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Trump's Nuclear Credibility

By James S. Robbins
U.S. News & World Report
August 18, 2017


When President Donald Trump threatened "fire and fury" in response to potential nuclear aggression from North Korea, the world held its collective breath. But a week later, the brewing calamity had abated, in large part due to the Trump administration's no-nonsense style of crisis management.

Relations between the United States and North Korea had been deteriorating rapidly since Pyongyang embarked on a series of missile tests that appeared to demonstrate a capability to strike the U.S. mainland. The tests were accompanied by repeated statements that the Stalinist regime would continue to develop its missile and nuclear programs despite international opposition. Last Tuesday, Trump said that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un "has been very threatening beyond a normal state," and that if conflict broke out the regime "will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before."

The president appeared to be suggesting a nuclear response to North Korean aggression. This caused some consternation among Trump's critics, who saw this as reckless and unprecedented. However, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the threat of nuclear strikes to reach an armistice in the Korean War. And recall that in April 2016, after Pyongyang tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, President Barack Obama told CBS News that the United States "could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals."

Note that Obama immediately dialed back his implicit threat, while Mr. Trump let his stand. This is a critical difference, pointing to the important distinction between capability and credibility. Yes, the United States has sufficient nuclear forces to annihilate North Korea. But while Obama said he "could" act, Trump promised he "will." Obama alarmed no one, including Kim. Trump sent a very different message, one that apparently got through.

Pyongyang responded to Trump's threat hours later, saying it was planning an intermediate-range missile test that would that would create "an enveloping fire" around the U.S. territory of Guam. The island hosts Andersen Air Force Base, from which the U.S. has recently conducted B-1 bomber overflights of the Korean peninsula. Some read the threat as an explicit show of force rather than a threatened attack, since the North Korean missiles were to land 25 miles offshore. This plan placed a great deal of faith in the North Korean missile force's targeting capability, which has been sketchy to say the least.

However, Secretary of Defense James Mattis soon clarified the issue by saying "that's called war, if they shoot at us." Any missiles heading for U.S. territory would be shot down, the secretary said, and after that, "it's game on." Critics dickered with this choice of words, saying that "war is not a game," something the former U.S. Marine general and combat veteran knows better than almost anyone. But the message was clear: If North Korea attempted this stunt it would be a casus belli. Again, credibility is key. A defense secretary that the president lightheartedly refers to by his nickname "Mad Dog" is not likely to be making idle threats. "Game on" could mean many things, but none of them would bode well for the Kim regime. Pyongyang soon backed down, reserving the right to re-escalate if provoked by the "foolish Yankees."

When Trump Talks, People Listen

The president's rhetoric, especially on North Korea, is on target.

Lest we read too much into the efficacy of posturing, it is also critical to note that in the midst of this back and forth, China agreed to enforce a new round of U.N. economic sanctions against North Korea, something Beijing had previously been reluctant to do.

However, this was no sudden burst of good global citizenship on China's part. It came while Trump signed a memorandum directing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to "determine whether an investigation is needed into alleged unfair Chinese trade practices." The White House denied this move was linked to the North Korean issue, allowing China to save face by not appearing to be pressured into doing the right thing. Call it the art of the deal.

Military action has been averted, at least temporarily. But the basic problem remains: that of an unstable regime armed with nuclear weapons and seeking the means to deliver them to the U.S. mainland. Trump can chalk up a win this time, but it is an easy bet that Kim will test him again, and soon.


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