By James H. Nolt
Gen. H. R. McMaster, national security adviser to President Donald Trump, noted a few days ago that the U.S. has plans for “preventive war” against North Korea. While the statement is not surprising, since major nations typically make contingency plans, it is noteworthy that McMaster chose to draw attention to this fact during a period of tension with North Korea over its nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests. I argued a few months ago that Trump may have a strong political incentive to provoke a war in Korea. Tensions have not eased since then.
The concept of preventive war has a long history. It refers to initiating a “war of choice” (not of necessity) because of fear that an adversary is getting stronger, making war now seem preferable to war later. According to this logic, McMaster is suggesting North Korean acquisition of nuclear-strike capability might be forestalled by preventive war if diplomacy fails.
Many commentators around the globe are suggesting that, despite the bluster, war with North Korea is quite unlikely. Eliot A. Cohen takes this line in his article, “America is Not Ready for a War in North Korea,” this week in The Atlantic. If Trump were a normal president concerned with keeping the peace, I would concur, although Cohen, like many commentators, does exaggerate North Korean capabilities and the likely casualties of such a war. Yet the possibility of another Korean war should not be discounted, in part because the domestic political advantages for Trump are too obvious. Judging by “politics as usual” or Sun Tzu’s concept of “ordinary force (以正合),” Trump is the weakest president in American history. He is barely tolerated even within his own political party. Yet he does have one ace up his sleeve: as commander-in-chief of the armed forces he could provoke a war that could turn the tables on his numerous adversaries. His opponents soon may be blindsided by “extraordinary force (以奇胜).”
Trump’s interests are antithetical to the establishments of both political parties. Yet over the past year many Republicans have acquiesced in lukewarm support in order to achieve common domestic policy aims. However, implementing even most of these has been problematic. Trump’s core commitments to “American First” economic nationalism, including a weaker dollar and more protectionist trade policies, gain little support among Republicans in Congress whose campaigns are backed by “strong dollar” creditors and global corporations. On common issues like Trump’s proposed infrastructure spending, even Democrats who might have supported such measures are distancing themselves, scenting blood in the water. A wounded and manifestly unsuccessful Republican president promises significant Democratic Party gains in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Trump critics have often underestimated him, myself included. It’s happening again. Trump seems to be boxed in. His domestic policy initiatives can’t pass in Congress. U.S. allies are alienated. Judges have frustrated his orders restricting immigration. His popular approval rating is declining. Worst of all, multiple federal agencies and congressional committees are investigating his possible misdeeds. According to the standards of ordinary politics, Trump is already a lame duck.
But Trump’s politics defy ordinary rules. His personality bridles at containment. If he could thwart his domestic naysayers and adversaries and simultaneously become a heroic strongman, he would be back in his game. American political culture thrives on decisive, forthright action. Trump is seldom hailed by the mainstream press, but he did receive widespread acclamation when he briefly bombed Syrian warplanes. I expect the lesson was not lost on him. Many Americans love a winner, especially a winner of just wars. The solution to Trump’s political troubles, unfortunately, might be war.
Yet most of Trump’s critics anticipate only ordinary politics played by ordinary rules. Liberals in particular tend to be inept strategists. They believe change comes gradually; that there is only one right and sensible answer to most political questions; and that right, progress, and history are on their side. But Napoleon broke the ordinary accepted rules of 18th-century warfare to conquer nearly all of Europe. Hitler broke the rules of liberal politics and trench warfare to subjugate Germany and much of the continent. Many liberal commentators are dismissing the chance of war as if it should be obvious to everyone that it would solve nothing. But I doubt that Trump and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, see it that way. By discounting the chance that Trump will provoke and win a new Korean war, his critics are playing into his hands if he does pull it off. He will look all the more bold and prescient if he proves the doubters wrong.
Maybe neither Trump nor Bannon rises to the level of these historic conquerors, but Trump does not have to be a strategic genius to realize that a war in Korea could solve a lot of his domestic problems. Yet by discounting the chance of a victorious war, his critics underestimate him. They might think concerns about tens of thousands of Korean deaths might restrain him, but I am not counting on Trump’s humanitarian instincts when he is in the political fight of his life.
China also seems to downplay the risk. China supports watered-down sanctions, such as those recently passed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council, perhaps without realizing that half-hearted measures will not force North Korean concessions or placate Trump. Liu Ming, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, echoes such complacency: “The military option the Americans are threatening won’t likely happen because the stakes will be too high … It’s a pretext and an excuse to pile up pressure on China. It’s more like blackmail than a realistic option.” This fails to take into account that Trump himself may have much to gain and little to lose from a new Korean war. The “high stakes” mostly fall on others, while the benefits of victory accrue to Trump.
As I argued previously, the most politically viable war on the horizon is with North Korea. Its universally detested leader, Kim Jong Un, is the most isolated in the world. United Nations sanctions against his regime just passed 15-0 in the Security Council. Kim has virtually no admirers in the U.S. Overthrowing such a ruthless and apparently dangerous despot, given his nuclear weapons and missile programs, would win near-universal acclaim, yet at a tragic cost in human lives in both North and South Korea.
If Trump wishes to gain politically from a war, it helps to pose as a victim, justly defending against unprovoked aggression. I could call this the “Tonkin Gulf syndrome.” President Lyndon Johnson, facing domestic reluctance to intervene in an obscure civil war in Vietnam, sought an excuse when tiny North Vietnamese torpedo boats apparently attacked a U.S. Navy destroyer within, or at least near, their territorial waters. The U.S. public was not told at the time that the destroyer was part of a series of covert operations involving South Vietnamese allies raiding coastal targets in the North. South Korea is very unlikely to collaborate in similar high-risk operations today, but geographically North Korea is even more vulnerable than North Vietnam because it has a long dual coastline exposed to potential attacks by proximate U.S. Navy forces. It would not be difficult for U.S. forces to hit any unprotected spot with near impunity.
Furthermore, North Korean missiles are vulnerable. U.S. warships armed with Standard SM-3 missiles could potentially intercept North Korean missile launches early in the boost phase, effectively curtailing further testing. If the North Korean navy probes American forces using submarines or surface warships, it would be hard for the world to prove who fired first if North Korean ships end up sunk. Would North Korea simply accept such military humiliation or would it retaliate against the South? The answer is unclear, but if North Korea did retaliate against the South, it would be forced to defend itself. An all-out war could result, regardless of the wishes of the two Korean regimes. Congress would be forced by circumstances to support the South’s fight. Preventive war, in this case, may be less an issue of preventing North Korea’s ascent than forestalling Trump’s political demise.
James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.