The North Korea Debate Sounds Eerily Familiar

Trump’s national-security officials are making many of the same arguments Bush’s did in 2003.

President George W. Bush speaks during a joint news conference.
President George W. Bush speaks during a joint news conference in Baghdad on December 14, 2008.  (Saad Shalash / Reuters)

The Trump White House talking about North Korea sounds eerily and increasingly like the George W. Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War. Officials make similar arguments about the necessity of acting against a gathering storm; proudly claim understanding of the adversary’s motivations; express frustration at countries that should be likewise alarmed at the problem not supporting American policy; and believe the sand is running out in the hourglass before military attacks are required. They admit no alternative interpretation of the facts. They are blithely dismissing enormous damage their policy would incur for regional allies. They seem innocent of understanding the disastrous and isolating consequences for America’s role in the world to choose preventive war rather than the moral heights of restraint in the face of threats.

President Trump’s National Security Adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, repeatedly indulges the same apocalyptic rhetoric: North Korea’s nuclear program is “the most destabilizing development, I think, in the post-World War II period;” the threat is “increasing every day;” the leadership is “undeterrable.” Others on the National Security Council staff compare North Korea to World War II Japan: a mobilized and militarized society, inherently and belligerently expansionist, constrainable solely by the exercise of superior military force.

The lines of argument employed by the Bush Administration in 2003 and the Trump Administration in 2017 both rely on the same basic elements:

  1. The adversary’s actions are increasingly threatening;
  2. It would be irresponsible to continue the policy trajectory of prior administrations;
  3. The adversary leadership cannot be considered rational;
  4. Their intent is not merely regime survival but attacks on the U.S. and allies;
  5. International cooperation is inadequate to the threat; and
  6. Retaliation after a first strike from the enemy is insufficient—either to deter or to punish.

And, as Mira Rapp-Hooper has emphasized, the Trump administration argues that the U.S. must act before North Korea attains even more dangerous capabilities. They are reprising the argument made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Cuban missile crisis.

The government of Japan has publicly stated that it will only participate in military action in response to a North Korean attack. South Korea’s prime minister has reassured his public that the U.S. has committed not to take military action without his approval (something McMaster elides by saying there will be consultations). Australia, too, is likely to opt out of a preventive war. How would the U.S. fight North Korea without the participation of those three allies? What would the political landscape of Asia be like in the aftermath of a unilateral U.S. attack on North Korea opposed by America’s closest regional allies?

Policy analysts argue over whether senior figures in the administration—“the adults in the room”—actually believe what they are saying. Are they trying to shore up American credibility to strengthen deterrence? Employing the madman gambit to diminish North Korea’s negotiating advantage? Posturing to wring more cooperation out of the Chinese? Since administration policy treats North Korean leadership statements as actionable, that same rule ought to apply also to the American side. The administration’s statements strongly prejudice policy toward military action: They have not only drawn a red line, they’ve attached a countdown clock to it. President Trump will either fight a preventive war to disarm North Korea, or will be forced in humiliation fashion to dismantle a scaffold of his own construction, calling into question American security guarantees.

One area in which the Trump administration differs from Bush in 2003 is that President Bush invested his political capital in making the administration’s case to the American public and internationally. Neither President Trump nor his Cabinet have done anywhere near the kind of spadework necessary to bring Americans along for a war that will require calling up reserve military forces, kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, reshape how the world views America, and consume all the political energy of the Trump presidency.

President Trump was derisive about the Bush administration’s mistakes in the Iraq war; it would be doubly tragic for him to repeat them. If the Trump administration isn’t re-examining their assumptions, they desperately need to be. They’re lurching arrogantly toward disaster.