By John Frederick Kaufman
Today The Pacific returns to the daily digital domain after a few months respite. In fact, if it wasn’t for the recent launching of words of war back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, this publication and its editorial committee of one would still be lounging around on a beach with a book, or with a book about beaches. Alert readers will notice that the design of the site has been spruced up a bit, but the general content, for better or worse, will remain as it was.
Do not, however, expect to see Riverboat Sam opining on your screen anytime soon. Sam, who some claim is really the famous fictionist Samuel Clemens (alias “Riverboat Sam”), informs me that, while he may not be dead yet, he is old enough to know that such strenuous work as writing is not to be undertaken before the leaves fall. “Besides,” Sam said, “if fools blow up the world, I don’t want to hear about it on some computer. Should the world end, one consolation would be the end of fools and computers.” Sam, for whom talking is not strenuous at all, went on at some length, but as we have serious matters of war and peace to discuss, I will spare you the rest of his acerbic screed.
Surely the greatest risk of electing a man like Donald Trump to lead the nation and wield as “commander in chief” a vast nuclear-armed military is precisely the scenario we now find ourselves in: incompetent, chaotic domestic governing tempting Trump to strike out militarily to show manly, independent resolve through impatient force. Which is what our president did earlier in the year when he chose to launch a legally dubious missile attack on a Syrian airbase and ordered or allowed the dropping of “the mother of all bombs” on what was reportedly an Islamic State stronghold in Afghanistan. Predictably, and sadly, Trump’s popularity rose among “the people,” the media and even some Democrats, after his military strikes. Such general approval of military means does not bode well.
As North Korea’s regime has significantly increased its missile and nuclear capabilities, the United States has taken the position that it will not resume diplomatic talks with North Korea until NK agrees to end its nuclear weapons program. This the North Korean government refuses to do for obvious reasons: such weapons give the regime power and prestige, and all the economic sanctions in the world will not likely deter its leaders. Of course the current members of the “nuclear club” would prefer to prevent other nations, especially hostile and erratic ones, from gaining such weapons. But lately there has not been much talk of reducing or eliminating their own stockpiles of nuclear weapons, so the hypocrisy of the nuclear nations is rather blatant. (If you think we ought to be eliminating all nuclear weapons (as I do), check out Global Zero.)
The crucial point is that the United States needs to keep diplomacy with North Korea alive. We have to sit down, face to face with North Korea, and keep talking. Hurling threats across the Pacific Ocean will do nothing but increase mistrust, raise tensions and make a vast and possibly nuclear conflict more likely. We do not, for example, have to antagonize North Korea by holding annual military exercises with South Korea.
As former national security advisor and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice writes in the NY Times, “History shows that we can, if we must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea — the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War.” It would be helpful if the U.S. and Russia showed less tolerance for increasing and improving their own nuclear arsenals.
It would also be helpful and calming if our leaders did not stoop to incendiary remarks of the “fire and fury” sort. Trump’s remark brings to mind what Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a man turned cynical by unchecked ambition, said about life: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In this case, we can hope that Trump’s bombast signifies what it usually does–nothing much. But militaristic bombast often leads to the use of actual bombs, and Trump has proven in his short time in office that he’s willing to pull the trigger and let the military call the shots. The American people knew that Trump was potentially reckless when as a candidate he encouraged violence at his rallies and said, “I love war, in a certain way” and spoke approvingly of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. For some reason, enough of the country voted for him, anyway; maybe they thought it was all a TV script.
Today President Trump stepped outside his golf club in New Jersey to say that perhaps his “fire and fury” threat wasn’t “tough enough.” Yesterday, however, Trump aides said Trump didn’t really mean he was really considering a preemptive nuclear strike. It was just Trump thinking out loud. And yet even U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said that North Korea should “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people.” What sort of “actions” would that be? When asked by a reporter today whether he is considering a preemptive strike against North Korea, Trump said, “We’ll see what happens.”
Better, I think, for all concerned Americans to speak out now against any use of nuclear weapons so we don’t have to see again what happens when one is actually used.