Back in July, President Donald Trump was already escalating his rhetoric against North Korea as it became clear the rogue state was on the brink of a major breakthrough in its nuclear program, development of a ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States. Still, he insisted, “I don't draw red lines,” and wouldn't be sucked into doing so.
But that was before North Korea conducted its largest nuclear weapon test ever and sent missiles flying directly over Japan. And before Trump threatened “fire and fury” and declared a North Korean bomb capable of reaching the United States “unacceptable.” And before Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, warned on Friday that, all talk to the contrary, “there is a military option.”
All of which means that, whether he calls it one or not, Trump now has a red line—a move that a number of U.S. national security hands I've spoken with recently consider to be a serious and even “self-inflicted” escalation of what has become a genuine crisis with North Korea. In fact, Trump's bluster may be more genuine than his reputation for bombast over action suggests: Two Republican veterans of previous administrations told me that McMaster has repeated those public warnings about a serious consideration of military options in private sessions at which they were present.
“The point that the Trump administration seems to be making is that if North Korea achieves an ICBM capability, that is a missile that can reliably reach the United States with a nuclear weapon, that changes everything. Well, it doesn't. It never has,” says retired Admiral Dennis Blair, the former director of U.S. national intelligence, in a new interview for The Global POLITICO. “This hyping of the nuclear missile, which is merely one form of delivering a weapon, being able to reach the United States is a self-inflicted policy disadvantage which this administration has placed on itself.”
The North Koreans will soon cross Trump's ICBM threshold if they haven't already. “And so what's the United States going to do at that point?” says Blair, a longtime Asia hand who also served as commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in charge of carrying out U.S. war plans against North Korea during an earlier round of tensions. “It's something we've said is unacceptable. You don't say something's unacceptable in my experience unless you can do something about it. … If you put a red line out there, you have to be able to enforce it at acceptable cost, if your enemy miscalculates and the line is crossed.”
So now that Trump has his red line (never mind his previously stated belief that red lines, like the one President Barack Obama famously drew with Syria over its use of chemical weapons, are “very dumb”), does that mean the war scare this time is real?
Is Trump actually prepared to do what three previous U.S. presidents—for the obvious reason that the costs could be unfathomably high—were not?
Neither Blair nor others I spoke with can answer that question yet. While McMaster has been talking tough in private as well as public, it's also possible he's doing so in order to, as one national security veteran put it, “restore the credibility of the military deterrent”—rather than to indicate any imminent attack. And many in Washington have become convinced over the first eight months of the Trump administration that the president is more comfortable rattling sabers than swinging them.
But at the same time, the heated rhetoric has led Pentagon planners and outside experts into a hurried examination of new scenarios as the realization of Trump's rhetorical ratcheting up has become clear.
The dilemma is pretty obvious: As one former senior Defense Department official put it to me the other day, “How do we do ‘fire and fury' without buying a worldwide conflagration?”
Christopher Hill was the last senior U.S. diplomat to negotiate face to face with the North Koreans. He did so during President George W. Bush's second term (not an administration “known for its embrace of multilateral diplomacy,” as he dryly put it) before the deal fell apart.
So he's sympathetic to Trump's plight. Trump is now the fourth American president to declare a nuclear-armed North Korea unacceptable—even as North Korea's nuclear arsenal has steadily grown and technological breakthroughs have put the country on the brink of being able to target U.S. territory. “Look,” says Hill, who served as ambassador to South Korea and then as Bush's assistant secretary of state for East Asia, “it is a very frustrating issue to deal with North Korea. I'm still in therapy over dealing with North Korea. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep our cool and keep at the task.”
I had asked Hill and Blair—two of the most senior figures in the U.S. government to have had firsthand experience dealing directly with the North Korea nuclear program and what options the United States has for responding to it—to help me figure out just how seriously to take this latest round of war talk.
In a way, their answers are reassuring.
“I don't think that we are running a very high risk of a nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States,” Blair says.
But both are far more worried when it comes to the changes in approach they have been seeing from the Trump administration.
Not that they think Trump inherited good options from his predecessors. Bill Clinton cut a deal with the North Koreans—“the Agreed Framework”—to give up their nuclear program, only to see them cheat on the deal as Bush was coming into office. Bush, over the outrage of hard-liners inside his administration, eventually went back to the table in the so-called Six-Party Talks—and his negotiator Hill even got an agreement by the North Koreans to dismantle their plutonium facility before that deal, too, fell apart.
Obama never even got that far, preferring sanctions, secret sabotage and a hostile not-talking that was billed as “strategic patience”—even as a volatile new leader, Kim Jong Un, become the third generation of his family to embrace nuclear brinkmanship as a pillar of the country's foreign policy.
Blair, who was involved in various ways with all three of those administrations and their North Korea policies, thinks not much is different—except Trump himself.
“The overall consistency of North Korean policy has been pretty remarkable over, I'd say, 50 years or so, and [Kim] basically is carrying on that policy, which is to provoke, take outrageous actions below the level of triggering a major conflict with the United States and South Korea,” Blair says. “This pattern of operating below the level of a major war, but sufficiently alarming to get the attention of other governments, is quite consistent, and he seems to have updated it, pursues it perhaps more vigorously than others, but I don't see a radical change in the North Korean game.”
Hill disagrees somewhat, in that he believes Kim is far less open to meaningful outside pressure—including from the Chinese, whom Trump as well as his predecessors believe hold the key to any nuclear deal with the North Koreans.
“Kim Jong Un does not care what the Chinese think or what we think,” says Hill, who conducted most of his talks with the North Koreans in Beijing from late 2005 until 2008, when Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, still ruled. “And frankly, he is not prepared, from what I can tell, to restart negotiations on the basis of what the purpose of the negotiations was in the first place, which was denuclearization.”
Both agree, though, on something that's striking to hear from two former top U.S. officials: that Trump's departure is the more marked one.
“We used to be the strong, silent type on all of this crazy rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang, and we were the models of restrained, careful statements, and that's not the style of this president,” Blair says.
Hill noted Trump's North Korea tweetstorms—on Sunday, he called Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and taunted him about the pain he said was being caused by the latest round of U.N. sanctions—as an example of the new administration's anything-but-diplomatic approach.
“So far we sort of communicate with them by the occasional dead-of-the-night tweet or a few phone calls, maybe one or two visits, but we haven't had the sustained kind of discussions,” he says. “You know, when Nixon went to Shanghai and pulled that rabbit out of a hat, well, you know, rabbits don't live in hats. Henry Kissinger spent days on end stuffing that rabbit down the hat.”
In the end, neither was all that reassuring—and much of their concern has to do with the unpredictability of the man in the Oval Office.
Still, both Hill and Blair are believers in the idea that history shapes presidential decisions far more than we always recognize. And that means two things are likely to be true: America won't start a war with North Korea absent an attack. And Kim, if Trump finds ways short of outright war to ratchet up the pressure, will probably cave.
But I'll give the last word to the Pentagon veteran I spoke with last week, whose job involved many hours of planning over just such worrisome North Korea scenarios.
Is war still more or less impossible? I asked. Not necessarily, came the reply. “We have always probably overly discounted the chances.”
I didn't think so.
Susan B. Glasser / Politico.com / Sept.15, 2017
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