It’s become a grim ritual in Washington foreign-policy circles to assess the chances that the United States and North Korea stumble into war. But on Wednesday Lindsey Graham did something different: He estimated the odds that the Trump administration deliberately strikes North Korea first, to stop it from acquiring the capability to target the U.S. mainland with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile. And the senator’s numbers were remarkably high.
“I would say there’s a three in 10 chance we use the military option,” Graham predicted in an interview. If the North Koreans conduct an additional test of a nuclear bomb—their seventh—“I would say 70 percent.”
Graham said that the issue of North Korea came up during a round of golf he played with the president on Sunday. “It comes up all the time,” he said.
“War with North Korea is an all-out war against the regime,” he said. “There is no surgical strike option. Their [nuclear-weapons] program is too redundant, it’s too hardened, and you gotta assume the worst, not the best. So if you ever use the military option, it’s not to just neutralize their nuclear facilities—you gotta be willing to take the regime completely down.”
“We’re not to the tipping point yet,” he noted, but “if they test another [nuclear] weapon, then all bets are off.”
Graham takes the possibility of war seriously enough that, to prevent it, he would support direct talks with the regime “without a whole lot of preconditions.” It was a noteworthy statement coming from one of the foremost North Korea hawks in Congress. He wouldn’t rule out a Kim-Trump summit. “I’m not taking anything off the table to avoid a war. ... When they write the history of the times, I don’t want them to say, ‘Hey, Lindsey Graham wouldn’t even talk to the guy.’”
The South Carolina Republican—a brutal critic of Trump’s during the 2016 presidential campaign who has since become an unlikely ally on issues like countering North Korea and plugging holes in the Iran nuclear deal—expressed greater certainty about a related matter. Graham says Trump “has 100 percent made up his mind that he’s not gonna let Kim Jong Un break out,” which Graham defined as achieving the capacity to “marry up a missile and a nuclear warhead that can hit America effectively.”
Many experts think North Korea has essentially reached this milestone already through its increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile tests, while others argue that the North is still months or years away from that goal. But Graham bypassed these technical debates to focus on a central tension in the Trump administration’s approach to the issue: The Kim regime is sprinting toward breakout, while the Trump administration’s diplomatic campaign to persuade China and other countries to impose stiffer sanctions and other forms of pressure on North Korea is moving forward, but slowly. It’s a race. And there’s currently a clear frontrunner.
“I don’t know how to say it any more direct: If nothing changes, Trump’s gonna have to use the military option, because time is running out,” Graham said. “I don’t care if North Korea becomes a Chinese protectorate. … I don’t care who [the Chinese] put in charge of North Korea, as long as that person doesn’t want to create a massive nuclear arsenal to threaten America. There are a couple ways for this to end: The Chinese could kill the guy if they wanted to, or they could just stop oil shipments [to North Korea], which would bring [Kim Jong Un’s] economy to [its] knees.” Graham’s scenarios for resolving the crisis short of war, along with his vision for war, notably conclude with regime change in North Korea, which the Trump administration claims to not be pursuing.
During a week in which the Trump administration sent conflicting signals on North Korea—with the national-security adviser describing increased isolation of the North as “our last best chance to avoid military conflict” while the secretary of state, on the same day and at an event just a mile away, offered to talk with the North Koreans about anything, including the weather and the shape of the negotiating table, without preconditions—Graham spoke with clarion confidence about the president’s intentions. He said that one of Trump’s first big decisions as president was whether to adopt a policy of denying North Korea a long-range nuclear capability or of containing that capability by, for example, making clear that North Korea would be destroyed if it used its nuclear weapons against the United States. He described his first conversation with the president after Trump’s election victory, over lunch at the White House, in which Graham advocated for the “denial” option: “I said, ‘I don’t think we should live our lives based on what [Kim Jong Un] might do. We should focus on what he can do.” As Graham tells it, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster agreed with the senator’s assessment. Trump eventually chose denial, according to Graham, and that choice is now “in our rearview mirror.”
Graham walked me through the case he had made for denial—and how he justified the dark calculation it relies on: that it’s worth initiating an actual conflict on the Korean peninsula, placing thousands and maybe even millions of real lives at risk in East Asia, in order to avert the potential deaths of Americans from hypothetical threats. Of the type of “preventive” war Graham has in mind, Dwight Eisenhower once observed, “none has yet explained how war prevents war. Worse than this, no one has been able to explain away the fact that war creates the conditions that beget war.” But Graham has a ready explanation. The veteran lawmaker, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who for years served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves while in Congress, and who once told voters not to support him if they were sick of war, argues that there are times when people’s aversion to conflict creates the conditions that beget war. He seems preoccupied these days with how the history of the present will be written in the future.
“It always seems in the times in which you live that avoiding conflict is a good thing,” Graham said. “I’m sure they really believed that [Britain’s appeasement-era agreement with Nazi Germany in] Munich was ‘peace in our time.’ When you look through history and you see where democracies blink in the eyes of naked aggression, you think, ‘[British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain was a fool.’ … World War II was preventable about 10 different times.”
“Fifty years from now, long after I’m dead and gone, what will they say about this time?” Graham asked. “I don’t want people 50 years from now having to live with the consequences of us getting this wrong.”
“I am literally willing to put hundreds of thousands of people at risk, knowing that millions and millions of people will be at risk if we don’t. And that’s why this whole exercise sucks so much,” Graham said. “I get, like, zero joy out of having this choice for President Trump.”
Graham is fundamentally not convinced by the logic of deterrence in the case of North Korea—that if the regime has nuclear weapons, fear of retaliation will prevent it from using them. “North Korea is the ultimate outlier in world order,” Graham argued. “It is a country built around the philosophy of the divinity of a family. And the person who’s inherited the mantle is, on a good day, unstable. Look what they did: He’s killed his own half-brother, blew his uncle up with an anti-aircraft gun. … I don’t know how to put North Korea in a historical context.”
North Korea’s outlier behavior in the world, and its history of selling missiles and nuclear-related materials to countries such as Syria and Iran, inform Graham’s belief that more likely than North Korea firing its nuclear weapons at the United States is the North putting them on the black market. The biggest risk to the U.S. homeland and mankind as a whole is weapons of mass destruction making their way to people who wouldn’t hesitate to use them, he argues. And today those people belong to terrorist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. “What would be the source of those weapons?” Graham asked. “An unstable regime, cash-starved, controlled by a crazy man, called North Korea. ... I don’t see China selling [terrorist organizations] nuclear weapons. I don’t see Russia selling them nuclear weapons. I think for [terrorists] to build one of their own would be really tough and we’d probably know about it. I think the transfer of technology from North Korea to these groups would be very difficult to monitor.”
Graham’s thinking is also informed by another U.S. adversary: Iran, which Graham believes would interpret North Korea’s nuclear breakout as “a green light” to pursue its own nuclear-weapons breakout once restrictions in the Iran nuclear deal expire in 15 years. “North Korea is the most immediate threat, but the long-term threat would be Iran believing that the international community is all talk and no action when it comes to containing [Iran’s] nuclear ambitions,” Graham said. “I think the Iranian regime has a superiority view of their strain of Islam and they feel compelled by their religious teachings to strike out at others. … I believe that if the ayatollah had a nuclear capability, Israel could never rest because his religious philosophy puts the entire concept of Israel at risk.” An arms race in the Middle East would ensue, and “Pandora’s box” will have been “unleashed ... on the world” in the form of “rogue regimes with nuclear capability.”
He acknowledged that preventive U.S. military action against North Korea could spiral into a conflict involving the use of nuclear weapons—and that any kind of conflict would probably engulf American civilians and U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan. “Fighting the North Korea threat over there protects the homeland,” he said. “That’s what [U.S. soldiers are] paid to do. That’s what they want to do. They sign up for these kind of risks.”
But “don’t ever lose sight of how this war ends,” Graham said. “We win it, not North Korea.”
Still, Graham insisted that he doesn’t want war—and that the president doesn’t want it either. Trump “says, ‘I hope China gets it.’ I say, ‘I hope they do too,’” Graham said. The urgency with which administration officials are imploring China to squeeze its neighbor, and their apparent lowering of the bar for negotiations, reflect a desire “to avoid what would be a catastrophic war for the region and the world.” But paradoxically that urgency also demonstrates that the probability of war is growing, he argued.
It’s certainly possible that this is all calculated bluster—an attempt by Graham to advocate for his preferred policy agenda within the White House, intimidate North Korea, and spook China into doing what it has resisted for decades: Cut its lifeline to the Kim regime. When I asked Graham who he was directing his warnings about time running out to, he responded, “North Korea and Donald Trump.” He said he was “100 percent convinced that China is a rational actor, that they see North Korea as a thorn in our side—a problem for them, but the upside of North Korea is greater than the downside for them. That changes, the day that they believe Donald Trump will blow up the whole place.” In this sense, as the estimated likelihood of a conflict with North Korea goes up, so too does the credibility of the Trump administration’s threat of military force, which perhaps could persuade all parties to make the concessions necessary to avoid a war. But understanding where the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons is headed also requires reckoning with another possibility: that Graham and like-minded U.S. officials are deadly serious.