In 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union got in a high-stakes nuclear confrontation because the Soviets had secretly installed ballistic missiles in Cuba. In 2017, the United States and North Korea got in a high-stakes nuclear confrontation because President Trump is the most incompetent, ignorant, reckless bully ever to occupy that office.
He should do the world a favor and plug his big fat mouth.
The escalation has continually ratcheted up basically from the moment Trump was inaugurated as president, at almost every point driven by Trump's belligerence and inability to shut up for five seconds. Just before he was inaugurated, North Korea prepared some nuclear and missile programs. Days after Trump became president, Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited South Korea and Japan where the latter U.S. forces successfully shot down a test ballistic missile. The North Koreans responded by testing a new ballistic missile.
China responded by banning coal exports to North Korea for the rest of 2017. North Korea upped the ante by conducting four more missile tests into the Sea of Japan. The U.S. responded by completing delivery of a missile defense system to South Korea — which deeply annoyed the Chinese — and by helping conduct exercises with South Korean missile defense destroyers.
This cycle of testing, intimidation, and chest-thumping continued until sharp new sanctions were levied by the U.N. Security Council. North Korea promised "thousands-fold" retaliation. Trump responded like this:
President Trump: If North Korea makes any more threats to the U.S., "they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen" pic.twitter.com/8dQed79L1W
— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 8, 2017
This was, unbelievably, totally improvised. At the time Trump was reportedly looking at a fact sheet about the opioid crisis. Naturally, North Korea responded by threatening to hit Guam with a missile strike.
Of course the North Koreans are also responsible for this situation. The country is, after all, a totalitarian dictatorship seeking nuclear warhead-tipped missiles. But it is not remotely a coincidence that this crisis started gaining momentum from the second Trump took power.
North Korea is probably nearly powerless to seriously harm the United States (though we should note 162,000 Americans live on Guam). But they do have gigantic artillery batteries which could hit the South Korean capital Seoul — population 25 million, only a few miles from the border with North Korea — and wreak certain devastation. Those conventional weapons alone, plus the live possibility that they might slip a nuclear warhead through defense systems and hit South Korea or Guam (or San Francisco), make for a credible deterrent. The United States would no doubt win any war with North Korea. But the cost in lives would be absolutely grotesque — and the ensuing occupation would at a minimum cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
A wise president today would easily grasp that the way to respond to an erratic, isolated, poor nuclear state was with calm and reason. He would make clear to the North Koreans that the door to diplomatic engagement and de-escalation is always open, and above all avoid needless provocation. The status quo can be preserved.
President Obama instinctively grasped this, and as a result relations with North Korea remained if not exactly stable, then at least not rapidly accelerating to a crisis point, throughout his presidency. There were many confrontations and disputes from 2008 to 2016, but the worst was avoided. President Trump — because he is obviously suffering from serious age-induced mental decline if not early dementia, because he has always been a bully and a coward, and because conservative Republicans are in general belligerent warmongers — does not grasp this. America's president is, in essence, a jumped-up playground toddler pushing around someone much smaller and weaker than himself.
So Mr. President, I beg you on behalf of an increasingly frightened American citizenry: Seize whatever 1,500-thread-count tea towels, gold-leaf curtains, KFC buckets, or other such implements are lying around, and stuff them into your mouth.