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.”