Speaking fiercely with a big stick
Trump and Kim Jong-un trade fiery threats in a remarkable exchange
President Trump matched Kim Jong-un hyperbole for hyperbole Tuesday, answering the crazy fat kid boast for boast in a mutual pursuit of nuclear nouns, verbs and adjectives.
“Packs of wolves are coming in attack to strangle a nation,” the government in Pyongyang said. “They should be mindful that [North Korea’s] strategic steps accompanied by physical action will be taken mercilessly with the mobilization of all its national strength.”
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” the president, interrupting his working vacation, told reporters at his golf resort in New Jersey. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Mr. Kim’s threat was taken by intelligence and diplomatic sources as the strongest indication yet that North Korea is likely to conduct another nuclear-weapon or missile test, as it has done on previous occasions in response to United Nations sanctions like those imposed this week.
The exchange of nuclear rhetoric followed the disclosure in The Washington Post, attributed to unidentified sources, that the Kim regime has finally perfected a miniaturized nuclear weapon that can be fitted inside a long-range missile capable of striking a target inside the United States.
President Trump, like everyone else reading the newspapers or watching and listening to radio and television news, was both pleased and relieved that China and Russia made the sanctions vote in the U.N. Security Council unanimous. “After many years of failure, countries are coming together to finally address the dangers posed by North Korea,” he said in an inevitable tweet. “We must be tough and decisive!” For once the exclamation point seemed appropriate, and Mr. Trump limited himself to one instead of the usual two or three.
It’s difficult to imagine any president not being tempted to answer the Kim barrage of fanciful threats and hyperbolic warnings, but Mr. Trump’s fiery rhetoric may be without precedent. He’s saying just what most Americans think they would like to say given the opportunity.
He’s not speaking softly, as Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican predecessor in the White House, advised in a similar circumstance, but he has the big stick Mr. Roosevelt said must accompany presidential soft speech. He credited the aphorism to “a West African proverb,” but many historians, unable to find a source in Africa, think the 26th president coined it himself. It sounds just like him.
Mr. Roosevelt followed up the aphorism, whether his or not, with military muscle several times in two terms as president, enforcing the Monroe Doctrine in keeping foreign intervenors out of Latin America, and in the dispatch of “the Great White Fleet,” a flotilla of 16 battleships, painted white for the occasion, on a circumnavigation of the globe to underline and emphasize growing American power.
President Trump, sending a B-2 bomber with accompanying South Korean escorts to fly over the Korean peninsula in a similar reminder of America’s fully developed nuclear arsenal, employs a strategy of speaking fiercely while carrying a big stick. Mr. Kim’s generals, who know very well what’s good for them if they aren’t sufficiently sycophantic, nevertheless know that the American military could squash them like a bug.
Mr. Trump clearly won Tuesday’s bragging match, warning Kim Jong-un of what can happen to a dictator who gets too big for his breeches. Researchers at his foreign ministry might remind him of another instructive American aphorism, this one from baseball legend Dizzy Dean: “It ain’t braggin’ if you can actually do it.”