Shadow Government

Trump’s Empty North Korea Threats Will Lead to Humiliation or War

Either Trump will back down and once again eat his words, or he will strike North Korea, with consequences almost too great to contemplate.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, U.S. President Donald Trump, and others before a meeting on U.N. reform at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept. 18, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, U.S. President Donald Trump, and others before a meeting on U.N. reform at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept. 18, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Lest anyone gain the impression that President Donald Trump is feeling any regret over his recent provocations of North Korea — calling its leader “Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy” the country with “fire and fury” — recent days have only seen an intensification of the president’s rhetoric. Shortly after mocking his own secretary of state for “wasting his time trying to negotiate with ‘Little Rocket Man’” and telling U.S. military leaders they were in “the calm before the storm,” Trump called previous U.S. negotiators “fools” for trying to deal with Pyongyang, ominously tweeting: “Sorry, only one thing will work!”

The charitable explanation of this approach is that Trump is just playing the master negotiator, staking out a hardline stance to position himself for a deal. Playing good cop/bad cop, he is not really undermining his secretary of state but cleverly bolstering him.

The problem is that there is almost no reason to believe the tactic will work, the chances of miscalculation are high, and if Pyongyang fails somehow to fall for the obvious ploy and cave to Trump’s threats, the only remaining outcomes of the crisis are a humiliating U.S. climb-down — or war.

There is good reason to believe Trump is merely posturing. For decades he has described his own negotiating strategy as one in which he “aims very high” but sometimes settles for less. In a version of President Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” Trump has also said he sees value in giving his adversaries the impression he might be crazy, willing to take risks that his predecessors would not. We also know Trump believes the Obama administration made a mistake in the Iran negotiations by telegraphing that it did not want to go to war with Iran. (As a member of that administration, I can confirm that we did not want to go to war with Iran and were therefore reluctant to claim that we did.)

It is thus plausible that Trump and his team have decided to do the opposite, seeking to convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that they are not afraid to use force. This would explain why the U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis keep insisting there is a viable military option, even if deep down, they know there is not.

The problem with this approach is that it is almost certain to fail for three reasons. First, Trump’s track record on holding firm on his initial positions is appalling. In foreign policy alone, he has already backed away from threats to withdraw from NATO, increase tariffs on China, move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and tear up the Iran nuclear deal. (His expected decision this week to kick responsibility for that deal to Congress is a classic example of Trump’s tendency to back away from his original position while claiming he did not.) The actions he has taken — withdrawing from the Paris climate accords and striking a single airfield in Syria — were notable for being low risk and having almost no short-term consequences: not characteristics one would associate with attacking North Korea.

Second, even if Trump is not bluffing, Kim – like so many insecure dictators before him — is unlikely to realize that until it is too late. In 1991, the U.S. and others encircled Iraq with over 600,000 troops and credibly threatened to attack, yet Saddam Hussein did not withdraw from Kuwait until they actually invaded. In Libya in 2011, Moammar Gadhafi was given the opportunity to remain in power if he agreed to compromise, yet he chose to stand up to all of NATO — until his military was destroyed and he was murdered in the street. The Afghan Taliban, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic all defied credible threats to bomb them and forced the United States and others to actually do so, and none had as good a reason as Kim to doubt that the bombing would actually take place. And of course there are the North Vietnamese, who defied not just threats but massive U.S. airstrikes, including for nearly four years after Nixon tried to convince them he was mad.

Finally, it is hard to see how Trump’s threats could produce a negotiated solution while he mocks the very idea of negotiating and humiliating his secretary of state. In the case of Iraq, master negotiator James Baker had the absolute trust and confidence of his president and more than a half-million troops at his disposal, yet was unable to extract concessions from Hussein. It seems implausible to think that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom Trump has accused of wasting his time and who in the second week of October was unable to deny having called the president a “fucking moron,” will convince potential interlocutors in Pyongyang he is empowered to cut a durable deal.

If Trump really wanted to make the best of bad options in North Korea, he would define a set of realistic goals — such as freezing the size and quality of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and limiting its ballistic missile tests — and convey that objective to Kim. He would underscore that the North’s refusal to agree to such limits would only lead to increasingly painful economic isolation of North Korea and the strengthening of U.S. military support for South Korea and Japan. And he would work closely with those key U.S. allies to forge a common strategy, and empower his top diplomat rather than insulting him.

What he would not do is continue to make threats that are hard to believe, and statements that surprise his allies and risk provoking an unpredictable Kim into calling his bluff.

Perhaps I am wrong, and Kim will conclude that Trump is serious about destroying North Korea and give up his nuclear deterrent.

But to even evoke that scenario only underscores just how unlikely it is. Which means one of two things: Either Trump will back down and once again eat his words, further eroding U.S. credibility in Asia and around the world, or he will strike North Korea, with consequences almost too great to contemplate.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Philip Gordon is the David and Mary Boies senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state and former special assistant to President Barack Obama.

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