The Current State of Play Part I: Mixed Signals from the US



Things have been moving at a heady pace, and I will take them up in two parts. Today: what has the US been saying? Next time, reading the raft of North Korean statements that have come out since UNSC Resolution 2371 was passed on August 5.

I have said repeatedly that coercive diplomacy is intrinsically hard, North Korea is a particularly hard target, and the prospects for successful negotiations are pretty small. You need to credibly promise—and not simply idly threaten—increased pressure. But you also need to credibly promise to engage and make horse trades. What do we expect North Korea to do if there is no offramp?

After outlining just such a strategy under the direction of Secretary Tillerson and highly-competent personnel at State (see posts here and here), the administration has managed to throw away its win at the UN by sending wildly divergent core messages. Although NSA McMaster wandered off script, the problems center on the President himself. If you have not seen the 30-second “fire and fury” clip, do not rely on a transcription; the oddity gains force from witnessing the delivery. This was followed yesterday by a misleading Tweet about the US nuclear arsenal, clearly a not-so-veiled threat, and leaks to NBC about a preventive war plan involving B-1 bomber attacks on North Korean missile sites that was even more transparent.   

Before turning to why such statements are not helpful, we should note the irony that the President was not responding to any new threat from the North Koreans. Rather he appeared to be responding—and in a totally unscripted way—to a new assessment by the intelligence community that North Korea had successfully miniaturized a weapon. The only possible North Korean threat that Trump might have been alluding to was a statement issued through the UN mission denouncing the sanctions resolution. That statement promised continued pursuit of the country’s nuclear weapons program, but use of “ultimate means” only “if the US fails to act with discretion,” namely by attacking the country.

It is important to parse the President’s language carefully to understand why his statement was so poorly conceived. He does not threaten to act against an actual North Korean attack or provocation. Rather, he promises “fire and fury” against North Korean threats. Why is this a particularly bad idea? Here are my top five reasons, although reflection could no doubt yield more:

  • The President of the United States should not sound like the dictator of North Korea.
  • The threat is completely idle, because the United States is not going to launch an attack against North Korea simply because it issues some vague and incredible threat. The President now has his own red-line problem.
  • Comments of this sort reflect an underestimation of the costs of a general conflict on the peninsula. Trump has claimed privately—at least according to Senator Lindsay Graham—that any war with North Korea would be fought “over there” and should thus not be a concern. Well it might be a concern to our South Korean allies, who responded swiftly and negatively to President Trump’s remarks, and at the level of President Moon himself. In any case, a war “over there” would involve Americans because of our treaty commitments to the ROK not to mention that this whole line of thinking overlooks precisely the dilemma the US is in: that the North now has the capacity to strike the US homeland. There is no “over there” any more.
  • The administration also seems to misunderstand that the time for pre-emption or preventive war is before the capability in question has been developed. Jeffrey Lewis reiterates this argument at Foreign Policy, saying that the game is over and we lost. It is certainly the job of the National Security Advisor to outline all military options to the President. I have no particular objection to reiterating that “all options are on the table” because it is simply a statement of fact. And Secretary Mattis again struck a pitch-perfect tone by stating the logic of deterrence: “the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth. The DPRK regime's actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates” (emphasis added). But the logic of talking about preventive war, as National Security Advisor McMaster did on MSNBC over the weekend and the leakers did to NBC, is much less clear. If the North Koreans think we are coming, then you have set up the virtual definition of crisis instability: a situation in which two nuclear powers are both talking about pre-emption at the same time.
  • If Tillerson’s comments reflect where US policy actually is, we are trying to ramp up economic pressure on North Korea by enlisting Chinese help while simultaneously assuring both China and North Korea that we do not have regime change or unification objectives. But the president’s comments call that whole effort into question by suggesting that regime change is the objective, language that has been echoed at different points by Mike Pompeo among others. It is bad enough that this drives North Korea into an uncooperative crouch. Kim Jong Un can no more be seen as folding in the face of a US threat than we can bowing before a North Korean one. But setting aside the likely North Korean response—more provocations are coming with a certainty of one—what does this do to our diplomacy vis-à-vis China? The sanctions resolution was a win, period. But are the Chinese and the Russians really going to enforce it if they think the United States has no interest in diplomacy?

In a wide-ranging State Department press briefing, Heather Nauert gamely sought to walk back the President’s comments by stating that the administration was speaking with one voice. But if there was any further evidence needed that the President was off-script, it came in the form of Tillerson’s assurances that Trump’s comments should—in effect—be ignored. I will outline what the North Koreans have been saying in a later post, but it always amazes me that we think they are without options. The North Korean threat of a test of no fewer than four Hwasong 14’s toward Guam—but falling “30-40” kilometers short—is high risk but masterful. Fire and fury indeed.

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