Tonight, after listening to President Trump’s National Security Adviser Gen. H.R McMasters, trying to answer PBS anchor Judy Woodruff’s question about what would it take for Trump to initiate a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, I was terrified by his answer or lack of an answer.
He basically said that his job is to provide all the options to Trump with the advantages and possible consequences of each option and it would be up to Trump to choose. He also said that there is not much time left before an option has to be executed. This makes it clear and urgent that a pre-emptive strike is actually being considered. This is crazy and everyone should know it. If Trump is not bluffing but actually intends to order a pre-emptive strike we should all know a few things.
If Trump seriously considers a pre-emptive strike and thinks that the North will do nothing, he is tragically misguided. NK, right now, has the capability of inflicting extreme damage to South Korea and Japan. This could kill millions of people and start another tragic Korean war. That war would have to be won on the ground with real armies of which NK has one of the largest standing armies in the world. Yes, we could win but at an enormous price, which would surely require a very large U.S. Army on the ground. We should know, by now, that wars are not won by air power alone and there is no army to stand in for the U.S.
If Trump is bluffing, he will ultimately have to back down and accept a nuclear NK because it is foolish to think they will voluntarily give up their nuclear program. They believe the nuclear program is what keeps them independent. They fear, probably rightfully, (check Iraq) that without these weapons they will ultimately be overthrown which has been the unstated U.S. goal for decades. Even if Trump is bluffing, an accident could set off escalating incidents and ultimately a real war. So bluffing is not only foolish but has dangerous unintended consequences.
The other option, jokingly called diplomacy, is the hope that sanctions will ultimately choke them into submission and force them to give up their nuclear program. So far there is no evidence that sanctions actually work or that China, who has to do most of the choking, is willing to risk a NK collapse on their doorstep. Moreover, sanctions take time and McMaster said the timing is urgent so in reality if they are is such a hurry sanctions can not work. Even if NK came to the table without pre-conditions what could the U.S. offer to interest them in giving up their nuclear program. Trump’s plan seems to be we would offer them survival but would anyone believe such guarantees would not evaporate once their program is taken down. They know what happened to Lybia.
There are only two realistic options at this point to eliminate the chances of war. One would be to institute a plan like the Cold War where they keep their program for self-defense but try to bring them out of isolation. That probably would require relieving them of many sanctions without any thing in return but it may work. Of course, Trump would consider this capitulation, so it is not likely to happen.
Another realistic option is the one we have been using for the past several decades. Just leave them alone and knock off all the crisis talk. They know full well if they start a war, they will lose big time, so why would they? They are not as crazy as Trump implies. We hope he isn’t but we are not sure. After all, we went through the Cold War with a lot more at stake when Russia and the U.S. both had hundreds of ICBMs with hydrogen bomb warheads pointed at targets in both countries. That situation could have ended life on this planet if anyone pushed the wrong button. We are nowhere near that situation now. Unfortunately, Trump is out on a limb now and thinks he has to do something. After all, he never admits mistakes.
We have to hope that he doesn’t prefer the option in the “Wag the Dog” movie where the president started a war to save face and help him get reelected. Does anyone think he is not capable of that? Maybe not, but even if he is not that heartless, it might happen accidentally with all the rhetoric he has been using. Fear is easily formed and hard to eliminate.
Bottom line, there is no realistic military option that would not lead to catastrophe and everyone should know that. But does Trump? Every sensible person in this country should be on the streets protesting if he goes down that path.
Gerald Smith is a resident of North Kohala. He served in the United States Air Force for 15 months at a radar station in the mountains of South Korea at the end of the Korean War. He holds NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, for his work in space and ground astronomy