We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you,” President Donald Trump boasted to Fox Business Network recently.
Much to the amusement of Trump’s adversaries, it turned out that the “armada” was actually heading not toward North Korea but to Australia, to a pre-scheduled exercise. Yet ridicule aside, this is a serious matter, with potentially dangerous repercussions.
Tony Schwartz, who knows Donald Trump well because he ghostwrote his “Art of the Deal,” told the New Yorker last July that “Trump only takes two positions. Either you’re a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you’re the greatest.”
If there is something Trump really wants, it is to be perceived as the latter, not the former, the “greatest”, not someone whose bluff has just been called. Therefore, this embarrassing incident might drive him to precarious reactions.
North Korea is by far Trump’s toughest foreign-policy challenge. Judging from the noises coming out of the White House, it is clear that President Obama’s “strategic patience” with North Korea is over. The question is what comes next.
Trump wisely pointed out China as a potential partner in containing North Korea’s nuclear militancy. As a natural dealmaker, he enticed visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping with promises of trade deals in exchange for his support. However, soon after, in a joint news conference with visiting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump warned that, “Otherwise we’re just going to go it alone.”
To stress that this wasn’t an empty threat, Vice President Mike Pence, on his recent visit in South Korea, warned North Korea “not to test [Trump’s] resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.” He echoed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had warned that pre-emptive military action was “on the table” when he visited the Korean DMZ last month. In turn, North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Kim In-ryong, accused the United States of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.”
When such combative rhetoric is combined with the presence of substantial American forces in the region, it might only take a trivial skirmish to trigger a big explosion, with unforeseen, disastrous consequences. Something of the sort has actually happened over half a century ago.
In August 1964, U.S. destroyers reported that they had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon Johnson, long dismayed by South Vietnam’s failure to repel the North Vietnamese aggression by itself, used this “smoking gun” to get Congress to pass a resolution that authorized him to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
The rest is history. After years of bloody war, the colossal loss of human lives, and the fall of South Vietnam, a National Security Agency report released in 2007 revealed that the alleged attacks by North Vietnam on U.S. destroyers had never actually happened.
This kind of folly is not reserved for Americans only. In 1982, the Menachem Begin government — tired of PLO harassment from Lebanon and being pushed to action by the militant Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and IDF Chief-of-Staff Rafael Eitan — looked for an excuse to go into Lebanon and resolve the problem “once and for all.”
The smoking gun presented itself on June 3, when three Palestinians shot in London shot and critically wounded Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov. Three days later, Israel invaded Lebanon and kicked the PLO leadership out of the country.
However, Israelis soon learned the hard way that it was easier to get into a war than it is to get out. It took Israel 18 more years to extract itself from the Lebanese mud, losing the precious lives of its soldiers and witnessing — if not boosting — the rise of Hezbollah. The Argov assassination attempt, by the way, was not carried out by the PLO, but rather by the renegade Iraqi-backed Palestinian faction of Abu Nidal.
I’m not suggesting inaction in the face of North Korean aggression. But for the sake of all of us on this planet, Trump should rise above the level of “the loser” or “the greatest,” take a deep breath, give it more thought, and avoid being jump-started by minor incident, if one occurs.
If President Trump chooses the military option eventually, then he should definitely follow in the footsteps of presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, who gathered formidable international coalitions in dealing with Iraq in 1991 and 2003 respectively.
Most important, before he gets in, he should think about an exit plan.