International Affairs

The Nuclear Gamble

April 07, 2017

If President Trump hasn’t managed this week to sweet-talk Xi Jinping sufficiently to persuade him to “solve the problem of North Korea,” then we may be very close to the military option, with all its inherent risks of the “unknown unknowns.” That’s the opinion of Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army. He says we are moving “rapidly and dangerously” toward it. “A preemptive strike against launch facilities, underground nuclear sites, artillery and rocket response forces, leadership targets may be the only option left on the table.” Such a strike would be high-risk. Nobody knows what would follow it or how North Korea itself and China would react. Napoleon said that no battle plan survives the first hour of an encounter, and one might add that it is very rare for any bombing raid or preemptive strike to meet with complete success, achieving all its objectives. North Korea might respond with an attack on the South, whose capital, Seoul, is only thirty miles from the border. In short it would be a tremendous gamble, and I suspect President Trump prefers owning casinos to playing in them; after all, it’s the house that wins.

He prides himself on being a deal maker, and there is no more urgent matter than this on which to seek a deal. He might remember what a previous Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, called “a homely old adage which runs: Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Note the order. Soft speech comes first; the big stick is kept in reserve, and its importance rests in your adversary’s awareness of its presence and the threat it carries. The risks inherent in the fog of war are so great that soft speech should come first. Richard Nixon went to China. Perhaps Donald Trump should go to Pyonyang. North Korea’s Dear Leader’s vanity might be flattered by the attention, also bemused and puzzled, wrong-footed. And if no deal proved possible, there would still be the option of the big stick in reserve.

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