Michael Maiello's picture

    War and Words and Words and War

    Today, our president uttered threats at North Korea that sounded comic book villainish or, to take it to the real world, a little more like what I expect from saber rattling emergent enemies of the United States who might make reference to "The Great Satan" or say thinks about streets running red with the blood of innocents, or even that the United States is "not worth an old shoe." Yep, our president sounded like somebody who had come to power through heredity or coup, rather than an election. 

    That he seemed, in a barely veiled way, to be alluding to the use of weapons of mass destruction against North Korea, of course makes things more alarming.

    I've always tried to remind myself, when dictators from potential enemy countries speak like this, that the words are not necessarily policy and that the leaders, though it is tempting to dismiss them as insane, are often actually quite rational about their own prospects for survival.  I remember being told as a kid that Russians didn't think like we do, but they actually do and that's why the Cold War stayed cold.  Russia was an essentially equal nuclear power.  The assured destruction of the Cold War was not only mutual, but would have engulfed many outside interests.

    When it comes to emergent nuclear powers, there is an enormous power imbalance at play. Pakistan or North Korea or Iran might be able to hit U.S. territory once.  Might be able to (it's hard to do and we have defenses and worldwide surveillance).  Once.  Then they are erased. In a lot of ways, becoming a nuclear power these days might have deterrent benefits, but it is also the same as painting a target on yourself.  Welcome to the club.  Use the thing and you're assuredly done.

    Keeping countries from developing atomic weapons has always been problematic. We're talking about what is now basic physics.  Atoms have energy.  Atoms are everywhere.  We may as well try to forbid other countries the internal combustion engine.  The established nuclear powers have done a good job of bribing and cajoling other countries not to venture down the path.  But, eventually, countries that want these weapons will make them. Their own instincts to survive will keep us safe when they do.

    So... back to Trump (and sorry for the long and rambling journey here)... Is he like a tinpot dictator, talking about doing the unthinkable, or when he says "fire and fury," do we have to worry?  It's always tempting to believe that Trump's bluster is purely that, but such a view has not been rewarded during his short presidency. He was not humbled by the power of his office, so there is no reason to think he'd be humbled by the consideration of his own use of WMDs against another country.

    The big reason to believe that Trump won't do something drastically stupid regarding North Korea is that it's not necessary.  North Korea can be a nuclear power and not an existential threat to us.  It's not ideal, but North Korea can be effectively and non-violently contained, as Iraq was after the first Gulf War (and could have been, in perpetuity).  Heck, it's funny to hear Trump's bluster now, given how much time he spent during the election trying to establish his anti-Iraaq War II bona fides.

    Still, his rhetoric is a problem.  I'll leave it to the real historians at Dag to talk about modern wars that were started by words, but I can't help but think of the Trojan War story, where a lot of kings who even at their worst seemed better than Trump, launched an earth-shattering war over not much more than a woman leaving her spouse.

    I mostly don't think this is going to get out of hand, but I have no conviction in that either, if that makes any sense.



    Still, his rhetoric is a problem.

    A reminder of what he said on Face The Nation April 30--

    I am thinking he may see a young Trump in the little he has learned about Kim (from cartoon briefing books they prepare for him or whatevah)

    President Trump, asked what he made of the North Korean leader, answered:

    "People are saying: 'Is he sane?' I have no idea.... but he was a young man of 26 or 27... when his father died. He's dealing with obviously very tough people, in particular the generals and others.

    "And at a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I'm sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie."

    In which case he is doing the return saber rattling thinking that is how you effect someone like himself.

    He certainly knows all about using propaganda, populist patriotism and xenophobia just like, but not as extremely as the Kim dynasty.

    I know a bit about the propaganda and saber rattling in the years of Kim Jong-Il.  On the forum I participated in before moving to TPMCafe around 2005, me and a Quebec buddy were both fascinated by it and would trade anything we could find for a couple years like, links to posters, song translations, videos of stadium performances, etc. It is not the same at all as say, Soviet propaganda. And there is great similarity with some things in particular that are characteristically Trumpian, especially his love of great spectacle instilled by his mother.

    Edit to add: for those who don't know it, North Korean propaganda for decades has been more than "warlike", it is about war to excess, war all the time, and in particular against the U.S.A. There are decades old posters of their bombs hitting the U.S. Capital and breaking it to smithereens. The method of control of the population is mainly fear of the outside world that has been deeply, deeply impressed. And the U.S.A. is enemy #1. There is a little bit on trying to keep the populace happy with their socialist dream country with songs about how wonderful potatoes are, but mainly it not like Mao's China trying to inspire the populace, rather, most of the propaganda is about war and how the leader is protecting them from everyone else out there by making them the most fearsome nation on the earth.

    P.S. Related side issue on my edit above: I vaguely recall a interview Bill Clinton did with Larry King after he was out of office where for a segment he was waxing wonk on North Korea. He was saying that for them missiles were their cash crop, the only way for them to get some foreign funds into the country. And that they are also an important point of pride, the population had been taught to be very proud of this product, that they could make them. And that they needed cash. So he thought: we should make sure they are purchased, but quietly!

    If you read Book 2, Herodotus Histories, Helen voluntarily made off with a ship captain, was never in Troy as they were blown off course to Egypt, and Homer's Trojan War, that Herodotus called a 'heroic tale', was just elaborate cover for the unprovoked sack and pillage of Troy.

    We still make excuses to justify too many wars.

    This is a very complicated situation. I would feel better if D.T. lost his phone and found some restraint while looking for it.

    The idea that General Kelly would restore sanity to this White House was always a fantasy. Kim Jong-Orange is the biggest danger facing the world today.

    South Koreans think the U.S. is a bigger danger. 

    This particular crisis may not get out of hand. North Korea is easily bribed into peacefulness. Who was it that said their nuclear program is just their cash cow - it's just something they swing around to get people to give them money through China.

    But how long can the most powerful country in the world run around like a headless chicken before something somewhere gets out of hand?

    There is zero policy continuity with previously made commitments. The very notion of foreign policy commitment, or for that matter, even anything resembling policy tout court, is utterly absent. What is the rational course of action for a Rouhani, a Jung Un, a Putin, when the US behavior on the international stage is totally unreliable and unpredictable? Trump has made it abundantly clear to the world that he is weak-minded - as in slow-witted, impatient, insecure, vain, fickle and easily swayed. It's never at all clear who he will follow and who he will lash out at. It doesn't mean that the right calculation is to provoke the US in its present headless (or mindless) state. But it also doesn't mean that the right move is to lay low in fear of an irrationally excessive US reaction either. 

    Dunno, but if I were an evil dictator of a foreign power, I would seek to instigate a crisis somewhere else and then use the breathing room to consolidate power in my own region. Because whatever the US reaction, you know it won't be smart and level-headed, and any crisis will be handled terribly. That is the only sure bet here. 

    So Iran could for instance give North Korea missile tech to mount a warhead (like so) to heighten tensions there, and then use the resulting distraction to mess around in the Middle East. Russia and Iran are probably happy with the absurdly escalating Qatar mess as well. Putin is spreading political instability where he can, and he'll use whatever the next crisis is to make his own moves in Eastern Europe. That, in any case, is my depressing prognosis. Things WILL get out of hand. The question is when. And then the next vital question is how fast does Congress move to replace Trump. 

    Trump certainly remembers that beating the drums of war (and dropping a big bomb) garnered easy approval from the establishment media once before. Whether provoking an opponent that the establishment doesn't care about (because they have no oil) has the same salutary effect on the talking heads remains to be seen.

    Most tinpot dictators, like Kim Jong-Un, talk in this unhinged aggressive way because they are actually deeeply aware of their weakness. The rattlesnake rattles when it's scared.

    Trump, with the most powerful military in world history under his command, speaks like a scared threepenny tyrant. Because he is frightened and weak. That is the core of his nature.

    What in God's name did you hope to achieve, Donald? 

    This is remarkable.

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