He’s been mak­ing threats all his life, but he’s never acted on them

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer is an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and au­thor. He is the host of CNN's Fa­reed Zakaria GPS and writes a weekly col­umn for ‘The Wash­ing­ton Post’

HOW did we get here? Why does it ap­pear that we’re on the brink of a war in Asia, one that could in­volve nu­clear weapons? North Korea has had nu­clear-weapon ca­pac­ity for at least 10 years now. Have its re­cent ad­vances been so dra­matic and sig­nif­i­cant to force the United States to wage a pre­ven­tive war? No. The cri­sis we now find our­selves in has been ex­ag­ger­ated and mis­han­dled by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion to a de­gree that is deeply wor­ry­ing and dan­ger­ous.

From the start, the White House has wanted to look tough on North Korea. In the early months of Trump’s pres­i­dency, be­fore there could pos­si­bly have been a se­ri­ous pol­icy re­view, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son warned that the era of strate­gic pa­tience with North Korea was over.

Last week, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster said North Korea’s po­ten­tial to hit the US with nu­clear weapons was an “in­tol­er­a­ble” threat. Not North Korea’s use of weapons, mind you; just the po­ten­tial.

Trump, of course, went fur­thest, stat­ing pub­licly on Tues­day that if North Korea did not cease its threats, it would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.

When pressed on Thurs­day, Trump dou­bled down, say­ing, “If any­thing, maybe that state­ment wasn’t tough enough.” In other words, Trump has made clear that the US would re­spond to North Korean nu­clear threats with a mas­sive mil­i­tary strike, pos­si­bly in­volv­ing nu­clear weapons.

Is this cred­i­ble? Again, no. The US 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 for the fu­ture.

So why do it? Be­cause it’s Trump’s ba­sic mode of ac­tion.

For his en­tire life, Don­ald Trump has made grandiose promises and omi­nous threats, and never de­liv­ered on either.

When he was in busi­ness, Reuters found, he fre­quently threat­ened to sue news or­gan­i­sa­tions for li­bel, but the last time he fol­lowed through was in 1984.

Trump claims that he never set­tles cases out of court. In fact, he has set­tled at least 100 times, ac­cord­ing to USA To­day.

In his political life, he has fol­lowed the same strat­egy of blus­ter. In 2011, he claimed that he had in­ves­ti­ga­tors who “can­not be­lieve what they’re find­ing” about for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s birth cer­tifi­cate, and that he would “be re­veal­ing some in­ter­est­ing things”. He had noth­ing.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, he vowed that he would la­bel China a cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tor, move the 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 sig­nalled to China that he might recog­nise Tai­wan. Within weeks of tak­ing of­fice, he folded. He im­plied that he had tapes of his con­ver­sa­tions with Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion di­rec­tor James 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 “mod­ernise” Amer­ica’s nu­clear ar­se­nal.

In fact, he sim­ply fol­lowed a con­gres­sional man­date to au­tho­rise a re­view of the ar­se­nal, which hasn’t been com­pleted yet. Does he think the North Kore­ans don’t know this?

When the US watched as Stalin’s Soviet Union de­vel­oped nu­clear weapons, it was care­ful in its rhetoric.

When it saw a far more threat­en­ing leader, Mao Ze­dong, pur­su­ing nu­clear weapons, it was even more cau­tious. Mao in­sisted he had no fear of a nu­clear war be­cause China would still have more than enough sur­vivors to de­feat West­ern im­pe­ri­al­ists. And yet, suc­ces­sive US ad­min­is­tra­tions kept their cool.

The world is al­ready liv­ing with a nu­clear North Korea. If that re­al­ity can­not be re­versed through ne­go­ti­a­tions and diplo­macy, the task will be to de­velop a ro­bust sys­tem of de­ter­rence, the kind that kept the peace with Stalin’s Rus­sia and Mao’s China. Blus­ter from the pres­i­dent can in­crease the dan­gers of mis­cal­cu­la­tion or cause a down­ward spi­ral of words and deeds.

“I think Amer­i­cans should sleep well at night, have no con­cerns about this par­tic­u­lar rhetoric of the last few days,” said Tiller­son on Wed­nes­day.

This was an un­usual, per­haps even un­prece­dented state­ment. He seems to have been telling Amer­i­cans, and the world, to ig­nore the rhetoric, not of the North Korean dic­ta­tor, but of his own boss, the pres­i­dent of the US.

It is prob­a­bly what Trump’s as­so­ciates have done for him all his life. They know that the guid­ing mantra for him has been not the art of the deal, but the art of the bluff.


United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speak­ing af­ter a se­cu­rity brief­ing with na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster (left) and Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence in New Jersey on Thurs­day. Trump dou­bled down on his threats to North Korea, say­ing his pre­vi­ous state­ments are not tough enough.

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