Donald Trump assured us during his campaign, "I know words. I have the best words." But are "fire and fury" and "locked and loaded" really the best words for a president to use in an increasingly volatile international crisis involving nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles? No question, North Korea precipitated this crisis with its aggressive pursuit and testing of a nuclear delivery system capable of reaching not only America's allies but also our very shores. Kim Jong Un's bellicose threats (that he would "blow the U.S. from this planet," and other such claims) upped the ante, but should the president be responding in kind?
U.S. policy toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has been a failure for decades, under both Republican and Democrat presidents. Neither diplomacy nor economic sanctions have deterred North Korea from building and testing nuclear weapons -- and, most recently, miniaturizing a nuclear warhead -- or the missiles to deliver them. Even former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice admits that U.S. efforts to denuclearize North Korea have failed -- though her advice is to learn to tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Clearly, past approaches haven't worked and President Trump is right to consider alternatives. What is not right is to take to Twitter and make off-the-cuff remarks to outline a new policy, especially one that threatens military action. On one issue there is unanimity of opinion: There are no good military options to take out North Korea's arsenal pre-emptively. Any attempt to do so would result in retaliation that would, at a minimum, put South Korea's population at grave risk and cost tens of thousands of lives. Trump's warlike rhetoric may suggest he thinks we could strike first and destroy North Korea's capability, but surely the generals have told him differently by now. And China has responded to the president's threats by putting both the DPRK and the U.S. on notice: If North Korea strikes first it cannot count on China's help to defend it, but if the U.S. tries a pre-emptive attack, all bets are off. The U.S. miscalculated China's response once before on the Korean peninsula, and the resulting Korean War took more than 33,000 American lives.
One of the biggest dangers in President Trump's warlike rhetoric is that it damages American credibility. The president is saber rattling in the worst way. He's gotten into an ego match with a dangerous and delusional dictator. He should be making it clear that the U.S. has no interest in initiating war -- but that we will defend U.S. territories and allies with all the might at our disposal. Instead, his loose language makes him sound like a bully on a playground. For a man who dodged military service himself -- receiving five deferments during the Vietnam War, including a medical deferment for bone spurs in his feet -- Trump sure likes to sound like a tough guy.
If Trump doesn't start acting more presidential, he's likely to provoke his own crisis here at home. The Constitution provides a mechanism to remove a president who for mental as well as physical reasons cannot perform his duties. In a press conference Friday afternoon, the president raised the specter of using military force not just against North Korea but also Venezuela: "We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary," Trump said. "We have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering, and they're dying," he said.
The statement sounded unhinged. If he keeps this up, he's inviting those within his own administration and party to consider whether it's time to invoke the 25th Amendment's provision for his removal: "Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President." It would take a two-thirds vote by both houses of Congress to remove the president permanently, but President Trump is skating on thin ice right now.