Op-Ed

How willing is Trump to go nuclear?

President Trump speaks about North Korea during a briefing during his golf vacation.
President Trump speaks about North Korea during a briefing during his golf vacation. CNBC.com

On the 201st day of Donald Trump’s presidency, Americans suddenly found themselves wondering if the country was about to go to war; not just any war — nuclear war.

The country was jolted to attention when the president, speaking from his golf club in New Jersey, declared, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.” If they do, he warned, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Considering that the world has seen the likes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it didn’t require an apocalyptic mindset to conclude that Trump was threatening a nuclear attack. And the threat was not if North Korea attacked America, but if it threatened the United States again, something the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems as incapable or unwilling to restrain as Trump is of his tweeting habit.

It was a moment of extraordinary danger, borne of ill-chosen words.

No sooner had Trump drawn the red line than, as anyone could have predicted, Pyongyang promptly crossed it, with a threat to attack the U.S. territory of Guam.

Trump’s warning to Kim was prompted by North Korea’s relentless advances in its nuclear and missile programs, along with reports that it has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead that can fit on one of its missiles. That, combined with repeated missile tests showing intercontinental capabilities and North Korea continuously threats against the United States has been enough to set security experts on edge. The problem, to be sure, is grave, urgent, and daunting. But there are no easy answers. Everything U.S. presidents have done to try to stop North Korea’s nuclear program has so far failed.

Trump has said the era of “strategic patience” is over. The problem, of course, is that as previous White House occupants have discovered, there is no good solution for the North Korea problem. The United States is clearly a much mightier military power, but a war with North Korea could cause massive casualties in South Korea. Its capital, Seoul, stands just 35 miles from the border, with a metropolitan population of 25 million people, including thousands of Americans.

Trump has spoken publicly about using nuclear weapons before. In March 2016, when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews criticized him for saying he might use an atom bomb, he replied, “Then why are we making them? Why do make them?”

Was he seriously threatening to use one now?

After almost seven months of Trump in the White House, Americans have learned to take some of what the president says with a grain of salt. A CNN poll released only hours before the North Korea escalation showed six in 10 Americans don’t believe Trump is “honest and trustworthy.”

Maybe his plan was to intimidate Kim, to stand up to him. But gambling that the North Korean president will be cowed by harsh rhetoric is a rather risky proposition. Maybe it works. But if it doesn’t, the cost would be incalculable. Kim, who had his uncle killed — one of many North Koreans paying the ultimate price for upsetting their leader — does not seem like the conciliatory type.

Rather, he seems more a man with the Samson complex. You know the one: If I must die, I’ll bring everyone down with me. Kim will do what it takes to preserve the regime, or bring the country to ruin trying.

Americans watched uneasily as the president appeared to be taunting Kim, playing chicken with a nuclear-armed regime.

Sensing the public’s anxiety, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to calm fears: “I think Americans should sleep well at night,” he said. But the president and the secretary of state have a history of giving contradictory messages. In fact, that’s one of the most dangerous dysfunctions in current U.S. foreign policy.

China, for one, did not like what it saw. It asked both irascible leaders to keep their cool and watch their words.

But someone who has been watching Trump’s words for a while noticed something about the president’s fiery warning. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale pointed to countless occasions when Trump has used the expression, “like the world has never seen before.” He called it a “pet phrase” of the president’s.

There are reasons to believe Trump spoke much more harshly than he intended; more harshly than even his security advisers thought he should.

Two hundred days into the Trump presidency, we are all familiar with his over-the-top statements, his out-of-bounds tweets. On foreign crises, that lack of impulse control could prove calamitous.

Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for the Miami Herald.

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