Red alert: A mad, authoritarian leader with incomprehensible hair is panicking the civilized world, threatening to unleash nuclear weapons. Then there’s Kim Jung Un.
What do we need to know about President Donald Trump’s nuclear stand-off with the North Korean leader whose own mop indicates an unfortunate encounter with shrubbery clippers? This assessment may help you “sleep well at night,” tucked snugly next to Rex Tillerson.
North Korea is developing the capacity to build and deliver nuclear warheads to our shores and other global targets more quickly than our intelligence services had estimated. The threat is urgent and metastasizing. If a remedy is not applied soon, the rogue state may soon bristle with intercontinental nuclear missiles, an infinitely more difficult ailment.
President Trump’s rhetoric that North Korean aggression will be met “with fire and fury” is classic Trump but, as Robert Costa reported, the president was uncharacteristically speaking from notes. He delivered this statement as if on a mission, jarringly inserting it into an unrelated presser about the opioid crisis. Then, for the benefit of the politically hard-of-hearing, Trump repeated his statement. The White House delicately insisted that Trump’s new chief of staff, John F. Kelly, was consulted before the calculated announcement was delivered, implying this was a coordinated effort, not Trump speaking off-the-cuff.
Soon, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had to clarify that the important stuff was all Trump. Although staff discussed “the tone and strength” of the president’s statement, Sanders said, “the words were his own.” In Trump’s White House, no one gets credit but the president.
The Time for Bluntness Has Arrived
As Tillerson explained from ground zero in Guam, Trump was speaking bluntly to North Korea to make it more difficult for them to miscalculate U.S. intentions. However, the president was also sending a message to China.
The last thing China wants is a war on the Korean Peninsula. Such a war could produce three phenomena China is desperate to avoid: a destabilizing immigration crisis that would tax its resources, a more assertive U.S. presence on its doorstep, and a unified Korea that could quickly become an economic juggernaut. South Korea is already the world’s 11th most powerful economy, and China has seen how quickly a united Germany became a global powerhouse. Trump’s message to China: Act now or we will—and you’ve got a lot to lose if we have to ring the starting bell.
Notably, though the president has spoken of “fire and fury like the world has never seen before,” he has not said his first or only resort is our nuclear arsenal. Instead, it is helpful to remember that bluster and exaggeration are Trump’s calling cards. They are always his opening moves in a negotiation.
It is an improvement from President Obama’s strategy, “Peace Through Weakness.” Obama’s “strategic patience,” as we now understand, emboldened North Korea. As the United States retreated from global leadership, Kim saw China, its sponsor state, step in to fill the vacuum. North Korea’s divine leader may have concluded the next century belonged to China, not the United States, and he was at liberty to develop a nuclear threat under the shelter of China’s unchallenged ascension.
The Strategic Usefulness of Unpredictability
Is Trump being inconsistent or, as some in the media have critiqued, sending “mixed messages” to both North Korea and China?” Of course he is—and the ambiguity is intentional. Trump always employs both the carrot and the stick, the embrace and the threat, the warm blanket hiding a gun. While Tillerson assures the world that nothing has changed, Trump churns the waters. The candidate who argued that America had become too predictable, reducing our power to influence global affairs, has become the president who never moves in a straight line. Uncertainty is the go-to Trump strategy. Although any other charge may find its moment, he will never be accused of being predictable.
The president is speaking loudly and handing China a big stick because economic sanctions against North Korea have not worked and can never do so. North Korea has no economy. Sanctions cannot make the North Korean economic desert any drier. China, however, has other leverage. Foreign policy authorities suspect that more than a few of the generals around Kim Jung Un are not only on his payroll but also China’s. They can have significant effects on the North Korean leader’s ability to maintain power if he does not become more cooperative.
The reaction of Republican leaders in Washington is similar to that of our allies abroad. On the surface, they are enjoying the luxury of letting Trump do what must be done while they hide in the political shadows and urge a less combative strategy. Under the table, however, there is strong support for the president to pressure China with an ultimatum and clip the wings of Kim Jung Un’s missiles now, before they soar across the Pacific.
This crisis comes at the weakest moment yet of Trump’s green and impetuous presidency. Trump’s support is eroding, even among his core voters, although his supporters still believe the alternative to their erratic and impulsive president is, to borrow a word, deplorable. Without Trump, the Washington establishment would return to its unchecked and abusive exercise of power. Trump’s supporters still fear Washington would devour them, so they are stuck in the same room with him, despite his falling poll numbers—as long as he doesn’t set that room and the world on fire. Can their unpredictable guardian ever stop playing with matches?
A North Korean madman with a nuclear gun is alarming. So is an American president who thrives on uncertainty while juggling the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal. Trump supporters only ask that their man act as a grown-up, as strong as our adversaries and as serious as the moment, if that is within him. They hope it is, because they know, without question, that Trump will never change.