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Military Industrial Circus

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President Trump’s Two War-Fighting Brains

One side asks smart questions about Afghanistan, while the other lobs dumb threats at North Korea

Photo of President Trump with military and flags
President Trump visited the Pentagon July 20 to discuss military options for Afghanistan and North Korea. White House photo / Shealah Craighead

If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then President Trump must have a huge skull. That’s all one can conclude from his recent dealings with two of the nation’s biggest foreign-policy headaches: North Korea and Afghanistan.

Just when you think he’s making progress—he’s wondering why have we been in Afghanistan without winning for more than 15 years?—he backslides with a threat to attack North Korea with “fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Let’s take each in turn.

Remember reading, or, more likely, having read to you, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes as a child? You know, where a pair of weavers convinces their leader that their fabric is invisible to his subjects if they are  "unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent”? His minions admire the raiment, for fear of appearing “hopelessly stupid.” Finally, the naked ruler is brought low by an innocent child who declares  "But he isn't wearing anything at all!” Is Donald Trump the truth-telling naif (or savant) when it comes to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which enters its 17th year in October?

President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, to punish the Taliban for giving the 9/11 plotters sanctuary. The war continued for more than seven years on his watch, and then for all eight years of the Obama administration.

Now Army General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is seeking 3,900 more to buttress the 8,400 he already has, mostly for training Afghan forces. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wants a green light for the reinforcements from the White House, but Trump has yet to give it, and reportedly has hinted at firing Nicholson.

Skeptics from the Pentagon to the Oval Office don’t think the added troops will do much to end the current stalemate. While it may be in the Pentagon’s interests to continue to manage the war, doing so is not in the interests of the young Americans the nation is asking to die there armed with everything but a plan for prevailing. So bravo for Trump’s hesitation.

But then there’s North Korea.

Trump’s initial atomic-rattling statement, coming as it did amid the anniversary of that strange three-day lull between the only nuclear attacks in history—on Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9, 1945)—was jarring.

Literally, Trump said he would unleash a nuclear strike—the only kind that comports with his threat—if Pyongyang makes “any more threats to the United States.” For better or worse (actually, it’s hard to decide which it is), Trump was speaking off-the-cuff amid a gathering to discuss the nation’s homegrown opioid crisis. He doubled down later in the week (the U.S. military is “locked and loaded,” he tweeted Aug. 11), basically daring North Korean despot Kim Jong-un in a game of nuclear chicken.

Trump’s comments, beyond unnerving, were preposterous for two reasons: First, North Korea has routinely used such rhetoric for decades, without much return rhetorical fire from Washington. Yes, the North’s nuclear program continues its forward march, but that has been happening for 25 years.

Just when you think he’s making progress—he’s wondering why have we been in Afghanistan without winning for more than 15 years?—he backslides with a threat to attack North Korea

Of course, Trump’s reaction is based on the U.S. intelligence’s conclusion that Pyongyang is on the verge of possessing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of targeting American cities. His embrace of that finding suggests the nation learned nothing from the intelligence community’s huge miss when it came to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction 14 years ago.

Second, for the U.S. to respond to North Korea with North Korean-like verbiage highlights U.S. insecurity more than power. Put bluntly, superpowers don’t talk like this. We find ourselves amid a crisis that Trump created.

While the commander-in-chief does have military options at his disposal, any U.S. effort to destroy Pyongyang’s atomic arsenal is likely to lead to the death of tens of thousands of South Koreans within easy reach of the North’s missile tubes (some of the 28,000 U.S. troops would die, too, but far fewer now that the Pentagon is moving its major base beyond North Korean artillery range).

Every foreign policy challenge is sui generis, unique unto itself. But there are lessons to be gleaned from North Korea’s own neighborhood, where the U.S. fought its three biggest wars of the last half of the 20th Century: we prevailed over Japan in the 1940s, fought to a draw on the Korean peninsula in the 1950s, and lost in Vietnam in the 1970s (notice a pattern?).

But what’s amazing, in hindsight, is how little the U.S. actually lost in Vietnam (save for the  58,220 killed and more than 150,000 wounded sadly excepted). Forty-four years after pulling out, and 42 years after the North Vietnamese invaded and conquered South Vietnam, life has returned pretty much to normal for the 93 million citizens of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Coming full circle, last year the U.S. lifted its ban on arms sales to its former foe.

What do these three Asian wars tell us? With unconditional surrender—or unconditional defeat—comes progress. It’s that murky gray area—a truce has merely suspended the war between North and South Korea for more than half a century, not ended it—that lets instability, including rising nuclear fears—fester.

And that’s what makes Trump’s words so unsettling. Not because he isn’t right (he is), but because his loud, public showdown could force Kim to act. Irrationally, perhaps. Many U.S. military officers were stunned on 9/11 to realize that religious fanatics were willing to commit wholesale suicide in pursuit of their goals. Trump is betting, heavily, that Kim isn’t so zealous.

All this has made the shootout between Trump and Kim personal. While that may be inevitable in a cruel dynastic society like Kim’s, it’s not the way America has traditionally waged its wars. Like it or not, Trump is playing into Kim’s hands. And Kim, if not Trump, knows it. So look for Kim’s provocations to continue. There is nothing Kim likes more than getting Trump’s goat. Unfortunately, Trump’s goat is easily gotten.

After President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his widow wrote a letter to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, acknowledging that JFK and Khrushchev had avoided a nuclear conflagration a year earlier during the Cuban Missile crisis. “The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones,” her handwritten note said. “While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.”

Donald Trump, at 6-2, towers over the 5-7 Kim Jong-un. But, somehow, I don’t think that’s what Mrs. Kennedy had in mind.

Photo of Mark Thompson

By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

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