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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.

Photo Credit: Yanik Chauvin/Dreamstime.com

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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  • Jerryskids||

    Trump should listen to somebody other than himself and his very good brain when he knows more about everything than anybody? Congress should grow a spine when their spinelessness is exactly how we got Trump in the first place? Government officials should be completely transparent on their plans and contingency plans? I'll just stick to wishing for flying unicorns and other more plausible alternatives, thank you.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Scot Adams (Dilbert) also posted an article on this nuclear topic. It's not hysterical, but it's not bad either. And the guy makes good predictions.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Remember the Strategic Defense Initiative? Ballistic is another way of saying predictable or parabolic. I'll lay odds no NK missile explodes in CONUS territory even given an all-out surprise attack. And I'll put even money on Alaska.

  • wfcollins||

    In all likelihood, we could sit back and watch the missiles fail without deploying any of our ABM systems. But it is nice to have them just in case.

  • BambiB||

    Today, perhaps. But Clinton authorized the transfer of enough nuclear missile booster and guidance technology to reduce the Chinese failure rate from 95% to 5%. How many N. Korean nukes have to get through to completely destabilize America? If 20 are launched and one arrives, the US will go batshit crazy.

    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."

    Yeah. To fix his credibility, he should launch an all-out attack on N. Korea.

  • Bacon-Magic glib reasonoid||

    The worst "sky is falling" drivel ever. Waste of everyone's time. Go burn your resume Bonnie you found your niche.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    The very LAST thing the Congress will do is take responsibility for anything. It's much easier--and safer, career-wise--to just play the back seat driver and then go on TV and make pompous speeches about how you should have been listened to.

  • Sevo||

    "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!""

    Someone needs her meds.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If we're so close to nuclear war, why is no one teaching me duck and cover?

  • creech||

    I can imagine just what a shitshow a Congressional debate would look like. And I'm sure North Korean spies would love to see the U.S. game plans in detail. But even libertarians can't agree on what military action would be appropriate given NK (or anyone else's) threats. I've even had some libertarians tell me it would be a violation of NAP if a huge invasion fleet was off San Diego and the U.S. military struck before the enemy launched landing craft and fired the first shot.

  • IceTrey||

    Since we would nuke them the second a shot was fired or a landing craft entered our territorial waters I wouldn't worry about it.

  • mtrueman||

    "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."

    Peace and reconciliation on the peninsula cooked up by the North and the newly elected communist president of South Korea? This would be a disaster for US policy which has for decades justified its presence by escalation of tensions. These two leaders have already persuaded Trump to postpone vital military exercises aimed at intimidating the North Koreans, a perennial demand Bush and Obama always ignored.

  • wfcollins||

    Do you really believe that NK & SK are going to join forces and that SK will no longer need us? SK has no incentive to give anything up. NK is in a position that if they attack SK, they will be destroyed. NK has nothing to offer except empty promises of peace.

  • mtrueman||

    "Do you really believe that NK & SK are going to join forces and that SK will no longer need us?"

    It's not inconceivable now that South Korea has impeached the pro-war/pro-american president and replaced her with a communist president who has not only improved relations with communist china, but has actually opened talks with the communist north, and they've persuaded Trump to appease the north by halting the military exercises aimed at intimidating the Koreans.

    "NK has nothing to offer except empty promises of peace."

    North Korea has a nuclear and missile programme that the south and most of the rest of the world lacks.

  • BYODB||

    So you're saying that South Korea will accept North Korean living conditions in exchange for missile technology? Cool story.

  • mtrueman||

    "So you're saying that South Korea will accept North Korean living conditions in exchange for missile technology?"

    I'm not saying that. If you want somebody to predict the future outcome of these talks, find yourself a fortuneteller, soothsayer, or prognosticator.

  • Sevo||

    trueman can be safely ignored.
    According to several recent books, not only does SK have no incentive to 'join' NK, quite a few in the South have no desire for anything like unification in the near future. The SK's watched what happened in Germany and they'd rather not pay the costs of cleaning up after one more failed commie state.
    The (vain?) hope is that the Kim's are deposed, and NK builds its own economy for a while before there's any attempt at unification.

  • mtrueman||

    I never claimed these talks were about re-unification and have warned others here about jumping to such conclusions.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Is it possible that Trump's tweets shouldn't be taken seriously?

  • JoeBlow123||

    It's not happening.

    Hint for everyone. It would be incredibly obvious if the US was thinking of military intervention. You cannot hide ship movements, troop movements, aircraft movements, readiness postures to the extent a military intervention against the Norks would take. It would also take the US taking to our allies who would likely leak it in approximately 2 seconds.

    When you start seeing news of 3 aircraft carriers getting underway, a few Marine regiments loading up onto amphibious, aircraft moving to Guam and Alaska and Japan and Korea, Army guys loading up with their Strykers on planes, our THAAD batteries going on full scale readiness, and troops being recalled from vacations, then maybe worry. Even that could just be posturing though, very dangerous posturing, but posturing.

    Until then chill out.

  • IceTrey||

    Uh, we could just attack their missile facilities with B2s.

  • JoeBlow123||

    True. I think it would be irresponsible for military planners to not have pieces set in place for contingencies should things go south though. I seriously, seriously doubt anyone in the military would sign off on some lightning strike with nothing set in place should things go south. It would be massively irresponsible and against the way the military thinks to hope for the best and not plan for the worst.

    Planning for contingencies would entail some or all of these pieces moving, movements which would likely be observed.

  • Ron||

    the nuclear button issue is so $#%^&* stupid since there are several steps that have to be taken before and after the president can give the go ahead. its all media BS.

    Plus Trump, like Reagan is using our strength in ways that are bringing people to the table

  • wfcollins||

    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!"

    Seriously who was shocked by this? We do have far superior nuclear weapons and delivery capability as well as the ability to shoot down/disable incoming weapons. Any attack by NK would have almost zero chance of success, but our response to it would be quickly and clearly devastating.

    Sure, President Trump does not deliver his messages about our abilities and responses in the the presidential and nuanced fashion of his predecessors, but the message has not changed. I am still sleeping just fine.

  • BYODB||

    Pretty much this. Is it shocking to anyone on planet Earth that America has the power to literally destroy any nation we so choose except, possibly, for Russia or China?

    I'm not saying that doing so wouldn't have a whole host of massive issues, but those would be issues for the survivors which would, notably, not be the country we fire those nukes at.

    MAD theory only holds true if, you know, the country you're firing at has enough nukes to make sure that you both go out. North Korea isn't such a nation, even while some of their allies might fit the bill. That, I suspect, is the real fear here.

    Now, just to mention it, having systems that can reliably shoot down ICBM's is a violation of MAD theory which is one reason why those systems are almost certainly 'open secrets' such as the Air Force Boeing X-37. I mean, it's probably not an orbital weapon but you never really know.

  • WoodChipperBob||

    "the message has not changed."

    You hit the nail on the head here. Obama wouldn't have said, "Mine is bigger" on Twitter, but he certainly would have very diplomatically and very presidentially reminded North Korea that we have had for decades the capabilities that the North Koreans are currently trying to develop, and that our capabilities are robust and extensive, whereas North Korea's have limited functionality and are minimal.

    Trump's message was essentially, "If you launch anything at us or our allies, we'll nuke you off the face of the earth." To people with TDS, that's "threatening nuclear war". To people without TDS (or to people with TDS who are looking at someone who isn't Trump making a similar comment), "If you hit me, I'll hit you back," is not a threat, it's a warning of consequences.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    OK, explain to me how relying on the UN model of diplomacy has kept the nutball in charge of North Korea from being a threat. Take your time. Got nothing? Neither do I. Diplomacy and appeasement got this little fool where he is, on the fringe of being a serious threat.

    Telling the little mammy-jammer where to head the f*ck in may be a radical departure from what has been tried before, but what has been tried before clearly DOES NOT WORK.

    Of course, the real problem with the Norks is that they may be a cat's paw for China, and doing anything drastic about them invites conflict with the Middle Kingdom. And if it escaped your notice that before Trump told Li'l Kim to go screw a she-ass, he had dome talks with the Chinese, I can only say it didn't escape mine. Topic? Who can say; but I'm willing to bet the subject of 'that yappy little rat-dog who keeps threatening to attack me, is it yours?' came up.

    UN appeasement and scolding letter diplomacy doesn't work. We haven't really tried nasty old Gunboat Diplomacy in a while, but it worked just fine until the Progressive Left decided it was just too, too old-fashioned.

    Screw 'em. Let's give it a try. Clown-boy was already threatening to launch nuclear death on us, South Korea, Japan, and for all I know his ex-girlfriends. It ain't like we'd be escalating matters any.

  • mtrueman||

    "UN appeasement and scolding letter diplomacy doesn't work. "

    Tell that to Donald Trump. He's just appeased the North Koreans, the Chinese, and South Korea's communists by postponing the military exercises aimed at intimidating the North Korean regime. These exercises have been a sore point for the north, for China and south Korean communists for decades and mark a retreat from established US policy of escalating tensions in the region.

  • GILMORE™||

    "aimed at intimidating the North Korean regime. These exercises have been a sore point for the north, for China and south Korean communists for decades"

    1) its funny how you think they're supposed to be "intimidating" rather than practical measures which allies take when there is the very real prospect that an aggressive neighbor (the Norks) might attack at any moment. something the norks have - for decades - specifically blustered about. Yet you go and pretend they're the fucking victims here.

    2) those poor south korean communists. how ever do they sleep at night. strange you don't hear about them rushing north across the DMZ.

  • mtrueman||

    "1) its funny how you think they're supposed to be "intimidating" rather than practical measures which allies take when there is the very real prospect that an aggressive neighbor (the Norks) might attack at any moment. something"

    Trump has appeased the communists of the region by cancelling these exercises in freedom.

    "2) those poor south korean communists."

    Their president is now a communist. South Koreans are much better off now than they were last year when the south korean president was a pro war/pro american/pro japanese puppet.

  • GILMORE™||

    ""we do have the means to tame his interventionism""

    What interventions has Trump started since being elected?

  • Kenrm||

    Obviously, based upon historical appeasement of the past 10 administration's approach to NK, this new approach can't be any worse.

  • Mark22||

    Trump's Intervention Impulses Can Be Curbed

    Which "intervention impulses" are you talking about? It was Clinton and Obama who kept intervening irresponsibly around the world.

  • BambiB||

    "Bloody Nose" is not the way to go. "Desert Storm" is a better model. Right now, American military planners are laying out a strategy to completely immobilize or destroy every military asset in N. Korea. When they're done, all Trump has to say is, "Go!" and every military installation, every communications, power, water, transportation hub, every military unit will be dispersed or destroyed. And it could happen in a period of less than an hour, start to finish.

  • mtrueman||

    Bet you've never been in a tussle with a Kerean, eh tough guy?

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