On Sunday morning the President of the United States went on a twitter rampage that could only be described as crude, violent, misogynistic and wholly unbecoming of his office. Most widely discussed among the many outrages was his retweet of a anti-Semitic troll who posted a spliced video pretending to show Donald Trump hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball. But this is who Donald Trump is: a petulant racist, misogynist bully with all the maturity of a spoiled 8-year-old.
Of greater actual consequence was a wildly irresponsible tweet about North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-Un, whom the President (and I still cannot believe I am actually writing this) called “Rocket Man.” Seriously.
I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing. Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 17, 2017
A million think-pieces could be written about how abnormal, irresponsible and inappropriate it is to bait a reckless tyrant with nuclear weapons and enough conventional firepower to level Seoul and Tokyo, as well as tends of thousands of American military personnel stationed nearby.
But perhaps Trump wasn’t tweeting in a fit of pique and juvenile humor. Perhaps baiting Kim Jong-Un is his purpose–to push the North Korean despot into an act that Trump could use to justify military aggression. If so, it could have catastrophic consequences.
It’s not just the “Rocket Man” tweet. The drumbeat to war with North Korea has been rising. It is reminiscent of the slow, dreadful progress toward the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush.
Trump’s inner circle is reportedly obsessed with North Korea at the moment, seeking either to play a dangerous game of brinkmanship with China, or even worse to launch a full-scale Second Korean War.
It’s hard to overstate what a terrible idea a war with North Korea would be, but Mark Bowden at The Atlantic did an excellent job of summarizing the disasters that would likely ensue. North Korea is mountainous terrain, and decades of secret militaristic governance has left the country marbled with hundreds of miles of underground tunnels containing military equipment and missile silos. A massive aerial strike–even an unthinkable nuclear one–would likely fail to eliminate even a majority of the threat. In response to any invasion, Pyongyang would launch thousands of missiles at its neighbors, killing hundreds of thousands or even millions in South Korea and Japan, as well as on American military bases.
Even the slightest risk of this outcome makes a pre-emptive attack on North Korea an insane act of hubris. As I wrote earlier this month, it barely even changes the equation if Kim Jong-Un has a hydrogen bomb or not: he already has the capacity for mutually assured destruction of our allies. For North Korean brass, nuclear weapons are merely the cherry on top of a deterrence strategy they already posses. That in turn means that until and unless North Korea makes a move that forces our and our allies’ hand–and so far they have carefully avoided doing so–the only reasonable option is to squeeze them economically and attempt to wait them out until more reasonable leadership emerges.
Even Steve Bannon understands this, but he is no longer in the White House to advise the president against military action.
Which brings us back to Donald Trump’s tweets. Whether they’re the accidental bravado of an incompetent or the calculated provocations of a warmonger makes little difference. What matters is that they threaten to lurch us headlong into a potentially devastating conflict that must be avoided if at all possible.