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Foreign Policy in Focus
If I were a Trump supporter, I’d be furious at the coverage of the president’s first 100 days. The mainstream media has engaged in a bout of competitive schadenfreude as headline writers and columnists vie for the distinction of deriving the most pleasure from the administration’s failures.
This was, after all, the un-president: a man without qualifications to serve, without a popular mandate from the voters, and, once elected, without much interest in the day-to-day slog of governing. At every opportunity, he seems to prefer to decamp to his Florida mansion, retreat to the nearest links, or set off on yet another “victory tour” of the states he won in the election.
In the lead up to the 100-day mark on April 29, ABC and The Washington Post published a poll demonstrating that Trump, at this juncture in his tenure, is also the most unpopular president in the modern age. Even the administration’s last-minute efforts to tap into the more nationalistic sentiments of the electorate by bombing the Syrian Army, bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and threatening to bomb the North Koreans seemed to make little difference. Only 42 percent of the country approve of the president’s performance (compared to Obama’s 69 percent at the same point in his first term).
At the bottom of The Washington Post article on this poll, however, is a fascinating little tidbit. Pollsters asked the respondents which candidate they supported in the presidential election. Not surprisingly, the figures corresponded more or less to the popular vote. Respondents said that they favored Clinton over Trump by 46 percent to 43 percent.
But then, when asked whom they would vote for if the election were held again today, the respondents delivered a surprise. They actually favored Trump over Clinton, 43 to 40 percent.
That’s astonishing. The candidate who lost the popular vote, who has done pretty much nothing since the inauguration other than put his foot in his mouth or on the putting green, who has the lowest approval ratings after 100 days of any president in the modern era, would still beat Hillary Clinton in a rematch — and probably not just in the Electoral College either.
There are three reasons for this cognitive dissonance. First, although her greatest sin is that she’s a conventional politician, Hillary Clinton inspires considerable hatred across large tracts of American politics. Second, a certain fraction of Trump supporters will stand by their man even if he were to sweep aside his orange comb-over to reveal a pair of devil’s horns. According to the same poll, although only 85 percent of Clinton voters pledged their continued allegiance to their candidate, a remarkable 96 percent of Trump voters refused to budge in their support. Talk about brand loyalty.
Which brings us to the third reason. The Trump administration has indeed displayed unprecedented incompetence in its first 100 days. But not everyone in the country views that incompetence the same way that the mainstream media does. Indeed, two separate and opposite theories have emerged to explain away what, according to the common-sense view, looks like a lot of people in high places who just don’t know what they’re doing.
The Uses of Incompetence
According to the adherents of the first theory, the administration of Donald Trump is so dedicated to the deconstruction of the state that it’s using incompetence as a tool. What better way to tear down liberal social programs and undo the regulatory apparatus than to install the manifestly ill-equipped, like Scott Pruitt at EPA or Rick Perry at DOE, in agencies devoted to missions they either don’t understand or don’t appreciate?
Meanwhile, President Trump is making contradictory statements, changing his positions on a daily basis, and spouting outright falsehoods in order to throw off his adversaries, both domestically and abroad. His enemies will underestimate him. They won’t be able to predict his actions. They’ll be scared into adopting conciliatory positions for fear that, like a ruthless and entirely unprepared narcissist, he’ll lash out irrationally and without his country’s best interests at heart.
In other words, what might seem like mental illness is in fact deliberate craftiness.
The second theory holds that the Trump administration is honestly trying to get things done, but a “deep state” — composed either of Obama appointees or national security operatives — is opposing him at every turn. Indeed, this deep state is so influential that it’s turned Trump’s head on Syria (to bomb Assad), China (to make nice), Russia (to destroy the promise of détente), and trade (to back away from a border-adjustment tax).
The “deep state,” according to the more conspiratorial sources, is aligned with a range of international actors, all arrayed against Trump. This list includes international financial institutions, transnational political entities like the UN, and liberal elites (who might not even be liberal, like Angela Merkel of Germany).
Certainly Trump advisers like Steve Bannon are committed to cutting back on all the parts of the government they don’t like (while beefing up those parts they do). And certainly the administration has encountered considerable resistance inside the Beltway and in the world at large to its more radical programs. Yet these explanations are not fully satisfactory.
Which leaves the third possibility — that the incompetence of Trump and his cronies is neither a strategy nor the result of a counter-strategy. The U.S. government is a tremendously complex mechanism, and even smart policy wonks like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama made big mistakes in their first 100 days. Install an ignorant and incurious president who’s brought in a coterie of the narrow-minded and what do you expect?
Thus, the Trump administration has engaged in a stunning display of ham-fisted, tone-deaf, and downright incomprehensible policy maneuvers. It mishandled its travel ban (twice), fumbled the health-care replacement bill, and alienated members of Congress on both sides of the aisle with its initial budget proposal. Trump has had embarrassing interactions with the leaders of Russia, Australia, and Germany (among others). The only obvious victory in its first three months has been the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, but that required Senate Republicans to deploy the “nuclear option” and confirm with a simple majority (rather than the hallowed tradition of the filibuster-proof 60 votes).
Then there have been the self-destructive appointments. The congressional confirmation process weeded out a few of the worst performers, like Labor Department designee Andrew Puzder, while scandal claimed others, like National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and would-be NSC communications head Monica Crowley.
But the Trump administration has also been quite effective in auto-destruction, as James Hohmann points out in the Post. Here are some of the early departures from the Trump team: Chris Christie (head of the transition team), Katie Walsh (deputy chief of staff), Boris Epshteyn (special assistant to the president), Gerrit Lansing (chief digital adviser), Anthony Scaramucci (head of the Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs), K.T. McFarland (deputy national security advisor), Craig Deere (NSC senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs), and Shermichael Singleton (senior adviser to Ben Carson). Close to the exit door are counter-terrorism advisor Sebastian Gorka (for his ties to a Nazi-affiliated organization) and Sean Spicer (whose incompetence as press secretary has become legendary).
The Trump revolution has been devouring itself at record speed.
What Americans Think
Public opinion pollsters suffered a huge loss of credibility after the results of the 2016 presidential election came in. Up to the last minute, the well-respected FiveThirtyEight site was giving Hillary Clinton a 71.4 percent chance of winning.
One of the problems with polling is that it doesn’t capture the relative fervency of the respective constituencies. Hillary Clinton had fire in the belly, but many of her supporters did not. Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, were more fired up than even their candidate.
That’s why the latest poll out of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is somewhat misleading. The headline is that the U.S. public sides more with the mainstream foreign policy establishment than with Donald Trump on issues from trade to NATO. Thus, according to the poll, a clear majority of Americans favor U.S. commitment to existing security alliances, embrace economic globalization and free trade, and support robust engagement in world affairs.
The Council acknowledges, however, that on certain key issues, the public diverges from the elite:
The American public and opinion leaders are in fact divided over several key issues, including the importance of protecting American jobs, U.S. immigration policy, and the importance of protecting U.S. allies’ security. Perhaps not coincidentally, these areas where elite-public gaps exist are also the issue areas where Donald Trump’s message has resounded the loudest.
Wait a second. These three positions are in fact the flip side of the three issues where the preferences of the public and the Blob supposedly overlap. Americans have a rhetorical commitment to globalization but they actually put American jobs first. They believe in NATO but they actually don’t see the important of coming to the defense of allies, which is the essential element of the security alliance. And they want the United States to remain engaged in the world but not to the extent that the world engages with us by coming to our shores.
Then, if you look closer at the supposed overlap, it dissolves into the same problem of fervency that threw off the compasses of pollsters in November 2016. For instance, 41 percent of Republican voters view globalization negatively and 36 percent want the United States to stay out of world affairs. Meanwhile, 79 percent want to “build a wall” to keep out immigrants, and 75 percent see Islamic fundamentalism as a critical threat. The numbers are even starker for Trump’s core supporters.
Now take another look at Trump’s first 100 days from this perspective. The administration cancelled U.S. participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement and made an expensive bid to keep U.S. manufacturing jobs. It has continued to press for the “Wall” on the border with Mexico in the face of congressional opposition. It signed executive orders to keep out people from seven (then six) predominantly Muslim countries.
Everything else is noise. Sure, some of Trump’s far-right supporters were angry that he bombed the Syrian Army, didn’t withdraw the United States from NATO, alienated Moscow, and banished Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. But Trump’s core supporters don’t care much about these issues. What the liberal media sees as failures, flip-flops, or sheer incompetence comes across, in Trump country, as good-faith efforts to upend the foreign policy consensus and fundamentally reorient U.S. priorities.
Incompetence, in their view, is fake news. The first 100 days, as staged by fading reality star Donald Trump, has been practically a second American Revolution.
But incompetence has very real effects. Domestically, the courts and Congress and civil society can contain the damage to a certain extent. Internationally, the damage could be catastrophic.
This week, Trump invited the Senate to the White House for a briefing on North Korea. Virtually every expert on North Korea from across the political spectrum has called a preemptive strike a very bad idea. A competent administration would heed these words. An incompetent administration might decide to roll the dice because it doesn’t understand the game, the odds, or the consequences.
If you thought the first 100 days were bad, prepare yourself for something incomparably worse, something that even Trump country would recognize as an epic fail.John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.
At a time of growing tensions between nuclear powers — Russia and NATO in Europe, and the U.S., North Korea, and China in Asia — Washington has quietly upgraded its nuclear weapons arsenal to create, according to three leading American scientists, “exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”
Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists, Matthew McKinzie of the National Resources Defense Council, and physicist and ballistic missile expert Theodore Postol conclude that “Under the veil of an otherwise-legitimate warhead life-extension program,” the U.S. military has vastly expanded the “killing power” of its warheads such that it can “now destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos.”
The upgrade — part of the Obama administration’s $1 trillion modernization of America’s nuclear forces — allows Washington to destroy Russia’s land-based nuclear weapons, while still retaining 80 percent of U.S. warheads in reserve. If Russia chose to retaliate, it would be reduced to ash.
A Failure of Imagination
Any discussion of nuclear war encounters several major problems.
First, it’s difficult to imagine or to grasp what it would mean in real life. We’ve only had one conflict involving nuclear weapons — the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — and the memory of those events has faded over the years. In any case, the two bombs that flattened those Japanese cities bear little resemblance to the killing power of modern nuclear weapons.
The Hiroshima bomb exploded with a force of 15 kilotons, or kt. The Nagasaki bomb was slightly more powerful, at about 18 kt. Between them, they killed over 215,000 people. In contrast, the most common nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal today, the W76, has an explosive power of 100 kt. The next most common, the W88, packs a 475-kt punch.
Another problem is that most of the public thinks nuclear war is impossible because both sides would be destroyed. This is the idea behind the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, aptly named “MAD.”
But MAD is not a U.S. military doctrine. A “first strike” attack has always been central to U.S. military planning, until recently. However, there was no guarantee that such an attack would so cripple an opponent that it would be unable — or unwilling, given the consequences of total annihilation — to retaliate.
The strategy behind a first strike — sometimes called a “counter force” attack — isn’t to destroy an opponent’s population centers, but to eliminate the other sides’ nuclear weapons, or at least most of them. Anti-missile systems would then intercept a weakened retaliatory strike.
The technical breakthrough that suddenly makes this a possibility is something called the “super-fuze”, which allows for a much more precise ignition of a warhead. If the aim is to blow up a city, such precision is superfluous. But taking out a reinforced missile silo requires a warhead to exert a force of at least 10,000 pounds per square inch on the target.
Up until the 2009 modernization program, the only way to do that was to use the much more powerful — but limited in numbers — W88 warhead. Fitted with the super-fuze, however, the smaller W76 can now do the job, freeing the W88 for other targets.
Traditionally, land-based missiles are more accurate than sea-based missiles, but the former are more vulnerable to a first-strike than the latter, because submarines are good at hiding. The new super-fuze does not increase the accuracy of Trident II submarine missiles, but it makes up for that with the precision of where the weapon detonates. “In the case of the 100-kt Trident II warhead,” write the three scientists, “the super-fuze triples the killing power of the nuclear force it is applied to.”
Before the super-fuze was deployed, only 20 percent of U.S. subs had the ability to destroy re-enforced missile silos. Today, all have that capacity.
Trident II missiles typically carry from four to five warheads, but can expand that up to eight. While the missile is capable of hosting as many as 12 warheads, that configuration would violate current nuclear treaties. U.S. submarines currently deploy about 890 warheads, of which 506 are W76s and 384 are W88s.
The land-based ICBMs are Minuteman III, each armed with three warheads — 400 in total — ranging from 300 kt to 500 kt apiece. There are also air and sea-launched nuclear tipped missiles and bombs. The Tomahawk cruise missiles that recently struck Syria can be configured to carry a nuclear warhead.
The Technology Gap
The super-fuze also increases the possibility of an accidental nuclear conflict.
So far, the world has managed to avoid a nuclear war, although during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis it came distressingly close. There have also been several scary incidents when U.S. and Soviet forces went to full alert because of faulty radar images or a test tape that someone thought was real. While the military downplays these events, former Secretary of Defense William Perry argues that it is pure luck that we have avoided a nuclear exchange — and that the possibility of nuclear war is greater today than it was at the height of the Cold War.
In part, this is because of a technology gap between the U.S. and Russia.
In January 1995, Russian early warning radar on the Kola Peninsula picked up a rocket launch from a Norwegian island that looked as if it was targeting Russia. In fact, the rocket was headed toward the North Pole, but Russian radar tagged it as a Trident II missile coming in from the North Atlantic. The scenario was plausible. While some first strike attacks envision launching a massive number of missiles, others call for detonating a large warhead over a target at about 800 miles altitude. The massive pulse of electro-magnetic radiation that such an explosion generates would blind or cripple radar systems over a broad area. That would be followed with a first strike.
At the time, calmer heads prevailed and the Russians called off their alert, but for a few minutes the doomsday clock moved very close to midnight.
According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the 1995 crisis suggests that Russia does not have “a reliable and working global space-based satellite early warning system.” Instead, Moscow has focused on building ground-based systems that give the Russians less warning time than satellite-based ones do. What that means is that while the U.S. would have about 30 minutes of warning time to investigate whether an attack was really taking place, the Russians would have 15 minutes or less.
That, according to the magazine, would likely mean that “Russian leadership would have little choice but to pre-delegate nuclear launch authority to lower levels of command,” hardly a situation that would be in the national security interests of either country.
Or, for that matter, the world.
A recent study found that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan using Hiroshima-sized weapons would generate a nuclear winter that would make it impossible to grow wheat in Russia and Canada and cut the Asian Monsoon’s rainfall by 10 percent. The result would be up to 100 million deaths by starvation. Imagine what the outcome would be if the weapons were the size used by Russia, China, or the U.S.
For the Russians, the upgrading of U.S. sea-based missiles with the super-fuze would be an ominous development. By “shifting the capacity to submarines that can move to missile launch positions much closer to their targets than land-based missiles,” the three scientists conclude, “the U.S. military has achieved a significantly greater capacity to conduct a surprise first strike against Russian ICBM silos.”
The U.S. Ohio class submarine is armed with 24 Trident II missiles, carrying as many as 192 warheads. The missiles can be launched in less than a minute.
The Russians and Chinese have missile-firing submarines as well, but not as many, and some are close to obsolete. The U.S. has also seeded the world’s oceans and seas with networks of sensors to keep track of those subs. In any case, would the Russians or Chinese retaliate if they knew that the U.S. still retained most of its nuclear strike force? Faced with a choice committing national suicide or holding their fire, they may well choose the former.
The other element in this modernization program that has Russia and China uneasy is the decision by the Obama administration to place anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, and to deploy Aegis ship-based anti-missile systems off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. From Moscow’s perspective — and Beijing’s as well — those interceptors are there to absorb the few missiles that a first strike might miss.
In reality, anti-missile systems are pretty iffy. Once they migrate off the drawing boards, their lethal efficiency drops rather sharply. Indeed, most of them can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But that’s not a chance the Chinese and the Russians can afford to take.
Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Forum in June 2016, Russian President Valdimir Putin charged that U.S. anti-missile systems in Poland and Romania were not aimed at Iran, but at Russia and China. “The Iranian threat does not exist, but missile defense systems continue to be positioned.” He added, “a missile defense system is one element of the whole system of offensive military potential.”
Unraveling Arms Accords
The danger here is that arms agreements will begin to unravel if countries decide that they are suddenly vulnerable. For the Russians and the Chinese, the easiest solution to the American breakthrough is to build a lot more missiles and warheads, and treaties be dammed.
The new Russian cruise missile may indeed strain the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but it is also a natural response to what are, from Moscow’s view, alarming technological advances by the U.S. Had the Obama administration reversed the 2002 decision by George W. Bush’s administration to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the new cruise might never have been deployed.
There are a number of immediate steps that the U.S. and the Russians could take to de-escalate the current tensions. First, taking nuclear weapons off their hair-trigger status would immediately reduce the possibility of accidental nuclear war. That could be followed by a pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons.
If this does not happen, it will almost certainly result in an accelerated nuclear arms race. “I don’t know how this is all going to end,” Putin told the St. Petersburg delegates. “What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves.”Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently earned a news cycle’s worth of negative press after an interview in which he seemed to dismiss the entire state of Hawaii, where a federal judge earlier this year blocked the Trump administration’s ban on refugees and on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries.
“I really am amazed,” Sessions complained, “that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power.”
Sessions’ comments were widely seen as ignorant and arrogant, dismissing U.S. federal district judge Derrick Watson and the “island in the Pacific” on which he sits. Hawaii’s Senators Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz were quick to fire back on Twitter, with Schatz reminding Sessions that that island is called Oahu, and it happens to be part of a U.S. state.
The dustup came one day after South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham made comments which received far less attention. Speaking in a Today Show interview, Graham said that a war on the Korean peninsula would be “bad for China, bad for Japan, bad for South Korea, it’d be the end of North Korea,” but quickly added, “what it would not do is hit America.”
It was as if Graham was saying: Relax! We’re only talking about destruction on a peninsula in the Pacific.
Sessions and Graham’s remarks might have been more shocking if they weren’t preceded by the U.S. president’s own steady stream of outrageous comments — including his latest ally-enraging (and inaccurate) suggestion that Korea was once part of China, and appearing not to know the difference between three generations of North Korea’s Kim dynasty. In Washington, the intellectual and moral bar has been set so low, it’s now in danger of being run over by rats and lemmings.
Truth be told, Sessions, Graham, and Trump hardly hold a monopoly on disrespect and disconnect to the Asia-Pacific. Even those who were quick to blast Sessions’ remarks operate on their own ingrained assumptions about the region.
By their nature, Pacific islands are geographically smaller and distant from continents and have long been seen through the lens of conceit. (Henry Kissinger was famously quoted saying of the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. conducted nuclear testing from 1946 to 1958, “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”)
It’s why, in part, places like Hawaii, Guam, the Marshall Islands, and Okinawa have been relegated to serve as neverland vacation getaways as well as outposts for our military empire — places to store, stage, test, and train for tomorrow’s wars.
Sessions’ dismissive island in the Pacific comment and Graham’s cavalier admission that a new Korean war would be a disaster for “them” but not “us” (sucks to be you!) cut to the heart of questions of sovereignty and servitude — and why there is so little recognition of the degree to which islands in the Pacific are commodified and militarized.
And while Jeff Sessions surely knows that Hawaii has been a U.S. state since 1959, he and others would do well to remember that the formerly independent Kingdom of Hawaii was, in fact, illegally overthrown by the United States in 1893 — and that Hawaiian legal scholars and others still dispute the validity of the U.S. annexation of Hawaii. The subsequent road to statehood and attendant impacts to Hawaiian culture and society, land rights, and the environment stand out as a glaring example of what can happen to an island in the Pacific when it catches the eye of a great power.
On the other side of the date line, the U.S. territory of Guam is highly valued by the U.S. military as its “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Western Pacific, anchored strategically near East Asia. But most Americans would struggle to find it on a map. Guam has one of the highest military enlistment rates in the U.S. but remains divided over its political status.
There’s an effort underway to hold a plebiscite that would address the island’s political status as an “unincorporated territory.” A vote on whether Guam should pursue statehood (like Hawaii), forge a free association with the U.S. (like Micronesia’s three COFA nations), or seek full independence would be a significant step toward ending its colonial status and move toward self-governance.
Like Guam and Hawaii, the Republic of the Marshall Islands knows all too well what it means to be an island in the Pacific. The impact of the 67 nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U.S. in the northern atolls (most famously on Bikini) is measured not just in contaminated islands and devastating cancer rates, but in the profound changes to Marshallese culture and society. Entire communities were moved around like furniture to accommodate U.S. weapons tests.
Often overlooked is the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein atoll, home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which is so valued by the U.S. that it has negotiated a lease that runs through 2066 (with an option to extend to 2086). Much of the base’s unskilled labor force is made up of Marshallese who live in impoverished, crowded conditions, often lacking the most basic services and utilities, on a tiny sliver of sand called Ebeye island a short boat ride away from America’s sophisticated Death Star in the Pacific.
The widely accepted premise that islands in the Pacific make great military bases extends to southern Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until it was absorbed by Japan in the 1880s. After the horrific battle of Okinawa at the end of World War II, the U.S. claimed Okinawa as its own — the spoils of war — and occupied it outright until its reversion to Japan in 1972.
Today Okinawa is fractured as its people continue to protest around the clock against the lopsided U.S. military presence there. At least 70 percent of all U.S. bases and half of U.S. troops in Japan are crowded on Okinawa into less than 1 percent of Japanese territory, with new U.S. installations being forcibly built under the heavy fists of Tokyo and Washington.
This denial of how the U.S. disrespects islands extends beyond the Pacific. It’s why Diego Garcia, where the U.S. and British expelled an entire indigenous population to build a U.S. military base, is just an island in the Indian Ocean. It’s why Puerto Rico and Cuba are just islands in the Caribbean.
When geographically and politically dominant nation-states invade, conquer, annex, or otherwise absorb smaller, distant islands, entire populations are displaced, cultures are appropriated or extinguished, and colonization and militarization are normalized.
When Jeff Sessions made his smug comment about an island in the Pacific, he was lambasted for disrespecting Hawaii. But a more subtle, far more pervasive kind of disrespect forms the basis of a narrative so widespread it transcends political boundaries, linking those on the right with those on the left in a way that never seems to make the news.Jon Letman is a freelance journalist and photographer based on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The Trump administration recently announced an emergency meeting with 100 senators at the White House, where many speculated that Trump would disclose new intelligence to justify U.S. military action against North Korea, or else more sanctions.
Neither would constitute a success in the Trump administration’s first 100 days. What would is calling for diplomacy to avert nuclear war.
Any military action by the United States, however limited, would provoke a conflict that could instantly kill millions on the Korean peninsula — and threaten a regional nuclear war that could draw in Japan, China, and Russia. Every president before Trump considered a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, but they were quickly sobered by the reality that a military option would trigger a counter-reaction from Pyongyang. The Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations all felt they couldn’t justify military action that would kill millions of South Koreans and endanger the 28,500 U.S. soldiers and 230,000 U.S. citizens residing there.
The most serious brush was in 1994, when President Clinton considered a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The Pentagon concluded — well before Pyongyang possessed nuclear weapons — that even limited action would claim a million lives in the first 24 hours, if North Korea retaliated with conventional strikes on Seoul. President Obama, too, considered surgical strikes, but as The New York Times journalist David Sanger reported, “the risks of missing were tremendous, including renewed war on the Korean peninsula.”
Stratfor, a global intelligence firm, also raises questions about the suggestion that it’s possible to destroy North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure in a single strike. “We simply do not have a comprehensive or precise picture of the North Korean nuclear program, especially when it comes to the number of weapons and delivery vehicles,” it says. “We do not know for sure where they are located or how well they are protected.” Pyongyang was sure to communicate this during its military parade on the 105th birthday of its founder Kim Il Sung, when it showcased its nuclear-capable and mobile Transporter Erector Launchers (TELs). Not a sitting duck, TELS would allow North Korea to fire missiles from anywhere, from a forest or mountain, against Japan and South Korea.
“There is no South Korean leader who thinks the first strike by the U.S. is okay,” said Suh Choo-suk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “The Security of South Korea is as important as that of the U.S.,” reminded Moon Jae-in, the leading South Korean presidential candidate. “No pre-emptive strike should be carried out without the consent of South Korea” — especially “in the absence of a South Korean president.” The second leading candidate Ahn Chul-soo cautioned, “We need to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue in a peaceful manner.”
Importantly, North Korea has threatened to retaliate only in response to a U.S. pre-emptive military strike. In its 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un affirmed that his country would not use nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty was violated.
Last week, DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol explained that his government’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles was “to protect our government and system from threat and provocation from the United States.” Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who helped negotiate a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program during the Clinton administration, agrees: “I believe that the danger of a North Korean ICBM program is not that they would launch an unprovoked attack on the United States — they are not suicidal.”
President Trump must avoid at all costs a direct military confrontation with North Korea, which has a long history of engaging in brinksmanship. The United States has been successful in defusing past crises by working in partnership with U.S. allies in the region. Today, China calls for restraint, and South Korea is urging a diplomatic solution. That diplomatic solution must include a formal resolution of the Korean War, which was only temporarily halted by a ceasefire when North Korean and American military commanders signed the Armistice Agreement in 1953.
President Trump could demonstrate his art of deal making by advancing the only solution that’s ever worked: diplomacy and engagement.Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Christine Ahn is the international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing for peace in Korea.