- - Tuesday, December 19, 2017


The Trump White House continues to cut the legs from under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Most recently, hours after the secretary offered to open dialogue with North Korea “without preconditions,” the White House quashed the idea. Whether intended or not, such contradictory messages from the administration serves to sabotage diplomatic hopes to resolve the crisis without war. This troubling, shortsighted propensity puts American national security at risk.

In remarks delivered before the Atlantic Council on Tuesday, Mr. Tillerson explained that effective diplomacy wasn’t possible unless both sides understood how the other thinks. Seeking mutual understanding “means a willingness to talk about a lot of things,” he said. North Korea should say what it wants to put on the table, and then, he continued, “we’ll tell you what we want to put on the table.”

The most important thing, Mr. Tillerson concluded, “is that we get started.” In a promising sign, both Russian and Chinese senior officials quickly praised Mr. Tillerson’s statements and said they welcomed efforts to ease tensions on the peninsula. The president’s National Security Council (NSC) spokesman, however, quickly put the breaks on such diplomatic efforts.

“The administration is united in insisting that any negotiations with North Korea,” Reuters quoted a senior NSC spokesman as saying, “must wait until the regime fundamentally improves its behavior.” Other than noting North Korea must conduct no further missile or nuclear tests, the official did not define what behavior must change or say how long the NSC suggested this changed behavior must be observed before talks could be considered. These answers to these questions are critical.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster repeated that “time is running out” for diplomacy and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, recently said that “we’re headed toward a war if things don’t change.” Former Ambassador John Bolton reportedly met with British officials carrying a message — not yet corroborated — that U.S. intelligence officials believe it will only be three months before Kim Jong-un would have the ability to successfully launch a nuclear-armed missile against the U.S. mainland.

Mr. Graham said he had talked to President Trump and that the president “is not going to allow North Korea to have a nuclear weapon in their hands that can hit America.” If that truly represents Mr. Trump’s red line, and if U.S. intelligence is correct, the thinking inside the White House is that the administration will exercise a military option (which would be a catastrophic mistake that would almost certainly derail Mr. Trump’s presidency) in the March time frame. But this made-up deadline makes no sense when the U.S. can deter North Korea into the foreseeable future owing to our overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority.

This reality must be bluntly stated: There will be no war in North Korea unless Mr. Trump orders military strikes that precipitate one. There is virtually no scenario in which a strike of any magnitude makes the U.S. safer than it is today — but it will absolutely damage America (both our security and our prosperity). As evil, murderous and brutal as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is, he would have to be suicidal to conduct an unprovoked attack against the United States — and he is clearly not suicidal. So we’re on a path to start a war — that will almost certainly spiral out of control and do grave harm to the United States (not to mention destroy that part of Asia) — to prevent a war that we can be assured would never transpire. The president is receiving bad advice from his generals.

The far more defendable and logical course of action — one backed up by actual evidence, as opposed to mere speculation — is that Mr. Kim can be effectively deterred.

At most, Kim is rumored to have 60 total nuclear devices. The United States has 4,571, including weapons that can be delivered via heavy bombers, nuclear-powered submarines, and ground-based silos. Mr. Kim knows, with absolute certainty, that should he ever launch an unprovoked attack, he and his regime will be obliterated. Thus, we can leverage his desire to live to deter him as effectively as we did with the far more murderous Mao and Stalin.

The American people, along with our allies in South Korea and Japan, can be successfully protected by means of a strong, unflinching military deterrent and a dogged, persevering diplomacy. There does not need to be any war on the Korean peninsula — now or later. If the U.S. orders preventive military action, it is probable that a war would result in which potentially millions would die unnecessarily. Instead of undercutting diplomacy, the administration should change course and strongly reinforce it.

Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

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