Who knew that Kim Jong-un and his distinguished generals grew their skin so thin? A lot of people, mostly affrighted diplomats and denizens of assorted newsrooms on the Atlantic seawall, are still beside themselves in fear and loathing of President Trump’s fiery warning of what North Korea can expect if it gets big ideas about playing nuclear games.
Who, indeed? Who expected Guam to be important enough to join Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington and New York on Kim’s target list? The London Daily Mail, usually merely guilty reading for those who can’t get enough about Caitlyn Jenner’s lingerie, Elvis and UFO sightings, or how Donald Trump was sent back in time to warn himself about trifling with the eccentric super-sized child in Pyongyang. The Daily Mail now adds Austin, Texas, to the target list.
It’s a puzzle why the hysteria got so loud. “The president’s point was that the North’s escalating threats are intolerable,” observed The Wall Street Journal; “he didn’t set any red lines. True to form, Pyongyang responded by putting the U.S. island of Guam in its cross hairs. Mr. Trump may be guilty of hyperbole (what a surprise), but that is far less damaging to U.S. credibility than Barack Obama’s failure to enforce the prohibition on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. The foreign-policy elite who claim to be shocked also don’t have much credibility after their policy across three administrations led to the current North Korean danger.”
Mr. Trump actually said no more than others, some in his administration and some not, have said. The Donald just says things in a way that presidents before him have not. Who can say that plain speech in the current moment is not the way to make him understood in Pyongyang? H.R. McMaster, the national-security adviser much praised earlier even in liberal salons, called the threats from North Korea “intolerable from the president’s perspective, so of course we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes the military option. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned North Korea to cut out the bellicose stuff lest it “lead to the end of the regime.” That’s no less to the brutal point than the president’s warning of fire and brimstone. Kim and his generals, who are not oblivious to nuance, understand.
It’s only the responsible thing to do to speak plainly — and often — about the military option. “There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who blows hot and cold on the president, told a television interviewer. “He has told me that,” he said of the president. “I believe him. If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.”
In fact, some calmer heads think the president’s fire and brimstone was meant not for Kim and his generals, but for Xi Jinping in Beijing, to emphasize that the status quo cannot remain quo for much longer.
“It may be,” says Joseph S. Nye Jr., the Harvard scholar who formerly directed the U.S. National Intelligence Council, “a very rational thought-out message.” Even if it was Donald Trump who said it.
The usual skeptics are analyzing the president’s “fire and fury” message, as if it were a plate of scrapple, and finding that it was, in the words of The New York Times, “entirely improvised.” It certainly sounded like it did not go through the vettings that produce so much mush and bean sprouts in Foggy Bottom, where the passive voice is much admired and adjectives are weighed against adverbs to carefully craft a message that wouldn’t frighten anyone in striped pants.
There’s nothing wrong with improvisation when it comes from conviction. Trump skeptics are making much of the fact that he promised fire and fury while he was looking at a fact sheet about the opioid crisis, as if the man couldn’t think about two things at once. He might even have done it while chewing a stick of Juicy Fruit. Who wants a man with a nuanced mind with a missile on the way?
Great crises, and this is certainly one of those, need presidents and prime ministers who can think quickly and improvise, saying things that need to be said and in language everybody can understand.
This president, for good or ill, is not like previous presidents, and it’s past time to indulge wishes that everything could be like it used to be. Barack Obama, who bequeathed this crisis to his successor, spoke in prose polished with nuance and nonsense. Donald Trump speaks like an angry foreman on a construction site coming in late and over-budget. You can bet Kim Jong-un hears him, loud and clear.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.