On a sunny morning show on Tuesday, Lindsey Graham made an exceedingly dark calculation. North Korea’s second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile meant that Kim Jong Un is nearly capable of placing a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile and hitting the United States with it, the Republican senator noted on the Today show. And America can’t allow such a “madman” to get to that point, at whatever cost to non-Americans.
Donald Trump agrees, Graham added, and he knows that because he’s heard it straight from the president: Trump has “got to choose between homeland security and regional stability,” Graham argued. “Japan, South Korea, China would all be in the crosshairs of a war if we started one with North Korea. But if [North Korea gets] a missile they can hit California, maybe other parts of America.”
“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And [Trump’s] told me that to my face,” Graham said. “That may be provocative, but not really. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.”
Graham is particularly fond of military solutions to foreign-policy problems; in his Today show appearance, he proposed “destroy[ing] … North Korea itself” to rid the country of nuclear weapons—which, whatever that means, is more aggressive than the Trump administration’s stated goals for any military operations. But Graham has expressed in blunt terms what other U.S. officials gloss over with their vague talk of “military response options” and everything remaining “on the table.”
If the U.S. military were to strike North Korea for the reasons Graham mentioned, it would be the result of a calculation that sparking a real conflict in East Asia is preferable to accepting a theoretical threat to the United States—that it’s worth risking the actual deaths of those living in and near North Korea, including American expats and troops stationed in Japan and South Korea, to avert the potential deaths of Americans at home. When I surveyed experts this spring, they predicted that whatever form U.S. strikes against North Korea take, they could result in thousands or even millions of deaths—as the North Koreans retaliate with conventional, chemical, and perhaps nuclear weapons, and the United States and its allies respond in kind, dragging the region into a spiral of conflict. The vast range of the casualty estimates spoke to just how much unknown risk U.S. military planners would be assuming.
Graham is advocating “preventive strikes,” which differ from “preemptive strikes” in that they would not be a response to imminent attack by North Korea. He’s not suggesting that the U.S. military spring to action should it believe that Kim Jong Un is about to nuke California. He’s suggesting that the U.S. military neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat so Kim never has the ability to nuke California. As my colleague Peter Beinart has written, postwar American policymakers associated preventive war with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and therefore tended to reject the approach on moral grounds. But since the end of the Cold War, preventive military action has become a popular option among U.S. officials, culminating with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
When members of the Trump administration publicly discuss military options against North Korea, they typically describe them in preventive terms. It’s not surprising that a hawk like Lindsey Graham would characterize the president’s views that way. But you don’t have to take his word for it. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national-security adviser, has staked out a similar position. In April, he said it would be unacceptable for the North Korean government to obtain nuclear weapons that can reach the United States, even if that entails taking military action that would produce “human catastrophe” in South Korea. In July, Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, engaged in the same grim calculus.
“Many people have talked about military options [against North Korea] with words like ‘unimaginable,’” he observed. “I would shift that slightly and say it would be horrific. It would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes. Anyone who has been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there’s a conflict on the Korean peninsula.” (Defense Secretary James Mattis has similarly described a potential second Korean war as representing “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes. ... [T]he bottom line is it would be a catastrophic war.”)
“It is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability,” Dunford continued. “What’s unimaginable to me is allowing a capability that would allow a nuclear weapon to land in Denver, Colorado.” Dunford said this even though the scenario he envisions—a nuclear-weapons power being able to strike the mainland United States—is eminently imaginable. The United States has long deployed nuclear forces, missile-defense systems, and other military assets to deter Russia and China from doing just that.
The Trump administration may simply be talking tough to spook North Korea and its ally, China, into making concessions. “If I were China, I would believe [Trump] too, and do something about” pressuring the North Korean government to roll back its nuclear-weapons program,” Graham said on Tuesday. The threat of military force seems more credible if the U.S. government signals it is so unwilling to live with North Korea as a nuclear power that it is willing to invite the greatest human catastrophe in living memory. But what happens if North Korea calls America’s bluff?