President Trump said something particularly inane Tuesday, and the political and media world lost its mind.
Speaking at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Trump warned North Korea that if it continues with its nuclear and missile tests such actions would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
This is an extraordinarily ill-advised, unhelpful, and frankly dangerous thing to say. Is Trump really going to launch a nuclear attack against Pyongyang if the North Koreans test another missile? It’s unlikely. But by drawing a red line that would be catastrophic if he followed through on it, Trump has weakened US credibility and made the United States look like both a paper tiger and a reckless and unmoored actor.
But even more inane than Trump’s words has been the response to it. Twitter was afire with seemingly genuine fears that America is about to engage in a nuclear exchange with North Korea. NBC News actually ran a story with the headline, “Don’t run. Get inside: What experts say to do in case of a nuclear attack.”
Let’s get a few things out of the way here: North Korea has multiple nuclear weapons and it appears they’ve developed an intercontinental ballistic missile with the potential ability to reach the United States.
What Pyongyang lacks, according to intelligence experts, is the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon on an ICBM that could hit the United States. So Americans really don’t need to know what to do in the event of a nuclear strike (not that it would help much).
Second, even if North Korea could strike the United States, there is little reason to believe they would. The number one priority of North Korea’s leaders is to remain North Korea’s leaders. An attack on the United States would be an act of national suicide — and intentional national suicide is rare. There’s a notion that North Korea’s leaders are crazy, but, in reality, they are rational, ruthless, cold-blooded actors who have engaged in military and nuclear brinkmanship for years. One shouldn’t doubt the potential for miscalculation — and Trump’s rhetoric feeds that possibility — but North Korea is not about to launch a first strike against the American West Coast.
For decades, the Soviet Union had tens of thousands missiles pointed at the United States and somehow we survived. In the same way that deterrence helped prevent nuclear conflagration during the Cold War it will almost certainly prevent conflict with North Korea.
All this talk of impending nuclear conflict with North Korea is irresponsible fearmongering. It’s not to say that war is impossible. In our current political moment you pretty much never want to say “never.” But the chances are infinitesimally small, and journalists do a genuine disservice when they fail to talk about the threat facing Americans in precisely those limited terms. It’s not often I agree with Rex Tillerson, but he was not wrong on Wednesday when he said that Americans should sleep soundly.
What should keep Americans tossing and turning is the wild card in this discussion — Donald Trump. But the chances that Trump would unilaterally decide to launch a nuclear attack, or even a conventional attack, against North Korea is limited. From all appearances, Trump spoke impulsively Tuesday, and without consulting his national security team — not as part of some larger change in US policy or preparation for war.
And as we’ve seen in the 24 hours since his pronouncement, members of Trump’s Cabinet, as well as prominent members of Congress and key US allies in the Far East, have strongly pushed back against his rhetoric.
Trump has good political reason to fan Americans’ fears about the nuclear threat from North Korea — it distracts from his dumpster-fire presidency. But there is no reason for the press to play along by framing the threat in Trump’s misleading terms and escalating the threat from North Korea.
In a strange way it’s actually good that we’re having a debate about North Korea now, in order to highlight the dangers of Trump using military force on the Korean peninsula.
If that were to happen, it would be South Korea and potentially Japan that would find themselves in Pyongyang’s crosshairs, not the United States. For them, Trump’s rhetoric is troubling. For Americans, it’s yet one more piece of evidence demonstrating Trump’s vast unsuitability to be president, not the potential for a nuclear attack against America.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.