It’s not that this was unexpected. And the pace of activity at the White House since the inauguration of President Donald Trump should have shown that we could have expected it sooner as opposed to later. Commentators have noted that the multiple crises absorbing the administration have been primarily self-inflicted and have occurred during a time when there have been no pressing “external” threats—and yet the crises keep on coming.
Now there is such an external threat. On paper, North Korea has developed the capacity to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and place it on an ICBM. President Trump’s response: rhetorical dynamite, promising to retaliate against additional North Korean threats with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” Is he serious? Does he understand the meaning of his words or is this, for him, just another story about crowd size or illegal voters pushing Hillary Clinton to victory in the popular vote?
In a blog post on July 21, I said, “Forget about the limited and immature vocabulary, scrambled syntax and sloppy spelling. These can be written off as stylistic sidetracks—embarrassing perhaps, but not much more. A deeper concern lies in how language is being employed for policy ends that can have subtle but troubling and potentially long-term effects. When the President renders language meaningless, the fabric of society itself is in jeopardy.”
This is our President, stoking the flames of angst between the US and the irascible and unpredictable Kim Jung-il. On Thursday, he stated that perhaps his words weren’t strong enough! Does he realize what he is saying? Now, we have cause to be really worried. It is more than embarrassing. The potential fallout from his incendiary language is far from subtle; the implications of his words much more than troubling.
As is his custom, the President apparently made his remarks off the cuff (at a meeting on opioid addiction, not on foreign policy or national security), without consultation from senior advisors who were taken off guard, if not by the tone, then by the words he used. Some have commented that the soft diplomacy of past Presidents vis-à-vis North Korea has simply not worked and it is time to change tactics. But, my own personal experience mirrors many who have spent whole careers in the diplomatic world and who are far more knowledgeable than me: Continuing the conversation is always the best path to peaceful resolution. Why are we so quick to pull the trigger on militaristic solutions? Why does the President immediately insist on escalation? Why is there no talk about the importance of dialogue, the value of human life? Do we have a workable plan to back up this explosive rhetoric that will move us past today’s conflict and into a more hopeful tomorrow?
Measured against a scale of instant gratification, the tactics of the past with North Korea have not yielded results; but there has also been no open warfare on the peninsula for more than 70 years. Why does our country, supposedly the “leader of the free world,” continue to leap to military solutions at the expense of ongoing diplomatic efforts? Must we stoop to a language that Kim Jong-un understands? If so, what happens to the moral high ground? And, what gets lost in translation? More importantly, what is the price we pay for such bombast.
General James Mattis followed up the Commander in Chief with a more measured—but no less frightening—statement about how the US would respond in a confrontation with North Korea. Still no talk of diplomacy. The American government, we are told, is speaking with one voice. But what are we—the American people—saying, thinking and feeling? The administration does not speak for me. This is not a reality TV show; and it is definitely not a joke.
correction: In an earlier post, the leaders of North Korea was referred to as Kim Jong-il, who is the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un. We regret the error.