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Other View: Trump may be about to face his first full-blown international crisis

On the many occasions over the last five months where President Donald Trump demonstrated his deep ignorance, his alarming impulsiveness, his bottomless need for praise, or his tendency to lash out when criticized, one common response has been to ask, “What happens when he faces a genuine crisis with the need to make difficult decisions and lives at stake?”

Well it looks like we may be about to find out.

Yesterday, North Korea launched what appears to be its first genuine intercontinental ballistic missile. Though it landed near the Japanese coast, it was launched on a high arc that American analysts say indicates it has the capability to reach the United States (Alaska, at least). This is an outcome national security experts have worried and warned about for some time, and one that Trump himself pledged would never happen under his watch. We could be headed for a military crisis with the potential to cost thousands or even millions of lives, the outcome depending on Trump’s strategic thinking and good judgment.

During the 2016 campaign, you’d sometimes hear Republicans say that in contrast to that feckless and weak Barack Obama, Trump is so strong, so resolute, so virile that our enemies would get one look at him and retreat in fear, never to bother us again. Trump himself said some version of this many times, not just in general but with regard to North Korea specifically. A few weeks before taking office, he tweeted, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Well now it has happened, apparently because Kim Jong Un does not whimper in terror at the thought of being put in his place by Trump.

Up until now, the administration’s approach to North Korea has been a combination of public chest-thumping and hope that China would take care of the problem for us. In April, Trump met with Chinese premier Xi Jinping and apparently believed that once he presented Xi with a truly spectacular piece of chocolate cake, then the premier would put a prompt end to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Xi attempted to educate Trump on the complexities of the situation. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said.

But as we’ve seen in other areas like health care, while Trump can be disabused of his childishly simplistic view of a policy challenge, his newfound appreciation for the complexity of an issue will only be temporary. Before long, he goes right back to thinking there are easy solutions to every problem.

Just a few days later, Vice President Mike Pence went to South Korea and issued stern warnings to Kim Jong Un about how strong and resolute Donald Trump is. “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve,” Pence said, then went to the DMZ and stared manfully at North Korean territory while the cameras clicked away. “I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face,” he said afterward.

The administration didn’t place all its hopes in the power of Pence’s face, however. Whenever the subject of North Korea came up, Trump and members of his administration would repeat that “the era of strategic patience is over,” without saying exactly what era we’re in now. A week ago the administration imposed sanctions on Chinese companies doing business with North Korea, but that didn’t have a transformative effect on China’s perspective. Then when yesterday’s launch happened, the president responded with typical thoughtfulness:

“North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea. . ...”

“. . . .and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”

It’s hard to tell what kind of “heavy move” Trump thinks China might put on North Korea, and I doubt he knows himself. The unfortunate fact is that we have no good options here. We can threaten a strike against North Korea, but the result of that would be massive casualties in South Korea. The New York Times described the problem:

Even the most limited strike risks staggering casualties, because North Korea could retaliate with the thousands of artillery pieces it has positioned along its border with the South. Though the arsenal is of limited range and could be destroyed in days, the United States defense secretary, Jim Mattis, recently warned that if North Korea used it, it “would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

That’s not to mention the fact that if Kim Jong Un truly thought he was about to overthrown, he might unleash whatever nuclear weapons he has, along with any other weapons of mass destruction the country possesses.

The idea that Kim will voluntarily halt his missile and nuclear weapons programs because the president sent some more tough talkin’ tweets and the vice president made his resolute face seems highly unlikely. Given the fact that a military strike from the U.S. could set off another Korean War, negotiations with the North seem like a logical part of the solution, but there are some reasons why that might not happen. We don’t have much diplomatic capability these days; the State Department is barely functioning, and among the many key positions for which the Trump administration has not even bothered to nominate someone is ambassador to South Korea. And it’s clear that the president, for all his talk of deal-making, sees negotiation with other countries as a sign of weakness.

There are some things we can do to increase economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, but to be really effective they require the cooperation of other countries. Trump has made that much more difficult with the contempt he has shown for the very idea of international cooperation, by belittling NATO and pulling out of the Paris climate accord. There aren’t many countries that are going to join us in a combined effort just because we ask.

It’s also important to understand that as much as we see Kim as a lunatic or a buffoon, if his goal is the survival of his regime, pursuing nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them is perfectly rational. After all, Saddam Hussein didn’t have them, and look what happened to him. The higher the cost of a military strike against North Korea, the safer he’ll feel.

As the U.S. military commander on the Korean peninsula said yesterday in a joint statement with his South Korean counterpart, “Self restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war.” Can President Trump exercise that restraint? What happens when in a moment of anger he suggests a military strike? Will his saner advisers be able to reign in his worst impulses? How important will it be for Trump to save face and look strong? Given his thin skin, how much of an impact will personal attacks from Kim and criticisms at home have on his decision-making? How will he react when faced with a choice between two bad options?

This isn’t a full-blown crisis yet. But it could become one, and for the first time President Trump will be truly tested. He hasn’t done a lot to inspire confidence so far.


Columnists
READER COMMENT
Reader Comment: Labrador’s anti-refugee bill is contrary to American values

Jim Jones

Raul Labrador’s refugee bill is ill-advised legislation that needlessly targets some of the most vulnerable people on earth. The legislation, H.R. 2826, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on June 28 on a 15-11 vote. This is a pernicious bill that will leave a stain on the moral standing of the United States.

Rep. Labrador acknowledges that America has “a long tradition of helping refugees who, through no fault of their own, are fleeing war and persecution,” but has authored a bill that is contrary to that tradition. Among other things, H.R. 2826 would limit refugee admissions to 50,000 per year, triple the waiting period for refugees to apply for lawful permanent residency from one to three years, subject refugees to continuous surveillance, give states and localities a veto over resettlement, impose needless new red tape requirements, and provide preference to religious minorities.

All of these requirements are justified by bill sponsors as necessary for national security. However, experience does not support their case. U.S. refugees have not and do not pose a danger to our country. Refugees do not pick the country they want but are referred to a country by the U.N. refugee agency. Those destined for the U.S. are subjected to about two years of rigorous screening.

A terrorist posing as a refugee would have to wait a long time to carry out his plan—spending years in a wretched refugee camp in Turkey or Jordan, hoping to be referred to the U.S. by the U.N. rather than one of the 27 other resettlement countries, and then undergoing another couple of years being vetted by U.S. authorities. He might be tempted to take the quicker and easier way that the 911 hijackers chose—to get a tourist or student visa and jump on a plane to the U.S. Interestingly, none of the countries from which those hijackers came is subject to the President’s current travel ban.

In the past, America has been a shining moral beacon for persecuted immigrants. The world has been inspired by the Statue of Liberty’s call to “send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” We have opened our door and our hearts to terrorized people from around the globe. Our help is needed more than ever now because the world is facing the largest displacement crisis on record. There are more than 21 million refugees worldwide, more than 5 million of which are registered from Syria alone. In FY 2016 the U.S. took in only 84,994 refugees. To date we have taken in a total of less than 20,000 refugees from Syria. In comparison, Turkey has registered 2.97 million Syrians and another 2 million are registered in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.

We have hardly done our part, considering that our invasion of Iraq contributed directly to a refugee crisis in that country and indirectly to the much greater crisis in Syria. The leadership of ISIS is composed largely of participants in the earlier insurgency in Iraq. Colin Powell said that “if you break it, you fix it.” Rather than helping to alleviate the mess that we helped to create, we seem to be turning our backs on a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

The religious preference in the bill is an inappropriate and uninformed religious test. The refugees that are currently most in danger are from Sunni-majority Syria and they are being terrorized by the Alawite-minority government of Bashar al-Assad. Those people with the greatest need would get no preference. Proponents of H.R.2826 focus primarily on refugees from the Middle East but less than half of the refugees taken in by the U.S. last year were from the Near East and South Asia. About an equal number were Christians and Muslims.

As far as the 50,000 refugee limit in Mr. Labrador’s bill, that is simply not enough to fulfill our responsibility as a civilized nation. There are more than 50,000 Iraqis who endangered their lives by helping U.S. forces and who are desperately awaiting resettlement in the U.S. We are honor bound to give safe harbor to those individuals but that would take up the entire measly quota set by this bill.

This country, as great and warm-hearted as it is, has had momentary lapses in the past when it has treated immigrants badly because of anxiety stirred by fear-mongers.

Let’s not let it happen again. H.R. 2826 targets refugees, who are not a terrorist risk, while failing to target home-grown, social-media-inspired persons, who do present a risk. The legislation is either ill-founded and uninformed, or it is intended as a vehicle for politicians to ride to political stardom at the expense of powerless and vulnerable refugees.


Jim Jones