A time for plain speech, de­liv­ered hot and loud

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY WES­LEY PRUDEN

Who knew that Kim Jongun and his dis­tin­guished gen­er­als grew their skin so thin? A lot of peo­ple, mostly af­frighted diplo­mats and denizens of as­sorted news­rooms on the At­lantic sea­wall, are still be­side them­selves in fear and loathing of Pres­i­dent Trump’s fiery warn­ing of what North Korea can ex­pect if it gets big ideas about play­ing nu­clear games.

Who, in­deed? Who ex­pected Guam to be im­por­tant enough to join Los An­ge­les, Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton and New York on Kim’s tar­get list? The Lon­don Daily Mail, usu­ally merely guilty read­ing for those who can’t get enough about Cait­lyn Jen­ner’s lin­gerie, Elvis and UFO sight­ings, or how Don­ald Trump was sent back in time to warn him­self about tri­fling with the ec­cen­tric su­per-sized child in Py­ongyang. The Daily Mail now adds Austin, Texas, to the tar­get list.

It’s a puz­zle why the hys­te­ria got so loud. “The pres­i­dent’s point was that the North’s es­ca­lat­ing threats are in­tol­er­a­ble,” ob­served The Wall Street Jour­nal; “he didn’t set any red lines. True to form, Py­ongyang re­sponded by putting the U.S. is­land of Guam in its cross hairs. Mr. Trump may be guilty of hy­per­bole (what a sur­prise), but that is far less dam­ag­ing to U.S. cred­i­bil­ity than Barack Obama’s fail­ure to en­force the pro­hi­bi­tion on the As­sad regime’s use of chem­i­cal weapons in Syria. The for­eign-pol­icy elite who claim to be shocked also don’t have much cred­i­bil­ity af­ter their pol­icy across three ad­min­is­tra­tions led to the cur­rent North Korean danger.”

Mr. Trump ac­tu­ally said no more than oth­ers, some in his ad­min­is­tra­tion and some not, have said. The Don­ald just says things in a way that pres­i­dents be­fore him have not. Who can say that plain speech in the cur­rent mo­ment is not the way to make him un­der­stood in Py­ongyang? H.R. McMaster, the na­tional-se­cu­rity ad­viser much praised ear­lier even in lib­eral salons, called the threats from North Korea “in­tol­er­a­ble from the pres­i­dent’s per­spec­tive, so of course we have to pro­vide all op­tions to do that. And that in­cludes the mil­i­tary op­tion. De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis warned North Korea to cut out the bel­li­cose stuff lest it “lead to the end of the regime.” That’s no less to the bru­tal point than the pres­i­dent’s warn­ing of fire and brim­stone. Kim and his gen­er­als, who are not obliv­i­ous to nu­ance, un­der­stand.

It’s only the re­spon­si­ble thing to do to speak plainly — and of­ten — about the mil­i­tary op­tion. “There is a mil­i­tary op­tion to de­stroy North Korea’s pro­gram and North Korea it­self,” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Carolina, who blows hot and cold on the pres­i­dent, told a tele­vi­sion in­ter­viewer. “He has told me that,” he said of the pres­i­dent. “I be­lieve him. If I were China, I would be­lieve him, too, and do some­thing about it.”

In fact, some calmer heads think the pres­i­dent’s fire and brim­stone was meant not for Kim and his gen­er­als, but for Xi Jin­ping in Bei­jing, to em­pha­size that the sta­tus quo can­not re­main quo for much longer.

“It may be,” says Joseph S. Nye Jr., the Har­vard scholar who for­merly di­rected the U.S. Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Coun­cil, “a very ra­tio­nal thought-out mes­sage.” Even if it was Don­ald Trump who said it.

The usual skep­tics are an­a­lyz­ing the pres­i­dent’s “fire and fury” mes­sage, as if it were a plate of scrap­ple, and find­ing that it was, in the words of The New York Times, “en­tirely im­pro­vised.” It cer­tainly sounded like it did not go through the vet­tings that pro­duce so much mush and bean sprouts in Foggy Bot­tom, where the pas­sive voice is much ad­mired and ad­jec­tives are weighed against ad­verbs to care­fully craft a mes­sage that wouldn’t frighten any­one in striped pants.

There’s noth­ing wrong with im­pro­vi­sa­tion when it comes from con­vic­tion. Trump skep­tics are mak­ing much of the fact that he promised fire and fury while he was look­ing at a fact sheet about the opi­oid cri­sis, as if the man couldn’t think about two things at once. He might even have done it while chew­ing a stick of Juicy Fruit. Who wants a man with a nu­anced mind with a mis­sile on the way?

Great crises, and this is cer­tainly one of those, need pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters who can think quickly and im­pro­vise, say­ing things that need to be said and in lan­guage ev­ery­body can un­der­stand.

This pres­i­dent, for good or ill, is not like pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents, and it’s past time to in­dulge wishes that ev­ery­thing could be like it used to be. Barack Obama, who be­queathed this cri­sis to his suc­ces­sor, spoke in prose pol­ished with nu­ance and non­sense. Don­ald Trump speaks like an an­gry fore­man on a con­struc­tion site com­ing in late and over-bud­get. You can bet Kim Jongun hears him, loud and clear. Wes­ley Pruden is edi­tor in chief emer­i­tus of The Times.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump

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