The buzz about a summit this spring between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un has tamped down talk of war with North Korea. But the bellicosity bubbles just below the surface, and could boil over if the diplomatic gamble fails. Recall how George W. Bush’s press secretary once justified the war in Iraq: “The United States exhausted every legitimate and credible opportunity to resolve this peacefully.”
Fifteen years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, hardliners are applying one of the arguments for attacking Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong Un: that war now, when a rogue leader is on the verge of possessing weapons of mass destruction, is preferable to a much worse war later, when that leader or his vicious allies would be in a position to use those weapons. Conflict is characterized as a calling on behalf of future generations, rather than a choice by the present ones. “As we learned the hard way with Iraq, if a rogue regime is deemed undeterrable, and diplomatic compromise is seen as untenable, the allure of preventive war can quickly become irresistible,” the former Obama administration official Colin Kahl, who opposes military strikes against North Korea, has written.
Consider a recent appearance on Fox News by John Bolton, one of the rumored candidates to be Trump’s next national-security adviser. Bolton counseled the president to meet with Kim as soon as possible and get straight to the point: Is North Korea serious about giving up its entire nuclear program in one stroke the way Libya did in 2003? Or is it hoping to deceive America yet again, by buying time through drawn-out negotiations to perfect long-range nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S.? If the North Koreans drag their heels, “then it’s a short meeting” and the Trump administration has “cut through the fog of the endless palavering, the endless discussions.”