Whatever the goal, the rhetoric is disturbingly reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s propaganda campaign that prepared America for war against Saddam Hussein. Outside experts are increasingly concluding that the Trump administration’s threats may not be empty and that officials are seriously contemplating attacking North Korea and its nuclear weapons and missile arsenal.
“Most Americans don’t realize how close we are to this war,” Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois who lost both her legs while serving in Iraq, told Vox.
A recent Congressional Research Service report concluded that any military move could have “catastrophic consequences” for the Korean Peninsula, Japan and the region, resulting in “tens of thousands of casualties in South Korea” alone; possible use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by North Korea; and intervention by China.
That slaughter is alarming enough, but administration officials reportedly have also convinced themselves they can keep North Korea from retaliating, a dubious proposition. “I have strong reason to believe this is not an act,” Jon Wolfsthal, a former security adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted. “There are still people at the very top who believe certain military action, even now, can prevent North Korea from threatening the U.S. They are dangerously deluded.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis showed welcome prudence and levelheadedness when he seemed to implicitly rebuke General McMaster and Senator Graham in comments to reporters this week and stressed efforts to “resolve this with diplomatic means.” Mr. Mattis endorsed efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, to arrange a multination meeting of foreign ministers in Vancouver, British Columbia, next month to explore diplomatic options on North Korea. And his Pentagon denied it had plans to evacuate thousands of American military dependents from South Korea, which would be interpreted as a sign that America expected military action and would feel to South Korea, an ally, like abandonment.
While North Korea’s dash to become a nuclear power was well underway before Mr. Trump got to the White House, the program is now far more advanced and dangerous, and he cannot ignore it. But military action is not the answer when there is still a chance that diplomacy (backed by tougher sanctions) and deterrence can contain the threat.