With Donald Trump in the White House, merrily tweeting whatever disruptive and disturbing sentiments erupt from his consciousness in the early morning hours, hysteria has become the default condition of our pundit class. Trump tweets that “only one thing” can stop Korean despot Kim Jong-un’s nuclear pyrotechnics, and the editorialists swing into action, while the Democrats point gleefully to the prospect of World War III: “See? We told you he’s nuts!”
Add to this the widespread belief that Kim Jong-un is a “madman,” and the hysteria of the chattering classes reaches fever pitch: we’ve got no less than two crazy people with nuclear weapons, and they’re about to blow up the world! Oh no!
The problem with this scenario is that it has nothing to do with reality: it’s a rhetorical construct, based on the verbal extravagances of actors whose entire modus operandi depends on a constant stream of bluster, bluff, and unmitigated bullshit.
For Kim and the North Koreans, this strategy has served them well: long after the fall of communism, the withdrawal of Soviet protection, and their alienation from Beijing, the last bastion of old-style Stalinism continues to defy the West. It has taken a monomaniacal focus on a single goal – the complete militarization of their society, resulting in the utter impoverishment of the populace – but the North Koreans have managed to do it: while their little Sparta would ultimately lose a war with the United States, the price they would make us pay is far too high for the preventive war so many fear to be “on the table,” as our rulers routinely put it. North Korean artillery perched on hillsides within range of Seoul – South Korea’s bustling capital, with a population of some ten million – would wreak devastation on a scale not seen since Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden. North Korea’s one-milion-plus Army would pour over the border and smash through both the South Korean defense forces and the 30,000 or so US military personnel currently (and foolishly) stationed on the peninsula.
Millions would die, on both sides of the demilitarized zone.
For this reason, the US – despite Trump’s tweets – is not going to launch an attack on North Korea. And Kim Jong-un, whose dynasty has been in power for 70 years, is not going to make the first move either: a stalemate has preserved the regime thus far, and there’s no reason to believe that Kim wants to commit suicide.
As for Trump, the idea that he’s some kind of uncontrollable maniac about to plunge the world into a fiery fulcrum of nuclear destruction is yet another symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome. The annihilation of South Korea, not to mention Japan – and the probable tens of thousands of American military casualties – is not something he wants on his record. Nothing is to be gained by a US military assault on the North: therefore, it isn’t going to happen, no matter what the President tweets.
In a similar vein, the anticipated decertification of Iran as being out of compliance with the JCPOA is being seized on by Trump critics as yet more evidence that he’s a madman intent on starting a war. Yet “decertification” doesn’t mean the US is going to pull out of the deal: it merely means that Trump, while posturing as Mr. Tough Guy, is going to let Congress deal with the issue while he plays to his base – just as he’s doing with the Korean “crisis.”
As Eli Lake points out, under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Trump doesn’t have to wait for Congress to reimpose sanctions on Tehran: he has the authority to do so right now, and he hasn’t acted. Furthermore, as Lake reports, the deal’s biggest critics in Congress are not going to push for more sanctions – a move that doesn’t have the votes to pass the Senate anyway.
The vague hope of the anti-deal faction is that Congress will “reform” the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to include restrictions on Tehran’s testing of ballistic missiles and support for groups like Hezbollah. Yet this is fated to end as a purely propagandistic exercise for the simple reason that the rest of the signers of the JCPOA aren’t going to go along with it.
When it comes to Korea and the Iran deal, Trump is reveling in his role as the belligerent bombastic upholder of America’s role as global bully while pursuing a policy that is nearly indistinguishable from that of his predecessors. He gets to engage in rhetorical pyrotechnics and score political points with certain constituencies while maintaining the status quo: in short, he gets to engage in what is essentially a theatrical performance entirely unrelated to what is actually occurring on the ground. His enemies, mistaking rhetoric for reality, have risen to the bait.
For all the wild predictions that Trump would have us in a major new war fairly shortly, nearly nine months into his presidency we see no signs of it: we simply have the ongoing military conflicts he inherited from his predecessors. And while that may not comport with the NeverTrumper characterization of the President as a moral monster who is quite possibly deranged, it is the reality beyond the rhetoric that the hysterics of the Twitterverse refuse to see.
As usual, these people are merely projecting their own emotional responses and political biases onto the screen of US foreign policy, a method that tells us much more about them than it does about Washington’s intentions.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.