On Friday, Donald Trump’s defense secretary traveled to the tensest point of the world’s tensest conflict to deliver a message. “Our goal is not war,” James Mattis declared at the the border between South Korea and North Korea, but rather to persuade Kim Jong Un to give up his rapidly expanding nuclear-weapons arsenal through hard-nosed diplomacy. Back in Washington, D.C., however, a counter-message is percolating: The president’s repeated threats of war with North Korea, and his advisers’ increasingly urgent warnings that the administration could be forced to take military action if diplomacy fails, aren’t being taken seriously enough.
The alarms may be ringing loudest in Congress, where a broader debate is building about who has the power to wage war. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will on Monday hold a hearing about the president’s authority to use military force. Corker has expressed concern that Trump, with his fiery rhetoric and disdain for diplomacy, is leading the country toward another “world war,” this time on the Korean peninsula. At a nuclear-security conference on Thursday, Democratic lawmakers championed various legislative schemes to clamp down on the president’s ability to launch the first nuclear-weapons strike in a conflict. And on Wednesday, amid a similar legislative push in the House, Chris Murphy announced that he and two other Democratic senators, Brian Schatz and Cory Booker, will be introducing legislation next week to prohibit the president from taking military action against North Korea—whether nuclear or non-nuclear—without congressional authorization. The prohibition wouldn’t apply if the United States is under attack or facing an imminent attack.