Many pundits have predicted that the Trump administration is poised to launch a limited strike, a bloody nose, on North Korean military targets to deter a rapidly advancing ballistic missile program. They point to worrying developments such as the administration refusing to nominate Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea due to his opposition to such a plan. Zach Beauchamp of Vox called Trump’s State of the Union remarks on North Korea “the scariest part” of his speech due to its parallels to President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” remarks in his 2002 State of the Union. The argument goes that Trump’s excoriation of North Korea’s appalling treatment of its own people was similar to how Bush labeled Iraq.
Like Iraq, North Korea cannot easily be presented as an immediate, pressing threat to American national security. Therefore describing the very real threat the regime has over its own people would suffice as an excuse to war. This argument of impending war, while grave, does not necessarily hold water given Trump’s own record in foreign policy, and most importantly,the changing nature of American war.
Trump’s first year in office, in terms of actual foreign policy implemented has been highly conventional for a center-right conservative president. Many observers see Trump as an aberration, indeed a unique threat to American democracy given his various pronouncements. He has floated the idea of revoking licenses for media companies that criticize him. He regularly verbally attacks the FBI. His twitter feed is incendiary. He used the platform to threaten North Korea with “fire and fury.” He also used sexual innuendo in his nuclear threats against the country. Surely, the president must be unhinged, and ready to attack?
Not exactly. This record points to what Trump has said in the past. His record of what he has done in the past is likely a better indicator of what he will do in the future, especially given the President’s tendency to not follow through on various statements. For example, he pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act on day one. It’s still on the books.
What does President Trump’s foreign policy, that is actual, tangible steps that his administration has taken on the world stage, say about how he will confront North Korea? The surprising conventional nature of the president’s foreign policy suggests that he will not adopt the extremely unconventional policy, given past precedent, of attacking North Korea. Indeed, it fits in a broader picture of how the US military has seen its role in the world over the last 17 years or so.
I always find myself surprised by people who claim something along the lines that “Trump will drag us into another war” in North Korea, failing to note that the United States is currently involved in 8 different military interventions. This state of war is not the fault of Donald Trump, but rather an outcome of the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, giving the executive branch significant leeway in committing US military forces abroad. It has led to interventions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Niger. All of these conflicts show the changing nature of war, making the one imagined on the Korean peninsula highly unlikely.
None of these aforementioned “wars” currently involve large-scale movement of tanks, infantry, artillery or other ground forces. They involve small-scale special forces units, drones, intelligence gathering, airstrikes and the arming and training of proxy forces to effectively function as “American boots on the ground,” as the arming of Kurds to fight ISIS shows. These conflicts do not evoke the images associated with what would likely happen in a war on the Korean peninsula, a war of mass-artillery barrages, significant naval maneuvers and tank battles. Even if the Trump administration commits to “a bloody nose,” the probability of it escalating to an all-out war is especially high, considering the value the Kim regime places on its nuclear weapons program.
The last time the US committed to such a war, wherein it expected a traditional confrontation with a conventional military on the ground, was in 2003 during the opening stages of the invasion of Iraq. This conflict was perhaps the closest contemporary example of how the US would commit military forces against North Korea today. However, after that conflict quickly devolved into containing an arduous insurgency, the political and military establishment in the US realized that such future large-scale conventional wars would have little popularity with the public, diminishing chances of success. This realization led the Obama administration to refuse committing to regime change in Syria in 2013. It has also arguably led the Trump administration along a similar path, despite the President’s limited cruise missile strike against the Assad government in 2017.
This mindset of limited, lean small-scale US wars guiding our foreign policy is not necessarily a positive development. It has led to a significant removal of the American public from the developments and effects of war. Indeed, after Trump’s controversy over a phone call to the widow of a US green beret killed in Niger, few in the media even bothered to ask why the US military was involved in combat operations in Niger in the first place. Many simply accepted this as normal.
Even our own elected officials are removed from this new reality of American warfare. In the fallout of Trump’s Niger comments, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) confessed “I didn’t know there was a thousand troops in Niger.”
Around 1% of the American population serve in our armed forces. This shocking statistic has led to an isolated warrior class to take on the extremely heavy burden of fighting America’s wars. Very few Americans know someone who has fought an insurgency in Afghanistan. Few know someone who has died in this growing list of conflict zones.
This reality is sobering. It is also highly instructive in painting a picture on the nature of US military involvement. Our forces are equipped to fight with limited manpower through Navy Seals, Green Berets, Military advisors and air strikes, all of which limit the chances of American loss of life. This reality, wherein the American public consciousness is ignorant of the battlefield, has arguably made it easier to make American commitments to conflict zones long-lasting, perhaps near-indefinite. This phenomenon of long-lasting war led Barack Obama to be the first president in American history to spend every day of his two terms in office at war. Perhaps Donald Trump will be the second.
In a macro-picture, the US military is not designed for the type of fighting envisioned on the Korean peninsula. That is not to say the US would lose such a conflict, but rather to point out that the US military has been on a long-term trajectory to fight a different kind of war. President Trump shows all signs, through his policy, of following up on that trajectory. He has given more discretion to US military figures in fighting in Somalia. He has also expanded US military involvement in Yemen. However, these policies have been in line with the thinking of a typical right-of-center conservative president. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz would all have likely done similar actions.
These concrete policies are not intrinsically good for American security, and they can be criticized, but they are not the mark of an erratic president. Even the Iran Deal, of which President Trump makes his disdain clear, is still in effect, lessening the likelihood of war with a country of around 80 million people. Trump’s conventional foreign policy therefore gives no indicator that he would take the highly unconventional step of going to war with North Korea. He has seemed to accept how the US military sees itself in fighting wars.
Even if Trump considers “a bloody nose” as another limited military intervention along the lines of US involvement in Syria or Niger, many of those in his administration do not harbor such delusions. While H.R McMaster has allegedly supported a bloody nose, Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis both oppose such an attack, knowing it will likely lead to a wider war on the Korean peninsula and potentially significant loss of life ranging from the hundreds of thousands to the millions. North Korean artillery capability to strike the metropolises of its southern neighbor could make that dark vision a reality.
Furthermore, Mattis and Tillerson, along with many others in Trump’s administration understand that if the Kim regime will only use military force if it perceives a threat to its power. Un knows that he could not launch a war against the United States and survive, given the sheer disparity in military power projection between his country and the US. In other words, Kim Jong Un would only go out in a blaze of glory if he knew he was about to be taken out. He could likely perceive that reality in the event of even a limited US military strike on the regime’s nuclear facilities. In fact, the chief incentive for North Korea to have nuclear weapons is to have a deterrent against US military intervention and regime change, a deterrent which Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq lacked. Since a bloody nose would lead to a large scale war that US military policy has explicitly tried to avoid in recent memory, it is unlikely to occur.
None of this speculation is meant to create a sense of false confidence regarding the military standoff on the Korean peninsula. It is rather meant to paint a portrait of the changing nature of US war and illustrate why a war with North Korea, even a supposed “bloody nose,” does not fit in that overarching image. The US has moved on from the days of Desert Storm, where massive tank divisions would sweep their foes in a blitzkrieg, with an engaged public back home cheering them on. The new nature of US war is not particularly comforting (not that conventional war itself is comforting), knowing that the public consciousness has distanced itself from war’s impact on both our armed forces and civilians abroad. The overarching strategy and mission of the US military can tell us something about the near-term future on the Korean peninsula, even if that tells us something disturbing in the process.