Business Day

The world’s peace hopes rest with US generals, not Trump

- Edward Luce

Here is a measure of the US’s democratic quandary: most of the world is banking on the country’s generals to restrain its commander-inchief. It is usually the other way round.

When asked whom they trusted to “deal with North Korea responsibl­y”, more than 70% of people in the country said the US military.

Just 37% opted for Donald Trump, their elected civilian president. We have not seen this movie before.

When we look to uniforms to protect the world’s greatest constituti­onal republic from itself, something is amiss.

Yet it is where most people’s hopes now lie.

In the past few days, Trump has shredded the US’s long-standing — and intuitive — doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

Its key tenet is that the US will retaliate overwhelmi­ngly to any attack on itself or its allies by a nuclear adversary — in this case by North Korea on the US, or on its main regional partners, Japan and South Korea.

The doctrine of mutually assured destructio­n was understood by a succession of Soviet autocrats during the Cold War.

Until now, Washington’s public stance was that deterrence would also work on Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator.

Trump has strayed from that script. On several occasions, most recently last Sunday, he has hinted that the US will attack North Korea first to take out its nuclear weapons. That is likely to play badly on Kim’s state of mind.

If Trump believes “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission”, as he told the UN General Assembly last week, Kim will revise his calculatio­ns.

Likewise, when Trump broadcasts that Kim “won’t be around much longer”, as he tweeted last weekend, Kim might suppose that the US is working on plans to remove him.

Words matter. Sometimes they can be lethal. Trump’s semantic volatility boosts the chances that North Korea’s leader will risk firing a warning shot first.

Whether that would involve sinking a South Korean vessel, firing on a US aircraft patrol or worse, is unknowable.

But once it begins, it would be hard to control the outcome. Since nuclear weapons are Kim’s sole leverage, every war scenario involves a terrifying risk of rapid escalation.

These are the rules Trump is rewriting. We should be thankful he had the good sense to appoint a former general, Jim Mattis, to head the Pentagon.

While Trump keeps the world guessing, Mattis has been quietly reassuring the country’s allies that the US approach has not changed.

But can they take him at his word? Nobody doubts that Mattis, and his fellow former general, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, take every chance to school Trump in the basics of the US’s nuclear posture.

The world is not quite so sure about the third general, HR McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser.

McMaster has speculated about whether the US should embark on a preventati­ve war on North Korea, since Kim could be insane. But McMaster has only once aired such thoughts in public.

Neither Mattis nor Kelly have departed from the standard line.

They are discipline­d soldiers. Yet their president does not always listen to them. Sometimes, as on Tuesday, Trump says what he is supposed to say. At others, he does not.

Which Trump does Kim take seriously? Since the rest of us are not sure of the answer, how can we expect Kim to know?


That is the problem. Military planning dictates that you prepare for the worst. It follows that Kim is betting the bellicose Trump might be the real one. After all, Trump, can fire Mattis and Kelly at any time.

Should he remove either one, or should either resign, the risks of a US-North Korea conflict will deepen.

A great deal rests on the US generals staying where they are.

The coming days will offer two pointers. The first is whether the North Korean leader will conduct an atmospheri­c test, as Pyongyang has hinted it might. Until now, it has only tested warheads undergroun­d. This would be an ominous turn.

US public opinion could swing behind Trump’s confrontat­ional instincts.

The second is whether Trump pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal, as he has also hinted he might — against the advice of Mattis.

Either would be alarming. Both could prove game-changing. We must hope Trump is listening to his generals.

It is bad enough that he keeps goading Kim to take him on. These are the tactics of a schoolyard bully. It would be that much worse if he convinced Iran to follow suit. /©

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