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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Fears of Missiles, and Words - The New York Times

"On some emotional level, one might be able to see why Donald Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea if it endangered the United States. The North’s nuclear program is a growing menace, its warmongering tirades are unquestionably unnerving, and peaceful solutions to the threat it poses have been maddeningly elusive over many years and many American administrations.



But Mr. Trump is president of the United States, and if prudent, disciplined leadership was ever required, it is now. Rhetorically stomping his feet, as he did on Tuesday, is not just irresponsible; it is dangerous. He is no longer a businessman trying to browbeat someone into a deal. He commands the most powerful nuclear and conventional arsenal in the world, and any miscalculation could be catastrophic.



Even if Mr. Trump’s provocative remarks were part of a deliberate strategy for ratcheting up pressure on North Korea — and on China, which as the North’s main food and fuel supplier has more influence on it than any other nation — they would be at odds with the measured approach of his predecessors. This is a president with no prior government or military experience who has shown no clear grasp of complex strategic issues.



As The Times reported Wednesday, his inflammatory words were entirely improvised and took his closest associates by surprise. Intentionally or not, they echoed President Harry Truman’s 1945 pledge to inflict a “rain of ruin from the air” if Japan did not surrender after the first atomic bomb was dropped at Hiroshima, which made them seem even more ominous.



Mr. Trump and his aides must have anticipated that he would be asked by reporters about North Korea after the United Nations Security Council tightened sanctions on Saturday after the North’s latest missile tests. Why, then, didn’t his team of generals — John Kelly, the new chief of staff; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, who know well the perils of war — caution him about the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy, about better ways to signal toughness and about the dangers of idle threats?



It is hard to believe that they would condone Mr. Trump’s risky approach, and on Wednesday, the damage control began. While Mr. Mattis reinforced his boss’s belligerent tone and expressed confidence that North Korea would “lose any arms race or conflict it initiates,” he more prudently focused on the North’s concrete “actions” rather than on vague threats and voiced support for a diplomatic solution. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he saw no reason to believe that war was imminent. Meanwhile, some White House aides reportedly urged reporters not to read too much into the president’s remarks.



It may be too late for that. Mr. Trump’s words speak the loudest; the North Koreans have heard them and, in response, warned that they were examining plans to attack Guam, an American territory with a military base. Mr. Trump’s comments also heightened fears in the region and provided more fodder for hawks in South Korea and Japan who are pressing their governments to beef up defenses or even develop their own nuclear weapons.



Since Truman, presidents have largely avoided the kind of militaristic threats issued by Mr. Trump because they feared such language could escalate a crisis. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings chastened the world about the consequences of nuclear war to such an extent that firing another nuclear weapon has become, for most people, unthinkable. The Trump administration is now reviewing American nuclear policy and it’s anyone’s guess whether it will change.



Mr. Trump has again made himself the focus of attention, when it should be Kim Jong-un, the ruthless North Korean leader, and his accelerating nuclear program that, The Washington Post reported, may have succeeded in miniaturizing a warhead to fit on a missile and may have accumulated as many as 60 nuclear weapons. Mr. Trump’s threats have also diverted attention from a genuine accomplishment, the new Security Council sanctions.



Tougher sanctions, coupled with Mr. Tillerson’s continued efforts at a diplomatic solution, are the best path to a peaceful end to this conflict. That is what Mr. Trump should also be focused on. Engaging in a war of words with North Korea only makes it harder for both sides to de-escalate."



Fears of Missiles, and Words - The New York Times

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