days earlier this month, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Or so the Trump administration wanted us to believe. But the nuclear showdown between Washington and Pyongyang, which one presidential advisor eagerly likened to the Cuban Missile Crisis, has concluded for now not with a bang, but happily, with a whimper. To underscore the anticlimactic denouement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday spoke of the possibility of direct negotiations with North Korea in the “near future,” an overture that would have seemed unimaginable only days ago.
So what accounts for the rapid de-escalation between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, the nuclear parvenu whose sequel to 13 Days didn’t last quite as long as the original?
The answer rests in the fact that what the world witnessed was an entirely manufactured crisis magnified by an irrational response from an American president eager to display bravado and bluster on the world stage.
To understand what happened, we need only to rewind a couple of weeks, to Tuesday, Aug. 8. It was then that the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence had concluded that North Korea had successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, rendering it suitable to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM.
To be clear, the news that day was about an American intelligence assessment, not a provocation on the part of the hermit kingdom such as a nuclear test or missile launch. What is more, that very same report tempered the news of the miniaturization by noting that Pyongyang faced several more hefty technical hurdles in its quest to obtain a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of striking the United States.
The Washington Post story, moreover, noted that the analysis was completed sometime last month, suggesting that senior U.S. policymakers, including the commander-in-chief, had already been briefed on the findings. I say this with the confidence of someone who has read countless U.S. intelligence analyses — including those in the President’s Daily Brief — of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs. Developments far less significant than what the Washington Post reported were routinely included in President Barack Obama’s briefs, leaving little doubt that Trump was not caught off guard.
Even if Trump was not surprised by the news, his first public comments evoked that very reaction from even his closest aides. Surrounded by his wife and daughter as well as top staffers at his golf club in New Jersey, Trump sounded eager to jump into the nuclear fray following otherwise perfunctory remarks on the opioid crisis. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” he told assembled reporters.
Several of Trump’s key advisors were thrust into cleanup mode. Tillerson, for example, told reporters the next day that Americans should “sleep well at night.” For his part, Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a written statement, the careful wording of which made clear, at least in diplomat speak, that the United States would not undertake a purely preemptive military strike against North Korea.
But to a country ruled by a defiant despot, the words of the president of the United States, even impromptu, far outweigh the scripted remarks of key lieutenants, and North Korea reacted angrily, if predictably, to Trump’s bellicose rhetoric. Later that week, Pyongyang claimed to be in the process of drawing up plans to fire four missiles into the ocean near the U.S. territory of Guam. Rather than dismiss the threat as typical North Korean bluster, Trump bestowed on it a sense of legitimacy that might have surprised even Kim and his allies. “Let’s see what he does with Guam,” Trump said, promising a U.S. response “the likes of which nobody’s ever seen before.” Rather than recast his fiery and furious rhetoric from earlier in the week, the president seemed to indicate that perhaps he had not been tough enough.
But a funny thing happened on what seemed to be the path to nuclear war. As soon as two leaders became engaged in an apparently intractable standoff, the crisis began to dissipate — when Trump removed himself from the equation. What the world witnessed in the subsequent days was something resembling the diplomacy and public messaging that prior administrations might have offered from the start.
Tillerson and Mattis penned a joint op/ed — Washington’s tried and true signaling exercise — in which they laid out a strategy that would sound familiar to Korea hands from years past. Notwithstanding a spattering of uniquely Trumpian bombast, the key line was unmistakable: “The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea.” CIA Director Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster made similar points in television interviews. Neither the president nor Sebastian Gorka, an advisor whose bring on the mushroom cloud rhetoric had added to the hysteria earlier in the week, were to be heard from on the topic again.
That is not to say that the North Korean crisis has been solved — far from it. Just this week, in fact, North Korea renewed its threats against the United States, including with a slick propaganda video.
But what Trump failed to recognize is that the United States cannot, and should not, attempt to out-Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un . Doing so trained the fears of our regional allies just as much on the unpredictable nuclear leader in Washington as the one they had long feared in Pyongyang. In the aftermath of the faux showdown, moreover, the South Korean president told his people that Seoul holds a veto over America’s ability to use force on the Korean Peninsula. Whether accurate or not, North Korea now has reason to feel more secure, a reassurance that the Trump administration surely bolstered when, Steve Bannon, then the White House Chief Strategist, publicly dismissed the military option altogether.
Indeed, the upshot of this episode is that the White House has emerged from a crisis of its own making, weakened, diplomatically constrained, and with even less credibility on the world stage. And, while we escaped the specter of nuclear war, the American people should have even more reason for concern, albeit not solely about North Korea. If this is how the Trump White House handles a manufactured crisis, we are left to hold on to hope that it won’t encounter a real one any time soon.
Photo credit: KCNA/AFP/Getty Images