Donald Trump has characterized the air strikes he ordered against the Syrian military as a brilliant, 100-percent successful operation. His defense secretary, James Mattis, has described the bombing as a limited mission to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons—an intervention that, despite deepening U.S.-Russian tensions and American involvement in the Syrian Civil War, will not “spiral out of control.” And Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has portrayed the cruise-missile blitz as an $89 million warning not just to Syria, but to other rogue nations like North Korea.
“The message that any nation can take is if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken,” Tillerson said without specifying whether that response would come in the form of missiles or something else. “In terms of North Korea, we have been very clear that our objective is a denuclearized Korean peninsula.” To emphasize the point, the Trump administration has sent a Navy strike group to the waters off the Korean peninsula following North Korea’s latest ballistic-missile test. The country’s nuclear and missile programs could produce a nuclear-armed long-range missile capable of hitting the United States within Trump’s first term.
But is the Trump administration learning the right lessons from the Syria campaign? And is the message they’re sending as powerful as they seem to think it is? To begin with, the evidence that this type of signaling works in foreign policy—that, for example, the North Korean regime will rethink its nuclear-weapons buildup after witnessing the Syria strikes, and that it might not have had the strikes not occurred—is inconclusive at best. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has noted, we know how complex and difficult communication is between humans. So why expect it to be any more straightforward between states? The North Korean government, for its part, claims to have drawn the opposite conclusion from Trump’s bombing campaign: that the only way to prevent the United States from attacking it too is to develop a fearsome nuclear deterrent.
There’s also reason to doubt whether the Trump administration is seriously considering using force against North Korea’s nuclear program, even though the administration insists that military action is one of many options under review.
So far, Trump has not faced the fallout from intervention that Barack Obama feared when he chose not to strike Syria in 2013. Perhaps because it was, to quote John Kerry, “unbelievably small,” Trump’s military intervention has yet to turn the Syrian president into a martyr, lure the United States into another Middle Eastern quagmire, or spark a direct conflict with Russia. Then again, it still might—it’s only been a week.
Taking military action against North Korea, however, arguably carries far greater risk of escalation than firing dozens of missiles at a Syrian air base. Many experts believe that even limited U.S. strikes against North Korea’s nuclear and missile infrastructure—assuming that military planners could even locate the right targets, given that they tend to be hidden—would be interpreted by the Kim regime as an intolerable threat to its existence. The strikes could therefore result in North Korea swiftly using conventional, chemical, or even nuclear weapons against targets in South Korea and Japan, including the South Korean capital of Seoul and U.S. troops in both countries (hence why many Japanese and South Koreans prefer non-military measures to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions). There could be “millions of casualties if something like this were to happen,” the Korea expert Victor Cha recently told me, and all for a military operation that would only temporarily set back North Korea’s weapons program.
In 2005, The Atlantic’s Scott Stossel examined how this scenario might play out by sitting in on a “war game” in Washington, D.C. featuring several former U.S. officials:
[Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel, explained] that the first few days of the fight would be critical if we were to have any chance of protecting Seoul. To do so, we would have to get the chemical-delivery systems, the missile sites, and the nuclear sites before the North Koreans had a chance to use them. To accomplish all this we would need to carry out 4,000 air sorties a day in the first days of the conflict. In Iraq, in contrast, we had carried out 800 a day.
[Jessica Mathews, a former deputy to the undersecretary of state for global affairs,] disagreed that Seoul could be shielded: “My understanding is that we cannot protect Seoul, at least for the first twenty-four hours of a war, and maybe for the first forty-eight.” [Thomas McInerney, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force,] disputed this, and Mathews asked him to explain.
McInerney: “There’s a difference between ‘protecting’ Seoul and [limiting] the amount of damage Seoul may take.”
Mathews: “There are a hundred thousand Americans in Seoul, not to mention ten million South Koreans.”
McInerney: “A lot of people are going to die, Jessica. But you still prevail.”
It’s this grisly logic that kept Bill Clinton, who carried out Trump-esque missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan and Iraq (twice), from attacking North Korea’s nuclear facilities, even though he seriously debated bombing the Yongbyon reactor in 1994. (And this was before North Korea successfully tested a nuclear weapon, greatly increasing the risks of U.S. military action.) A “strike on Yongbyon, while surgical in and of itself, would hardly be surgical in its overall effect,” Clinton’s defense secretary and assistant defense secretary later recalled. “In the event of a North Korean attack, U.S. forces, working side by side with the South Korean army and using bases in Japan, would quickly destroy the North Korean army and the North Korean regime. But … [t]he intensity of combat would be greater than any the world has witnessed since the last Korean War.” Confronted with that prospect, the Clinton administration set aside the cruise missiles and fighter jets, and decided to negotiate with the North Koreans instead.
As North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program expanded, Clinton’s successors all considered their own military options. None chose that route.