Donald Trump’s talk of annihilating North Korea with “fire and fury likes of which the world has never seen” – a threat delivered from his golf resort in New Jersey – was by far the most aggressive rhetoric used by a US president in difficult dealings with the East Asian country.
In effect, it mirrored the routinely florid and bellicose statements made by Kim Jong-un and it was hardly surprising that the response from Pyongyang was also belligerent, declaring that it would launch an attack on the American military base in Guam.
At one level this could be viewed as the loud emoting of two rather strange and comical characters in which the only escalating exchanges would be of hot air. This, however, is taking place in a volatile scenario in both East Asia and Washington and one of the men is the commander of the most powerful military in the world. The danger faced is the law of unintended consequences.
Trump’s words, it has been pointed out, had echoes of that of Harry S Truman who, in 1945, after the nuclear strike on Hiroshima, urged Japan to surrender or, once again “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”.
President Truman was prepared to authorise the attack on Nagasaki when no surrender came from Japan. Would Trump be prepared to match his diatribe about unleashing war with action? Launch missiles against North Korea or more?
The US President has already carried out an unexpected attack – in Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s forces were accused of carrying out a chemical weapon atrocity in Idlib province. But that was a one-off gesture, rather than of any great strategic value. There has been no sustained offensive against a regime protected by the Russians: no change to the dynamic on the ground.
The Syrian assault did, of course, lead to massive international publicity which was a welcome distraction from the domestic problems being faced by the Trump presidency. Those problems are now a full blown crisis for Trump and a military adventure against a “rogue state” may give him some breathing space at a time when the investigation into his Russian links and his financial activities is tightening the noose; when he has abjectly failed to carry out his election programme and when support from even his core voters is fading away.
But a mission in North Korea would be far different from launching missiles at a Syrian base. The military are only too aware of the pitfalls: as General James Mattis, the Defence Secretary, said “If this goes to a military solution, it is going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale. So our effort is to work with the UN, work with China, work with Japan, work with South Korea to find a way out of the situation.”
It is the military around Trump, the sanest men in his administration, led by “Mad Dog” Mattis, who will, we can hope, stop matters getting out of hand. Their task is not easy; General John Kelly was brought in as chief of staff to sort out a chaotic White House and attempt to present a united voice. The early indications are that Gen Kelly did not even know that Trump was going to threaten war while on his golfing holiday.
The Trump outburst came when the US administration had started a “carrot and cosh” approach towards Kim Jong-un with some initial success. Just the day before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had made an offer of talks if North Korea stopped its missile tests and Pyonyang had responded that they were open to the proposal.
Also Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the United Nations, had achieved a diplomatic coup with a Security Council resolution, supported by Russia and China, to impose a tough new package of sanctions against North Korea.
Meanwhile the intelligence agencies had found ways of secretly tracking the advances towards a nuclear arsenal being made by Pyongyang. That information was leaked to Fox News, leading to Haley complaining about security being compromised. She then discovered, to her bemusement, that Trump had been busy tweeting the classified information.
Negotiating with Kim Jong-un will be a fraught and frustrating process. But the grown-ups in the US administration may think it would be wise to keep Donald Trump as far away from it as possible. Dealing with just one unpredictable demagogue would be hard enough.
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