A Cosmic Roll of the Dice

Americans are optimistic can-do folks. Things will always work out, one way or another. Only fools panic. Americans are pragmatic. There’s a solution out there to every problem. Wait. Cooler heads will prevail.

Americans may have to give up their optimism now. No-Drama Obama – the coolest of cool heads – perhaps too unemotional and passive from some – is long gone. Americans elected a hothead this time. Cooler heads won’t prevail. That was obvious on the Thursday of the week America headed for war. The New York Times’ Peter Baker tells the tale:

President Trump escalated his war of words with North Korea on Thursday by declaring that his provocative threat to rain down “fire and fury” might not have been harsh enough, as nuclear tensions between the two nations continued to crackle.

Rejecting critics at home and abroad who condemned his earlier warning as reckless saber-rattling, Mr. Trump said North Korea and its volatile leader, Kim Jong-un, have pushed the United States and the rest of the world for too long.

“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” he told reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”

There will be little or no waiting now:

Mr. Trump noted that North Korea, which has made significant progress toward developing long-range nuclear weapons, responded to his original warning by threatening to launch a missile strike toward the Pacific island of Guam, an American territory and strategic base. “If he does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before, what will happen in North Korea,” he said.

Asked if that was a dare, Mr. Trump said: “It’s not a dare. It’s a statement. Has nothing to do with dare. That’s a statement. He’s not going to go around threatening Guam and he’s not going to threaten the United States and he’s not going to threaten Japan, and he’s not going to threaten South Korea. No, that’s not a dare, as you say. That is a statement of fact.”

It’s not a dare. It’s a statement. That’s grade-school playground talk, but Donald Trump was on a roll:

He assailed Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, for not passing his legislative priorities, calling it “disgraceful” that the party’s health care plan failed by one vote and hinting that the leader should step down if he cannot do better. Mr. Trump also said he would declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency and defended his decision to bar transgender people from the armed forces, saying he was “doing the military a great favor.”

He was swaggering:

In his first response to Russia’s decision to force the United States to slash its diplomatic staff in half, the president said he would thank President Vladimir V. Putin for helping him trim payroll costs. Mr. Trump expressed sympathy for his former campaign chairman, Paul J. Manafort, whose house was raided last month by law enforcement agents as part of an investigation into Russia ties, calling him “a very decent man.” He said he was not considering firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel.

After nearly a week of his working vacation here, the president was in an expansive mood and seemingly eager to talk and take on all issues.

There’s a lot there, but it came down to him saying that everyone else, including those damned congressional Republicans, was a fool. He wasn’t – but that sanctions comment was curious. He had ripped into Congress for passing that bill that imposed new sanctions on Russia, almost unanimously in both the House and Senate, so they could override any veto. He had to sign it, and it stipulated, by law, that he could not end those sanctions without their permission. That made him angry, so he lauded Vladimir Putin for imposing sanctions on the United States.

What? Michael McFaul, the former Ambassador to Russia under President Obama, tore into him:

Our diplomats, professional staff, and military serving in Russia provide Washington with invaluable information about Russia. Imagine wanting to know less about Russia’s military modernization! That’s what Trump praised today.

Imagine wanting to know less about Russian foreign policy intentions and plans! That’s what embassy personnel reductions will do.

Imagine wanting to have less capability to gather data about dangerous transnational diseases originating in Russia! Trump seems to want that.

Imagine dissing Americans – patriots serving our country under difficult conditions in Russia – to praise Putin. Our president did today.

McFaul is under the impression that Trump might care about these things. He doesn’t. He was just swaggering, and that stuff is now a minor matter:

Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea has reached a level that has alarmed allies in Asia and many Americans at home. Investors were unnerved on Thursday by the increasing tension. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fell by 1.45 percent as investors sold out of highflying stocks such as Amazon, Facebook and Netflix. It was the sharpest daily decline in the benchmark S&P 500 since May 17.

Democrats complained that the president was inflaming the confrontation and called for diplomacy instead. “President Trump’s escalatory rhetoric is exactly the wrong response to dealing with North Korea’s provocative behavior,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia Subcommittee. “It unnecessarily heightens the risk of miscalculation and creates the very fog that can lead to war.”

More than 60 House Democrats sent a letter on Thursday to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson asking him to restrain the president. “These statements are irresponsible and dangerous, and also senselessly provide a boon to domestic North Korean propaganda, which has long sought to portray the United States as a threat to their people,” the letter said.

Trump just smiled. Let them write their letter to Tillerson. No one is going to restrain this president:

He was vague about exactly where the line would be if North Korea did not back down, and refused to say whether he would consider a pre-emptive military strike without an attack by Pyongyang.

Asked what would be “tougher” than “fire and fury,” he demurred. “Well, you’ll see, you’ll see.”

He’s in charge. No one else is. Everyone will just have to wait, and there was this:

A White House aide, meanwhile, said no one should listen to Mr. Tillerson on military matters related to North Korea after the secretary of state said he saw no imminent likelihood of war and urged Americans to sleep soundly.

“The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, told BBC Radio. “It is the job of Secretary Mattis, the secretary of defense, to talk about the military options.”

That drew a sharp retort from Mr. Tillerson’s spokeswoman. “He’s a cabinet secretary,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters. “He’s fourth in line to the presidency. He carries a big stick.”

No, he doesn’t. There’s only one big stick, and he does what he feels like doing, even if others say it makes no sense, or because others say it makes no sense. He seems to like to piss people off. It amuses him, but sense might matter here. Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, points out the danger now:

It’s clear that the military option comes with significant risk. A U.S. preemptive strike, namely a targeted nuclear attack to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons, would invite all-out retaliation by North Korea against South Korea, Japan, and U.S. troops in the region. With the massive conventional artilleries deployed near the Korean Demilitarized Zone, North Korea would inflict major casualties on the South.

If the U.S. resorts to a preemptive strike on North Korea without consultation and agreement from Seoul, the costs to South Korea would have a critically damaging effect over the U.S.-South Korea alliance, even possibly lead to its dissolution. Considering President Moon Jae-in’s interest in engagement with North Korea, it would be highly unlikely for South Korea to support a U.S. decision to launch a targeted nuclear attack on the North.

A U.S. preemptive strike on North Korea would also likely invite Chinese intervention. The Sino-North Korea Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance Treaty commits China to North Korea’s defense in the event of foreign aggression. Although the validity of the 56-year old treaty is constantly debated, few doubt that China would intervene to defend its perceived national interests in the Korean Peninsula, including the preservation of a North Korean state and the prevention of a South Korea-led unification. It would put U.S. and China directly on a collision course and could lead to another Korean War.

David Ignatius says it’s worse than that:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has defiance in his blood. It’s said his grandfather once asked what would happen if the United States defeated North Korea in war, to which his father answered: “If we lose, I will be sure to destroy the Earth. What good is the Earth without North Korea?”

President Trump has decided to confront what’s probably the most reckless, risk-taking regime on the planet. His hope for a diplomatic solution depends on convincing North Korea and China that he’s ready for the “fire and fury” of nuclear war should negotiations fail. If Hollywood were pitching the story, it would be “The Art of the Deal” meets “Dr. Strangelove.”

Cooler heads should prevail:

Despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric this week, the path ahead is really about finesse: Both the military and diplomatic paths require close cooperation with regional partners. The United States can’t go it alone in Korea, in either war or peace. The danger is that Trump’s rhetoric could destabilize partners more than adversaries.

Robert Work, a deputy defense secretary in the Obama administration who stayed on and just left the Pentagon, explains: “A preemptive war to protect our homeland from future attack is an option, but the major risks would be borne by South Korea and Japan, which face the threat of missile attacks today.”

But wait, there’s more:

Significant civilian casualties would be inescapable if war comes. North Korea has thousands of artillery tubes just across the Demilitarized Zone. If attacked or threatened with decapitation, the regime could launch a barrage. The Pentagon estimates that on the first day, North Korea could fire up to 100,000 rocket and artillery rounds.

To protect the estimated 300,000 American civilians in Seoul from this artillery inferno, the Pentagon plans to stage “noncombatant evacuation operations.” Organizing planes and ships for so many people would be a nightmare, as would the chaos among those left behind. Analysts estimate that an additional one million non-Koreans may live in the country, including many Chinese. How would they get out? China might help in an evacuation, but at what political price?

The United States could try a lightning strike to preempt a North Korean attack, perhaps using cyber and other exotic weapons. But the Pentagon cautions policymakers that there isn’t a way to guarantee that North Korea couldn’t launch a nuclear missile in response to such an attack. It would be a cosmic roll of the dice.

It’s all a cosmic roll of the dice, but Fareed Zakaria notes that Trump has been making ominous threats his whole life:

The United States is not going to launch a preventive nuclear war in Asia. Trump’s comments have undoubtedly rattled Washington’s closest allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. Empty threats and loose rhetoric only cheapen American prestige and power, boxing in the administration.

So why do it? Because it’s Trump’s basic mode of action. For his entire life, Trump has made grandiose promises and ominous threats – and rarely delivered on any. When he was in business, Reuters found, he frequently threatened to sue news organizations for libel, but the last time he followed through was 33 years ago, in 1984. Trump says that he never settles cases out of court. In fact, he has settled at least 100 times, according to USA Today.

He’s no different now:

In his political life, he has followed the same strategy of bluster. In 2011, he said that he had investigators who “cannot believe what they’re finding” about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and that he would at some point “be revealing some interesting things.” He had nothing. During the campaign, he vowed that he would label China a currency manipulator, move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, make Mexico pay for a border wall and initiate an investigation into Hillary Clinton. So far, nada. After being elected, he signaled to China that he might recognize Taiwan. Within weeks of taking office, he folded. He implied that he had tapes of his conversations with then-FBI Director James B. Comey. Of course, he had none.

Even now, as he deals with a nuclear crisis, Trump has made claims that could be easily shown to be false. He tweeted that his first presidential order was to “modernize” the United States’ nuclear arsenal. In fact, he simply followed a congressional mandate to authorize a review of the arsenal, which hasn’t been completed yet. Does he think the North Koreans don’t know this?

Kevin Drum does wonder about that simple review of the arsenal:

Let’s consider the possibilities:

Trump knew it was false, but he said it anyway. He lied.

Trump literally doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He continues to consider his lies to be “truthful hyperbole,” the term he applied to generalized puffery during his real estate career.

Trump is delusional. He thinks that ordering a review magically makes things happen.

Trump is surrounded by sycophants who have assured him that the US nuclear arsenal is stronger than it was six months ago. He believes them.

Trump is losing control of his faculties. He vaguely remembers some kind of nuclear order and figures it must mean that our nukes have gotten better.

None of that is good:

There’s literally nothing that’s actually happened to our nuclear arsenal since January that he could have misunderstood as modernization. So that’s not an option. He was either lying or else the explanation is something worse.

Personally, I think it’s some of both. He was lying, but he’s also starting to lose control of his faculties. Not a lot, maybe, but enough to make him kinda sorta believe his own lies. This is not good. This is something to take seriously.

He’s either lying, or else his mind is declining. We’d best figure out soon which it is.

Dan Lamothe points out that it may be too late for that:

The dueling threats issued by President Trump and the North Korean military have prompted questions about U.S. procedures to launch a preemptive nuclear attack. The answer is stark: If the president wants to strike, his senior military advisers have few options but to carry it out or resign.

The rules are the rules:

A December 2016 assessment by the Congressional Research Service stated that the president “does not need the concurrence of either his military advisors or the U.S. Congress to order the launch of nuclear weapons.” Additionally, the assessment said, “neither the military nor Congress can overrule these orders.”

The reason is simple: The system is set up for the United States to launch an attack within minutes, so that if the United States is under a nuclear attack, it can respond almost instantly, said Bruce Blair, a former nuclear watch officer. Trump would presumably meet with Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser, before launching a preemptive attack, but it would “really be uncharted territory” if they sought to stall or slow down an order from the president, Blair said.

Under the existing War Powers Act of 1973, the president also is not required to seek congressional approval for any military action until 60 days after the start of a war. Two lawmakers, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), sought to stop the president from launching a first-strike nuclear attack until Congress declares war, but the effort hasn’t gone anywhere and is unlikely to with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress.

This is a problem:

Steven F. Hayward, a conservative policy scholar, said that if Trump’s senior military advisers stood united against carrying out a preemptive nuclear strike, the “real remedy would be resignation.” Hypothetically, doing so might trigger impeachment proceedings, Hayward said, but it isn’t clear whether it would be quick enough to stop the president from launching an attack.

“It could happen,” Hayward said. “It would be pretty dramatic and it would be very unclear what would happen, but it could happen. We’re really in uncharted waters here.”

But there’s a reason the president gets to roll the cosmic dice:

Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale University, said that the principle of civilian control of the military also looms large – “even when the civilian in control is as unpredictable and belligerent as President Trump.” Latin American nations have modeled their constitutions along American lines, and their experiences suggest that terrible consequences follow when generals defy their presidents, even under compelling circumstances.

“Worse yet, once the principle is violated, it becomes a precedent for future generals to take the law into their own hands,” Ackerman said. “We cannot allow this dynamic to take hold here. If Trump’s team can’t convince him, they should obey the orders of their commander in chief.”

What’s that classic line in all those teenage goofball movies? We’re screwed? That seems to be the case here, and the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher and David Nakamura add the necessary detail:

A military confrontation with North Korea may now be “inevitable,” says Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) The United States is “done talking” about North Korea, tweets U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. President Trump threatens “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” then says maybe his language “wasn’t tough enough.”

The North Koreans return verbal fire, talking of using “absolute force” to hit the U.S. territory of Guam and even “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war.”

In this moment of heated, belligerent rhetoric, planners in and out of government are diving into decades of plans and projections, playing out war games, engaging in the macabre semi-science of estimating death tolls and predicting how an adversary might behave.

It is macabre:

In hundreds of books, policy papers and roundtable discussions, experts have couched various shades of Armageddon in the dry, emotion-stripped language of throw-weights and missile ranges. But the nightmare scenarios are simple enough: In a launch from North Korea, a nuclear-tipped missile could reach San Francisco in half an hour. A nuclear attack on Seoul – South Korea’s capital of 10 million people – could start and finish in three minutes.

Well, now we must think about such things:

At this volatile intersection, alternatives to war are at least as much the focus as preparation for battle. Luring the North Koreans to the negotiating table is perhaps the most popular pathway among many experts, who advocate a “freeze-for-freeze” option, in which the United States might promise to restrict military exercises in the region or eschew new sanctions against Kim’s regime, in exchange for North Korea agreeing to halt expansion and testing of its nuclear capabilities.

Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, for example, has suggested promising not to seek regime change in North Korea in exchange for Kim committing to a cap on his nuclear program.

However, Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the Trump administration rejects the idea of freeze-for-freeze, calling it a false moral equivalency.

We’re screwed, but there are other voices:

Accepting North Korea into the world’s nuclear club is a hard step for many politicians, but maybe not quite as hard as it once was. Now, it’s not so much a step as an acceptance of the status quo.

“I don’t think we’re going to get denuclearization,” said Richard Nephew, a scholar at Columbia University who was a sanctions coordinator in President Barack Obama’s State Department. “So we might want to accept them and depend on deterrence theory. There’s a reason North Korea has not invaded South Korea: They fear overwhelming response from the United States.”

But if North Korea won’t negotiate, or if the Trump administration decides against making concessions that might lure the Kim regime to the table, a military confrontation remains “a very plausible path,” Nephew said. “It’s a very tempting idea to solve this problem once and for all.”

The Trump administration suddenly deciding to make concessions is a long shot of course, so there’s only this:

Most of those who have considered the merits of launching a limited attack on the North – say, to destroy nuclear capabilities – have concluded that what Americans might see as limited could well be interpreted by the Kim regime as an invitation to all-out conflict.

North Korea might even respond with force to the ongoing U.S. show of strength in its neighborhood. American ships, planes and troops have been on maneuvers nearby as part of annual exercises, and the United States sent B-1 bombers stationed in Guam over the Korean Peninsula last month.

The North could also launch its own provocation – an attack on Guam, a cyberattack on Japan or a skirmish on the boundary between the two Koreas, the planet’s most heavily armed border.

That’s what we face:

In a conventional war, heavy casualties would likely result as North Korean troops poured into the South, using tunnels the North is reported to have built under the demilitarized zone between the countries. In addition, North Korea is believed to have a stockpile of several thousand tons of chemical weapons, according to the International Crisis Group, which studies global conflicts.

In war games played out at Washington policy institutes, even minor confrontations have led to a nuclear exchange. In one model, a single nuclear device deployed against Seoul would result in 180,000 deaths and 160,000 additional injuries, along with a near-total collapse of civil order, including a mass exodus from the city leading to gridlock and a paralyzed health-care system.

Even without using nuclear weapons, the North could sow panic and perhaps force a shift in U.S. policy. North Korea might attempt to spread fear through an act of terrorism, said Patrick Cronin, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Center for a New American Security. “A few grenades in downtown Seoul will absolutely close down the city out of fear,” he said.

Even without nuclear force, North Korea might seek to divide the United States from its allies. How, for example, would regional Asian powers react if North Korea shot a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse over Tokyo, temporarily turning off the lights in the Japanese metropolis?

In that instance, some experts concluded, Japan might join with some neighbors to urge Washington to cut a deal with Kim, averting further military conflict by accepting North Korea as a nuclear power.

And there’s that wild card:

Many scenarios exploring how a U.S.-North Korea conflict would unfold founder on uncertainties about what Kim really wants. Despite the country’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, “the regime does not have regional ambitions,” concluded Robert Carlin of Stanford University and Robert Jervis of Columbia in a paper that studied how North Korea might use its new status.

“The most likely scenario,” they wrote, “is for Pyongyang to remain tightly focused on its domestic situation, especially on its economy, and on ways to loosen or blunt the pressures from its neighbors and the United States.”

Still, they said, “we could well enter the danger zone of North Korean fatalism, in which a decision to use nuclear weapons, especially against Japan – the historic enemy – would rise on the list of ‘patriotic’ options.”

The North Korean leadership, they warned, “might become fatalistic and decide that death with ‘glory’ is preferable to defeat.”

That’s okay. Donald Trump seems to feel the same way, and that’s how the age of American optimism ends. Americans are pragmatic. There’s a solution out there to every problem. Wait. Cooler heads will prevail – but we don’t have any of those anymore – not in the government we just elected. He’ll roll those dice. The rest of us will duck and cover.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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