A few things have happened since yesterday afternoon's blunt warning from President Donald Trump that "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States" or "they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before." One is that North Korea promptly made an explicit threat to United States territory in Guam, musing about creating "an enveloping fire at the areas around" the island's extensive U.S. military assets using "medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12." This was not the first such threat from Pyongyang, though it was more explicit than most, and certainly the first to come just hours after a sitting U.S. president invoked the imagery of nuclear holocaust.
The second development is that a host of politicians and pundits have come out swinging against the president's rhetorical belligerence, led—no surprise here—by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "I take exception to the president's comments because you've got to be sure you can do what you say you're going to do," McCain said in an interview with KTAR News in Phoenix Tuesday. "The great leaders I've seen don't threaten unless they're ready to act, and I'm not sure President Trump is ready to act."
McCain, who will surely be treated by the media as a foreign policy wise man during this crisis, has been ready to act militarily against North Korea for nearly a quarter century; in 1994 he even used the word "extinction." In January 2003 he wrote a Weekly Standard piece on Pyongyang titled "Rogue State Rollback," slamming as "dangerously shortsighted" the Bush administration's ruling out another military intervention on the Korean peninsula, even though "force could eventually prove to be the only means to prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear arsenal." Excerpt:
This rapid deterioration of our resolve is as reckless as it is disingenuous. North Korea and Iraq present different faces of the same danger. Today, North Korea poses a greater danger than Iraq, and confronting it presents a more difficult challenge. That is all the more reason to take whatever action necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from becoming a threat of equal magnitude and just as difficult to confront….
The use of military force to defend vital American security interests must always be a last resort, as it is in this crisis. But if we fail to achieve the international cooperation necessary to end this threat, then the countries in the region should know with certainty that while they may risk their own populations, the United States will do whatever it must to guarantee the security of the American people. And spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism. We would prefer the company of North Korea's neighbors, but we will make do without it if we must.
McCain is not some kind of foreign policy outlier when it comes to North Korea—if he was, he wouldn't keep getting asked to come on the Sunday shows. For a glimpse into how mainstream NoKo interventionism has been, look no further than the GOP presidential debate 17 months ago in Manchester, New Hampshire. There, moderator Martha Raddatz, noting that Kim Jong-un's regime had just that day launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, asked a serious of increasingly irritable questions, such as: "If you were Commander in Chief tonight would you have order the U.S. military to destroy that missile pre-emptively on the launch pad to prevent North Korea from becoming an even graver threat?" and "Why not tell us whether you would pre-emptively strike a missile on a launchpad that threatens the U.S.?" and "Senator Rubio, I'm talking about a pre-emptive strike on the launch pad."
The responses ranged from laments that bombing was now too difficult ("It's why you prevent them from getting nuclear weapons in the first place," Ted Cruz replied, "because your hands are somewhat tied once they have nukes"), to ill-fitting sports metaphors (Jeb Bush: "The next president of the United States is gonna have to get the United States back in the game, and if a preemptive strike is necessary to keep us safe, then we should do it"), to John Kasich's blustery calls for intercepting all shipping and air traffic from North Korea while maybe egging on Japan to topple the regime. (Cross-examined at a subsequent debate whether he'd really risk a major war, Kasich stated: "I would love to see regime change in North Korea.")
Who was one of the least overtly bellicose on the subject? Donald Trump. Asked by Raddatz the direct and presciently-relevant-to-today questions of, "Mr. Trump, do you have a red line with North Korea? Would you consider military action? And how far would you let them go?" the candidate criticized Barack Obama for a while, then mostly laid the problem at China's doorstep:
China says they don't have that good of control over North Korea. They have tremendous control. I deal with the Chinese all of the time. I do tremendous—the largest bank in the world is in one of my buildings in Manhattan. I deal with them. They tell me. They have total, absolute control, practically, of North Korea. They are sucking trillions of dollars out of our country—they're rebuilding China with the money they take out of our country. I would get on with China, let China solve that problem. They can do it quickly and surgically. That's what we should do with North Korea.
That approach has yet to bear fruit. Most of the other instances North Korea was discussed during primary season, Trump took it as an opportunity to lament that allies such as South Korea and Japan were not paying their fair share for collective defense.
The one time denuclearization came up meaningfully during the general election debates, Trump reiterated his China-centric focus, but then also made some other statements of particular interest today, including: "The single greatest problem the world has is nuclear armament, nuclear weapons….It is the single greatest threat that this country has," and then this passage:
I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it's over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can't take anything off the table. Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we're doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.
Bizarrely, Hillary Clinton's policy views on North Korea were never interrogated in her three debates with Trump, nor in any of the 10 Democratic presidential debates, save for one brief section with Bernie Sanders back in February 2016, in which she said stuff like "We do have to worry about North Korea" and "We do have to try to get the countries in the region to work with us to do everything we can to confine, and constrain them." In September 2016, after another missile test, Clinton sounded more hawkish: "I strongly condemn this reckless action, which—coupled with its recent series of missile launches—makes clear Pyongyang's determination to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon….This constitutes a direct threat to the United States, and we cannot and will never accept this."
As secretary of state, Clinton had championed the oft-derided "strategic patience" that President Trump has since declared has now run out, though she was always quick to brag about rallying countries in the region to support sanctions, an activity that the current administration is spending considerable time on as well. And the Democrats' 2016 vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, did say during the lone VP debate that if North Korea was about to launch a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the U.S., that "Look, a president should take action to defend the United States against imminent threat. You have to."
Like most intractable-seeming policy challenges, North Korea's nuclearization is damnably hard to fix. And as in many global crises, the urge to locate some kind of special problem-solving button in Washington may well be making things worse. As Ed Krayewski pointed out yesterday, the dominant superpower's erratic behavior has produced some unintended incentives out there on the periphery of the nuclear club. U.S. politics being the gutter sport it is, partisans of the two dominant tribes will ignore their own contributions to the existing pathology, suffer little penalty for constantly advocating new targets to bomb, and set up bizarrely unrealistic expectations about what the latest Great Man will do.
"When Donald Trump is president of the United States," a smug Mike Pence predicted, absurdly, in the vice presidential debate, "we're not going to have the…kind of posture in the world that has Russia invading Crimea and Ukraine, that has the Chinese building new islands in the South China Sea, that has literally the world, including North Korea, flouting American power."
The Trump administration has been big on the potential upside of "strategic unpredictability." We will soon see whether that approach is better for long-term peace and security than either strategic patience or the perennial urge to have Washington police the world's red lines.