This business will get out of control! It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it! – Admiral Josh Painter (played by Fred Thompson) in The Hunt for Red October (1990)
We all like to think we’re in control, but life has a way of telling us that our control over events is highly circumscribed. To what should be to no one’s surprise, our national leaders are not immune to this phenomenon, either. The outbreak of World War I is an example of how events and security dilemmas can spiral out of control and lead to unthinkable horrors. Few, if any, of Europe’s leaders — some related by blood — thought war was likely in 1914, but four years later approximately 17 million people had lost their lives.
Now, I am not saying the United States is going to war with North Korea, but I am worried that we’re closer to doing so at any time since the 1950s. North Korea’s apparently successful launch of an ICBM around Independence Day (if my memory serves me, North Korea’s leaders like to do tests around July 4) is a “game changer” according to many analysts, as it now appears that the NPRK can at least hit Alaska if they can get a nuke on a missile. It might not be long before Seattle and Los Angeles, et. al., are in the crosshairs. That’s obviously not great.
But let’s face it, there are a few countries who have nuclear missiles that can target our cities. I lived through the latter stages of the Cold War and, like the rock star Sting, I hoped the Russians loved their children, too. I still hope Putin’s Russia does. The United States and Soviets never fought each other directly; the countries managed the Cold War fairly effectively in terms of not blowing up the world except for one major hiccup. My point is that the U.S. and the world can probably engage and manage North Korea as well.
Today, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, ratcheted up the rhetoric regarding North Korea’s behavior, reserving the right for the U.S. to intervene militarily, while also “calling out” and, in my opinion, threatening countries who were economically supporting North Korea – a.k.a., China. This is where things get really messy, in my opinion. The U.S. wants to project strength – I get it. The U.S. aspires to achieve the strongest bargaining position possible – makes sense. But let’s get two things absolutely straight: 1) North Korea isn’t going to give up its missile or nuclear program; it sees it, understandably, as insurance against invasion and military intervention by the U.S.; 2) China will not tolerate a united Korea under U.S. influence at its border (see Korean War). And China is much stronger, both economically and militarily, than it was when U.S. troops approached the Yalu River over 65 years ago.
So, let’s circle back to Admiral Josh Painter from The Hunt for Red October, and his concern that events could get out of control. President Trump has indicated repeatedly on Twitter that it is unacceptable for North Korea to acquire a weapon that could threaten the U.S. In fact, he said it “won’t happen.” But it has. And here is one of my main worries — leaders sometimes refuse to back down if they “lose face” or, in other words, fear that they would appear weak and embarrassed. President Trump has talked about how the U.S. doesn’t win anymore. If he backs down now, is this another American loss? More importantly, would Trump think this is a Trump loss? Has his rhetoric positioned himself so that he’s now caught up in events beyond his control? Does he have a way out, even if it makes him “look bad” or “weak”? Has he alienated Beijing, who the U.S. has to have on board to nudge North Korea “in the right direction”?
The silver lining is that President Trump changes his mind quite often as he learns about subjects that are apparent to most people who have occupied his position. Let’s hope he’s a quick learner on this subject. If not, it’s not a complete reach that “we’ll be lucky to live through it.”