Jack Kennedy read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, and it reportedly influenced his navigation through the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book describes in gripping detail how the world blundered into the cataclysm of World War I, a development that none of the parties had wanted and the kind of outcome that Kennedy was determined to avoid. It does not take a great leap of imagination to wonder if we are not blundering our way toward a 21st century cataclysm, and the Tuchman classic is one that our current leaders might be well advised to read or recall.
The escalating rhetoric from Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump may prove to be mere bluster on both sides, but then again it may not, and even reckless bluster can trigger reckless actions. On Monday, Kim Jong Un reacted to sanctions imposed by the United Nations by describing them as a “crime” for which the U.S. would be punished “thousands of times.” Kim’s regime added that “There is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean.” The following day, Trump upped the ante with this assertion:
North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.
North Korea responded almost immediately with a new threat, that it is considering “making an enveloping fire” around Guam, a Pacific U.S. territory and home to military bases.
The following day, during a refueling stop on his way back to Washington, D.C from Asia, Secretary of State Tillerson offered comments that appeared to be intended to calm the situation, saying “I think Americans should sleep well at night. I have no concerns about this particular rhetoric over the last few days.” But the rhetoric did not stop. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted references to America’s nuclear arsenal (including the false claim that it had been renovated and modernized under his administration). Also on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Mattis urged North Korea to “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people.”
On Thursday, North Korea underscored its threat to Guam by releasing precise details including exact travel times for four test missiles and specific splashdown points 18-25 miles from Guam. At the same time, Trump, for his part doubled down on his threat of “fire and fury,” brushing aside the criticism it had drawn, and suggesting that “maybe wasn’t tough enough.” North Korea, he added, “better get their act together” or face trouble “like few nations have ever been in trouble in this world.”
Trump’s comments are deeply disturbing in two respects. First, they appear to presage a possible preemptive strike against North Korea and the launching of such a strike without Congressional authorization. Second, they appear to contemplate an attack with nuclear weapons—and to underestimate the incalculable, but surely terrible, consequences of such an attack.
If the United States is attacked, a president, as Commander in Chief, clearly has the authority to respond immediately and without action by Congress. That is also the case under the War Powers Resolution passed in 1973 (over the veto of President Nixon):
Presidential executive power as Commander-in-Chief; limitation
The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces. (Emphasis added)
It is a different matter, however, in the case of a “preemptive strike” that responds not to a military attack but to mere threats. (Once again one thinks of Barbara Tuchman: “Now according to German logic, a declaration of war was found to be unnecessary because of imaginary bombings.”)
If a threat made it clear that a military attack was imminent, such threat might arguably be equated to an attack, but nothing North Korea has done thus far falls into that category. Even the proposed launch of missiles to land in the vicinity of Guam would be irresponsible, foolish and provocative but, unless they had an impact on US territory, equipment or personnel, they would still seem to be more a threat than an action.
The constitution makes it the responsibility of Congress, and not the President, to declare war. Therefore, absent a military attack, a military response by the United States should be launched only after a declaration of war or some other form of Congressional authorization (such as the Authorization for Use of Military Force obtained by President George W. Bush prior to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan). There have been occasions when Presidents have taken military actions without Congressional authority, under a variety of rationales, none of which appear germane here. (For a brief summary of past actions, see Wikipedia, “War Powers Resolution.”) Suffice it to say that none had potential consequences with the enormity that a strike on North Korea would have.
Nevertheless, seeking Congressional authority does not appear to be on the administration’s agenda. The question was raised with Sean Spicer in April and drew the following response:
Question: On North Korea, is the president prepared to act alone? Or does he feel that Congress should be somehow involved in the process if any decision that includes the use of force is made?
Spicer: I think he’s going to utilize the powers under Article II of the Constitution. He—I think what you saw with—with respect to the action that he had with Syria, we did a—he made sure that members of Congress were notified of his action in a very, very short amount of time. We’re going to continue to seek fair input on the policy overall and then make sure that they’re notified. We’ll do that.
The view that Spicer appeared to take of the President’s authority under Article II would make a virtual nullity of Congressional authority under Article I. An attack against North Korea would not be remotely comparable to the pin prick administered to Syria, but there is no indication that the Administration’s approach has changed or differs from Spicer’s version. And it is hardly necessary to say that the “notification” offered by Spicer is no substitute for authorization.
To be fair to the administration, there has been no clamor from Capitol Hill to participate in the decision making. In fact, Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska is the only Senator to raise the point openly: “One of the options that they’re looking at that would eventually materialize is a pre-emptive war on the Korean peninsula launched by the U.S. Well, that would clearly in my view require the authorization from Congress.” Senator Sullivan notwithstanding, Congressional indifference (or cowardice) is unlikely to change unless the issue is given emphasis by the media and captures the attention of the public. And, because the issue is as much or more political than legal, Trump’s power to initiate a preemptive strike may be, as some observers have concluded, essentially unchecked. Which makes the nature of the strike all the more important.
While neither Trump nor any other member of the administration has made it explicit, there can be no doubt that they are speaking of a nuclear attack on North Korea. Perhaps their bellicose statements have been intended simply to get the attention of Pyongyang and Beijing, but one can hardly be sure. To the extent that they reflect an “option” seriously under consideration, it draws into question whether Trump and his colleagues have a realistic picture of the consequences. Even if the United States were to inflict fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen before, it is unlikely to forestall retaliation, if not on the United States, on South Korea and the tens of thousands of Americans in South Korea. It was only in June that General Mattis pointed to the destruction that a war with North Korea would visit on Seoul and beyond: “It would be a serious, a catastrophic war, especially for innocent people in some of our allied countries, to include Japan most likely.”
And what of the North Korean people themselves, a people whose “destruction” is now threatened by General Mattis? Are we prepared to substantially destroy the population of an entire country when the vast majority have committed no sin except to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time? We have kept the nuclear genie in the bottle for over seventy years—is this the occasion to unloose it? Perhaps another book for our leaders’ reading list should be John Hersey’s Hiroshima.
Finally, have we taken into account what the responses of China and Russia might be to a catastrophe we created? Would they simply turn a blind eye to the devastation on their doorsteps or would they find ways to retaliate?
Surely such a catastrophe should not be contemplated except for the most compelling of reasons. Are there such reasons here? General McMaster recently stated the United States position: “If [North Korea] had nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States, it’s intolerable from the president’s perspective. So, of course, we have to provide all options to do that, and that includes a military option.” The thought of nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea that could reach the United States is admittedly unattractive and even chilling, but is the existence of such weapons truly intolerable? A strong argument can be made that it is not, and that argument should be carefully weighed by the administration, Congress and the public before we leap off the precipice of a preemptive strike.
Fundamentally, it is generally agreed that North Korea’s primary interest in nuclear weapons is defensive, involving the preservation of the regime. In particular, such weapons are seen as deterring the United States from attempting to effect regime change or supporting South Korea in an effort to forcibly unify the Korean peninsula. But for such a threat, North Korea would have no reason to attack the United States, particularly given the devastation that such an attack would bring down on itself. General Mattis has pointed out that North Korea would be greatly “over-matched” in any conflict with the United States and Kim and his military are certainly aware of that. And, while Kim is a peculiar and unsavory individual in many respects, there is no evidence that he is crazy, irrational or suicidal. On the contrary, he is, more than anything else, a survivalist and his survival depends on his not attacking a far more powerful adversary.
The best outcome of this confrontation would be negotiations that lead North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal altogether, but that seems an unlikely prospect at present. It could only happen if North Korea and its leader became persuaded the United States and South Korea pose no threat to them. As reported in the New York Times on August 1, Secretary Tillerson took a step in that direction by attempting to reassure North Korea:
Tillerson told reporters that the United States does not aim to depose the government in Pyongyang or use military force.
“We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel,” he said.
“We are trying to convey to the North Koreans: ‘We are not your enemy, we are not your threat. But you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond.’ ”
The United States, Tillerson added, hopes that “at some point,” North Korea will understand and enter into a dialogue.
In the short time since then, however, rhetoric on both sides has grown harsher and even a start of negotiations, let alone a resolution, seems further away than ever. If negotiations can be undertaken, there will be a premium on creativity. One possible ingredient might be to guarantee North Korea’s territorial integrity by stationing a multi-national peace-keeping force, including a substantial component of Chinese troops, at the DMZ. But we are a long way from consideration of such a proposal
If the goal of de-nuclearizing the Korean peninsula cannot be achieved, we might just have to live with that. After all, to put things in some perspective, we have managed to tolerate possession by the Soviet Union, and later Russia, of a far greater nuclear arsenal than North Korea will ever have. It is not what we would wish, but it may be preferable to the alternative.