A preventive war is an act fraught with moral problems, even against a depraved regime like that of Kim Jong Un. Such an attack could completely upend the international relations of Asia, turning South Korea permanently against the ally who so carelessly disregarded its interests. It could bring in Chinese intervention, if Beijing believes that the Americans seek to reunify the peninsula on their own terms. It could convince other American allies, on whom the United States depends, and who form the core of its international strength, that its leader is mad, and the political system that produced him gone dangerously haywire.
A Korean war would fully absorb the attention of American decision-makers and the efforts of her armed forces. In its own way, it would be a blessing for America’s opponents. While the United States coped with the unforeseen problems and consequences of such a conflict, the Russians, the Chinese, and the jihadis could make their moves more freely than before. And if an isolationist backlash in the United States is evident now, what might it not be in the wake of a bloody adventure in Northeast Asia?
The threat from North Korea is such, even so, that preventive war has to be considered though not recklessly embraced. But that eventuality must not be discussed until the government is ready to lay the predicate for it with careful persuasion of the American public and America’s allies, and careful preparation for the military action required. It has to be handled with a gravity that escapes the Trump White House.
What the Trump administration seems not to take into account is that considerably more than half of the American public, and even more of foreign publics, think the president is neither honest nor trustworthy. To take a country to war under such circumstances would be to risk division and opposition at home and abroad that would exceed that of the Vietnam War era. The price for Trump’s incessant lying will be paid when he sits behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and explains to the American people why they should embark on their third Asian war since 1945. Most Americans will not believe him, and upright Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and dutiful National Security Adviser McMaster will not be much more convincing. The case is one only a president can make, and this president has a deserved reputation for falsehood.
The United States is simply not ready for a war in Korea, even if one were the lesser of two evils. It is not ready for wartime diplomacy to manage fearful or furious allies, let alone the Chinese and the Russians. The Department of State does not even have a nominee for the position of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and its secretary presides over a demoralized and shrinking corps of diplomats. The American military may have the aircraft to hammer North Korean nuclear sites, but it is also fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and returning to Europe to bolster deterrence there. The armed services have suffered years of sequester-imposed spending freezes that mean that they have not refurbished their arsenals or engaged in adequate training. And, despite the promise of a firmer hand on the tiller in the shape of the president’s new chief of staff, General John Kelly, the crazy tweeting persists, and casual threats of war erupt from a man on a summer golfing break.
This could, in other words, all turn out much worse than even the president’s wary advisers, who know war (though far less ferocious war than this would likely be) may think. And if the war hype is all a Trump fake, it will be shown to be such. And as is usually the case with Trump fakes, others will pay the bill while he continues to golf.