North Korea

Nuclear Button Bluster Aside, Trump's Intervention Impulses Can Be Curbed

The "bloody nose" strategy favored by some in his administration is extraordinarily reckless.


Perhaps none of President Trump's tweets have had more power to shock than his declaration that his "nuclear button" is "much bigger" than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's nuclear button—"and my Button works!"

The one strange solace of the situation, as The New York Times' Ross Douthat and National Review's David French noted, is how few people take Trump's bombast seriously. The "main effects of Trump's tweets," French argued, "are to stoke the online outrage machine, impair his credibility, and to unsettle a certain number of well-meaning Americans."

True enough. As bizarre as it is to imagine from the vantage point of even a year ago, no one is marching in the streets over the president of the United States issuing Freudian threats of nuclear war on social media.

It is possible Trump's "verbal aggressiveness" on Jan. 2 could lead to the devastation of total war, as a Yale psychologist recently warned, but it is more plausible his military aggressiveness would accomplish that unwanted end. And while there seems to be no means to tame Trump's tongue, we do have the means to tame his interventionism, if only we will use them.

Consider that while South Korea launched its first official negotiations with its northern neighbors in two years, an effort to ease tensions and "move toward peace and reconciliation," the Trump administration is reportedly mired in an internal debate on whether to bomb North Korean nuclear sites and then wish upon a star that Kim doesn't get too angry.

"The idea is known as the 'bloody nose' strategy," The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. "React to some nuclear or missile test with a targeted strike against a North Korean facility to bloody Pyongyang's nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior. The hope would be to make that point without inciting a full-bore reprisal by North Korea."

As the Journal piece understates, this proposal is "enormously risky." The cutesy schoolyard name ought not deceive us: An air campaign on North Korea, however limited, is war. It is extraordinarily reckless to suppose that Kim, faced with the prospect of a military intervention and regime change his nuclear arsenal was built to deter, would not retaliate with as much brutality as he could muster.

Seoul, a metro area of 25 million people, is just 35 miles from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Even if a "bloody nose" strike destroyed in an instant the great bulk of Kim's nuclear stash, a single warhead inaccurately launched by a single short-range missile would be enough to cause the death of millions of innocents. And that's just a single bomb on a single city.

With his blackmail scheme undone, Kim could turn his chemical and biological fire on Seoul, American troops and their families in Asia, on our allies in Japan, and perhaps even on U.S. Pacific territories like Guam. Compound that horror with the prospect of involvement from China or Russia, true nuclear powers with a history of aiding Pyongyang.

A strike like this would bloody far more than a nose. Even the best-case scenario is grim in the extreme. The task is to stop such an ill-advised preventive attack before it begins.

I see three potential means to that end.

Insofar as personnel is policy, Trump should first listen closely to comparatively prudent advisors like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who are "focused on trying to get a broader diplomatic effort under way to rein in the North Korean nuclear program," the Wall Street Journal reports.

He should listen much less to—and replace—establishment hawks like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who has emerged as an advocate of aggressive military intervention. McMaster is reportedly the chief proponent of the "bloody nose" in the White House, and he has consistently supported the very foreign policy status quo Trump, at his best, critiqued on the campaign trail.

Next, Congress can make clear it will not stand for this or any future president ordering a "bloody nose" or any similarly preventive strike on North Korea. This is a matter of policy (such a strike would be an enormously costly mistake, as detailed above) and procedure (the president has no constitutional authority to initiate war).

"The possibility of a war against North Korea that could turn nuclear is so consequential that Congress dare not abdicate the decision to a single person," Ret. Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis wrote, at The National Interest. "People of this country deserve to hear the president make his case publicly and then to have their representatives openly debate the wisdom of such a course."

Congressional fecklessness is unacceptable in any aspect of foreign policy. But if there is any circumstance in which the legislature must show resolve, it is when there is a significant possibility of nuclear war in an economically vital region of the world.

And finally, McMaster and all other advocates of a preventive strike must be thoroughly interrogated as to what exactly their plan would entail. It is improbable in the extreme that most Americans—dissatisfied as they are with the United States' post-9/11 fixation on military intervention and wary of the unintended consequences of Washington's war drum beating—would support a harebrained "bloody nose" scheme once fully aware of the destruction it would wreak.