By Michael Krepon
Donald Trump keeps topping himself: His latest threat – to “totally destroy” a country of 25 million people – marks the first time (at least in my memory) that a genocidal threat was vocalized from the rostrum of the United Nations. Perhaps this was a deterrent threat, but deterrence doesn’t apply to those who are “suicidal” – Trump’s depiction of Kim Jong Un. Perhaps this was a prelude to negotiations, but the author of The Art of the Deal has yet to offer one to the “rocket man.” Instead, he has relied on threats to prompt somebody else to solve the North Korean problem.
Political scientists have offered us the “madman theory” to explain bellicosity in pursuit of favorable outcomes in a crisis, but its foremost practitioner, Richard Nixon, failed utterly at signaling craziness during crises on his watch. Nixon was paranoid, to be sure, but he was just too calculating to be a madman. Now we have ourselves two madmen facing off – something political scientists, pundits and novelists never conceptualized. Or maybe neither Trump nor the young scion of the Kim dynasty is mad enough to start a war that results in nuclear exchanges. Maybe they are just wildly flamboyant character actors. We don’t know.
Our collective doubts now focus on the possibility of a third U.S. war in sixteen years, this time to separate Kim Jong Un from his nuclear weapons and missiles. A nod to historical consciousness won’t win arguments over waging another war of choice to make America safer, but I’m still going to drag Pyrrhus of Epirus into this conversation.
Pyrrhus became an everlasting historical reference because of exceptionally poor judgment. He crossed the Ionian Sea from ancient Greece to take on Rome, an undertaking as ill conceived as Bonaparte and Hitler invading Mother Russia. Pyrrhus won battles and lost his army. Henceforth, no national leader has wished to be associated with the concept of a Pyrrhic victory, but that hasn’t stopped them from squandering national power on battlefields.
On this score, the United States has lapped the field since 9/11. The trillion-plus dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t even Pyrrhic victories; the best that seems on offer in both cases is Pyrrhic draws.
Another war on the Korean peninsula would be far more consequential than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time around, war could result in mushroom clouds, the break-up of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, the demise of nuclear treaties, and handing China the keys to Asia. Yes, the United States would win another war on the Korean peninsula, and win decisively, but the result could be a Pyrrhic victory of world historic proportions.
Let’s acknowledge, at the outset, that the Pentagon is obliged to plan for a preventive war and pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s military capabilities. But the Pentagon can’t war game the personality of Kim Jong Un, who exudes creepiness in a profoundly dangerous way. He seems to view nuclear-capable missile launches with the same wonder and enthusiasm as a kid watching fireworks. Say what you will (and I often do) about Donald Trump’s creepiness, at least the man doesn’t get his kicks from watching launches at Vandenberg. At least not yet.
A preventive war and pre-emptive strikes against North Korean conventional and nuclear capabilities would have to be damn near perfect in execution in order to reinforce the global norm of nonproliferation and reinforce stability in northeast Asia. Fatalities would have to be very limited. Not a single mushroom cloud would be permissible on U.S. and allied soil.
I’m not foreclosing the Pentagon’s ability to achieve this outcome, with help from South Korea. However, the odds against near-perfect success are high. And absent exceptional damage limitation, another U.S. war of choice over the deep reluctance of the South Korean leadership would, in all probability, effectively kill this alliance. The end of this alliance would, in turn, likely mean Seoul’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, with perhaps others to follow.
There’s far more. The appearance of one or more mushroom clouds during a war – breaking a “taboo” seven decades long – would do irreparable harm to what’s left of the nuclear safety net woven by previous generations. It would be very hard to maintain moratoria on nuclear testing after the appearance of one or more mushroom clouds. The resumption of nuclear testing by the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan could result.
What would the world be like without the norms of not testing or using nuclear weapons on battlefields? You don’t want to know. It would be like starting from scratch after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These are the potential consequences of failing to be near perfect in the execution of another war of choice – this time to stop Kim Jong Un from continuing to test nuclear devices and brandishing his fireworks. As definitions of Pyrrhic victories go, this could be a showstopper.