Painting the Corner on North Korea

September 4, 2017–Not long ago I wrote about Donald J. Trump painting himself into a corner on North Korea, into a place where he cannot exit without unleashing the dogs of war. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear test has led our president into issuing yet more dark threats. I’m not going to take up your time this Labor Day with some extended commentary on this idiocy, but I will make a few points:

First, you have to suspect our top people have forgotten–or chosen to ignore–longstanding practice in the military and intelligence business. In engineering development it used to be that our missiles were not considered “ready” until each system had performed to perfection twenty times. Even our intel people, hedging against threats, waited until an adversary missile system had toted up ten successes before considering it had reached “Initial Operating Capability.” Up to now there appear to have been five long-range missile shots from North Korea, three of them partial failures.

Put aside the question of whether Pyongyang is progressing faster, slower, or as expected by U.S. intelligence–something no one will know until the secret estimates are made public, the concrete evidence does not indicate a current global threat from North Korea. The North Korean claims to a hydrogen bomb have the feel of a deception, with a staged photo op and a missile nosecone cowling in the picture to suggest successful weaponization, but a yield the scientists will shortly tell us was only in the moderate kiloton range.

Second, as I’ve written here before, there is no international law or other standard that justifies use of force against a nation for simple weapons development. Indeed, in the 1960s the Soviet Union considered pre-emption against the People’s Republic of China for its nuclear weapons program, and the jury is still out on real (but ambiguous) evidence the Soviets and/or U.S. each considered enlisted the other in the same enterprise. In the U.S. in the early 1950s there were also those who counseled a pre-emptive attack against the developing Soviet atomic capability. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed in every one of those cases.

The military minds that surround President Trump have been counted on to restrain his cruder impulses, but like H. R. McMaster, have often aligned with him instead. Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy used to talk about the “effectiveness trap”–the idea that your options are to stay with the president no matter how irrational he may be, in hopes of accomplishing the kind of restraint necessary here, or resigning in protest to sandbag a president with political concerns. Those considerations stopped many Vietnam war-era officials from doing the right thing. The effectiveness trap is functioning again right here. The supposedly wiser heads have done nothing to prevent Mr. Trump from painting over the actual corner on which he’s been standing.

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