War clouds are gathering over the Korean Peninsula, and we are reminded of what former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld (almost) famously said: “You go to war with the president you have, not the president you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
President Donald Trump probably possesses the raw will to launch an attack that will leave North Korea smoldering. The U.S. military knows what capabilities it has, and it can present options to the president. Picking from that menu once all else has failed is, in some ways, the easy part. The question is whether the president and his team are up to the task at hand beyond the actual military strike. Does the president have the diplomatic, communications and organizational skills to achieve the best outcome and avoid a war or to avoid the worst outcome after a war?
To understand the stakes involved, read David Ignatius’s sobering overview in Wednesday’s Washington Post. He states, “Among the clearest points of consensus among former officials was that the North Korea crisis provides what one participant [of the Aspen Strategy Group’s annual gathering] called a ‘catalytic’ moment.”
This begs a few obvious questions. First, is the president ready and able to communicate with the outside world and within the United States about the stakes and the consequences? Is he able to give a convincing speech to the nation? Can he stand at the podium of the United Nations and command the world’s respect? Can he rally China and the rest of the world to get North Korea to a point where it does not threaten the United States? None of this can be done by tweet. A tweet can’t substitute for a serious Oval Office address to the nation. And there is no such thing as a fireside tweet.
If the president decides to take military action against North Korea, he will have to explain himself to the public. He will have to make clear the consequences of North Korea’s continued hostility. And, importantly, he will have to prepare the nation to brace for uncertain retaliation.
It is unknown how much damage North Korea can inflict in South Korea and elsewhere before its command-and-control systems are destroyed. But it is clear that the pace of the potential conflict is quickening.
Next, are we certain the president and his team are ready and able to engage diplomatically with the skeletal crew at the State Department before an attack? Is the Trump team prepared to achieve the best possible outcome? While in Guam earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language. I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the (United States’) unquestionable ability to defend itself.” While Tillerson is at least visible on the issue, we have to wonder whether we are having the senior-level discussions we need with China on the one hand, and with Japan, South Korea and our other Pacific allies on the other.
And here at home, once Mr. Trump sets a plan in motion, will Congress support him if things get ugly? Will approval for military requirements and eventual humanitarian aid for South Korea, and perhaps even North Korea and elsewhere, be provided and managed properly? Think of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina to the power of 10 – but about 6,500 miles from D.C.
The president’s detractors are already criticizing his rhetoric. To be clear, nothing that has happened thus far is Mr. Trump’s fault. And his “fire and fury” language might create a new dynamic. It certainly won’t hurt. The trajectory that North Korea is on is very bad. And yet, Democrats and their allies in the media are suggesting that if we were just a bit nicer to Kim, a la former president Barack Obama, maybe he won’t kill us. Well, we had eight years of the Obama approach and here we are. We are on the brink of allowing a madman to have the capability to kill millions of our allies and fellow Americans.
So say what you want to about President Trump, but he is the president we have. Maybe it is luck, maybe it is heaven-sent that he has surrounded himself with distinguished, experienced military leaders. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster certainly seem like the right team at the right time.
Suffice it to say, there are very few who wish we had Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry or national security adviser Susan Rice back in charge.
Ed Rogers is a political consultant and a veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses and several national campaigns.