It fell upon increasingly bedraggled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today to explain why it’s perfectly appropriate for a U.S. president to vow a response of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in a kind of tit-for-tat, bluster-for-bluster war of outlandish rhetoric with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. America’s top diplomat called it a “strong” message that the dictator “would understand because he doesn't seem to understand diplomatic language.” Mr. Tillerson further concluded that Americans can “sleep well at night” and that Donald Trump’s belligerent remarks on Tuesday hadn’t really changed the threat level.
Despite Mr. Tillerson’s game effort to normalize entirely abnormal behavior, let’s set the record straight: U.S. presidents don’t engage in such bursts of madness — not at the height of the Civil War let alone the Cold War. They don’t stoop to Mr. Kim’s level. And they especially don’t threaten some kind of preemptive nuclear strike — and let’s face it, that’s essentially the only plausible interpretation of the “fire and fury” remark — with a dictator who is widely regarded as isolated, unpredictable and possibly unstable. Wars have been started over lesser examples of verbal sparring, and the stakes in the region are frighteningly high.
President Trump goes off half-cocked all the time. Give him a cell phone, and he’ll make the Twitter-verse go wild. We get that. But it’s one thing to go a little nuts on a U.S. senator’s sometimes overstated military service record, it’s quite another to threaten with annihilation someone who is sitting on a nuclear stockpile. Even scarier, Mr. Trump is saying he is willing to engage in all-out war not over any action by the North Korean leader but merely his words.
How are world leaders supposed to react to such behavior? How about people living within missile striking distance? How about specifically in the U.S. territory of Guam? The North Korean dictator’s entirely predictable response to President Trump’s verbal escalation was to further up the stakes, identifying Guam and its U.S. military bases as a prime candidate for its own first-strike. So perhaps Mr. Tillerson might explain again how that fire and fury business makes America safer and then go try peddling that to his fellow Americans in Guam.
This was a week when progress was actually made in bringing economic pressure to bear on North Korea through international cooperation. The $1 billion sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council over the weekend might not deter North Korea from further developing its nuclear missile capability, but it’s far more effective than saber-rattling. The American public doesn’t want war with North Korea. Neither do our allies. So why not be fully invested in a credible strategy that might actually work to prevent it? Mr. Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the nation’s UN ambassador, seem to be on board. Where exactly does Mr. Trump stand on North Korea? It’s hard to tell because he’s been all over the place.
There was the Donald Trump of last year’s campaign who would be “honored” to meet with President Kim and share hamburgers with him. There’s the one who was counting on China to take control of the situation. And now there’s the president who supports the sanctions (even claiming on Twitter that the “Fake News Media” has underplayed their importance) before going Dr. Strangelove less than 48 hours later while on vacation in New Jersey. Which one is supposed to be taken seriously? For perhaps the first time, the Twitter version of the president sounds the most reasonable.
Maybe it’s boring for a president to act like a grownup in foreign policy particularly when the stakes are so high, maybe it doesn’t make you the center of attention, perhaps it’s even personally rewarding to give Mr. Kim a taste of his own medicine. But that’s not what Americans need from their president, and it’s not what the free world needs from its supposed leader. As Sen. John McCain recently observed, great leaders don’t threaten unless they’re ready to act. Either President Trump just wants to provoke — which is clearly unhelpful — or he’s genuinely prepared to back up his bombast with military action. Neither would be wise, but the latter choice was absolutely unthinkable until perhaps Tuesday.
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