A surprising fact about Trump, therefore, is how quickly he caves. Ever since Flynn was ousted and Bannon was demoted, he simply and expeditiously defers to what the Pentagon wants on foreign policy. Ever since then he's been caving on issue after issue. He claims largely symbolic and vindictive victories, like attacking trans people serving in the military.
Another surprising fact about Trump is that he was not always particularly interested in having a nuclear war with North Korea. There had been a lot of joking that tyrants and commies, , were chortling and pressing their hands together at the thought of Trump as president. So weak these Americans with their feeble... democracy, haw haw haw.
To the alarm of the liberati, it turned out they weren't totally wrong. When pressed for a view by the Washington Post, Trump said he didn't see the point in US bases in the peninsula. To be completely fair, he probably hadn't given it much thought; or as much thought as "bombing the shit out of" the families of ISIS.
But this provoked panic. Did he know, inquiring minds inquired, that North Korea was even then putting itself in a position "hurl nuclear warheads half-way around the globe". Not all the way. Not the full circumference, so that the missiles hit Pyongyang. Half-way. What might happen, they wondered, if Pyongyang hit a US base in Japan? Would the US "strike back, and risk losing Washington DC in a second wave of nuclear attacks"
All of this palpably salivating nuclear-pornography turned out to be fantasy. It was fantasy, first of all, because North Korea is not even close to having the capability to hurl nuclear warheads half-way round the globe, as the New York Times piece linked above actually admits further down. Ironically, Trump was the realist here. It was additionally fantasy because one of Trump's first reversals was to make Pyongyang a target of his verbal testosteroids (trans.: testicles, asteroids: a case of talking bollocks on a galactic scale).
Now, Trump is doing more or less what was asked of him. Perhaps crudely and with far less skill, but while denouncing Obama-era "strategic patience", he has essentially adopted the exact same policy framework.
Now, interestingly, Trump's bombast until now has not produced a lot of criticism. There wasn't a particularly strong reaction when he warned of a "major, major conflict with North Korea" and promised to send "an Armada. Very powerful" -- which just meant sending a naval fleet in the direction of North Korea. If anything, the critique was, "is he too naive about the Chinese?" True, some more upper crust commentary was more troubled, but even The Economist warranted that Trump was "more cautious than his bluster makes him sound".
For months, this persisted while Trump escalated, and the South Korean government begged him to stop. They really did. There is, with a new government, a political mood in South Korea against the perpetuation of constant militarised rivalry with the North. They want to go back to the Sunshine Policy from the 2000s, when it seemed possible that the citizens of South Korea would not be held as human shields in a US protectorate.
Granted that I don't obsessively follow DC liberalism, since even I have a boredom threshold, but I haven't seen a great deal of liberal concern reflecting these positions. In fact, Trump had to complain the other day that they weren't giving him enough credit for sanctions against North Korea, not because the liberal media opposed the sanctions but because, meh. It was his good fortune that North Korea responded to the sanctions with an empty threat of a "thousands-fold" revenge.
Now, is his reply, threatening North Korea with "fire and fury" a fundamental departure from past conduct? I have to ask because for the first time, his liberal critics are evincing serious worries. I'm not being contrarian here: I believe that Trump's North Korea policy is even more dangerous than they realise, for reasons which are necessarily obscure to those who think the status quo ante was great. I would also rather Washington liberals opposed Trump for something he is actually doing, and not for being Putin's puppet (truly a case of 'puppetry of the penis').
However, just symptomatically, the distress is terribly interesting. What Trump said is being read as a threat of nuclear war. I don't think that's at all implausible, but the threats of a "major, major conflict"... did you think they were nuclear-free in aspiration? Likewise, he is being criticised by policy mandarins for being "seemingly oblivious to America’s dominant military, economic and political status" in dealing with Pyongyang -- but he didn't invent American victimhood, did he?
Now look at the basis on which Trump's colleagues are defending him. Rex Tillerson says Trump's remarks are perfectly fine because Pyongyang does not represent "any imminent threat". "Americans should sleep well tonight," he says with the reassuring mien of an insurance salesman. The defence secretary James Mattis chooses a different tack, doubling down, threatening North Korea with the “end of its regime and the destruction of its people”. The destruction of its people -- that sounds rather more directly and literally like a threat of nuclear genocide than what Trump tweeted.
To add to this general tone of nuclear bombast, retired Lt Gen Tom McInerny -- one of 87 military personnel to back Trump -- offered the observation that the whole of North Korea would be destroyed, flattened within fifteen minutes, if the US deployed it's full capability. He also indicates part of the geo-strategic context when he adds that the southeast Asian countries should form a "political area treaty organization, similar to NATO," to counter both North Korea and "Chinese expansion". (I assume the reference is to SEATO, which collapsed two years after the end of the Vietnam War -- suggestive of the military old guard's Cold War frame of reference.) Because, it is increasingly clear, one reason North Korea will not collapse is because the Chinese ruling class doesn't want it to. Finally, he recommends getting "more Thaad missiles in there" -- the missile system developed by Lockheed Martin and which was brought into South Korea without the knowledge or consent of the government, creating a huge national controversy.
Now, here's the problem. North Korea currently does not have a motive to use a nuclear weapon even within its current range of targeting. The reason Mattis can come out with this extraordinary genocidal rhetoric is precisely because he believes there is no way that Kim Jong Un will risk the annihilation of North Korea just to hit a military base or a naval fleet.
But the current policy, which is the received policy, the Pentagon policy, is clearly not persuading the regime to drop its nukes. In truth, there's no incentive for it to do so. An alternative, which I think Trump would very much like to embrace, and which has been war-gamed by the US military, would be a first strike on North Korea's nuclear installations. Now, the US has had a first strike policy before, and it brought us to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this case, the result, military planners estimate, be a rapid return strike, not at the US, but perhaps at Seoul -- and of course, the South Korean military establishment, nurtured for decades by the US, would retaliate. It would be a ghastly incineration of potentially millions.
The underlying problem is that the current US posture is predicated on something which is completely unsustainable -- to wit, the US claim to rights over the Korean peninsula. The US has made these claims ever since US war planners decided to divide Korea at 38th parallel, and sent 25,000 combat troops into the southern half to set up a military dictatorship. The US has never accepted any legitimacy of claims on the part of the North Korean regime regarding US presence in the peninsula, and never offered to reciprocate any drawdown by reducing its military activities. Even as South Korea is increasingly unhappy about the military stranglehold the US is exerting over it, the reigning assumption in Washington continues to be that Pyongyang has to be sanctioned and coerced in a way that hasn't worked thus far.
Ultimately, this logic leaves North Korea choosing between humiliation and escalation. The danger is that if the situation is escalated, it wouldn't take a lot for the regime to believe it had been attacked. Jon Wolfstahl, a former Obama official, puts it like this: "even something accidental like a power cut or an explosion in a munitions factory, could be interpreted as a first strike".
So, yes, this is a dangerous moment. Yes, Trump and his administration officials are talking irresponsibly and dangerously. But it's worse than that, because in terms of US imperial policy, Trump is not an aberration. Inasmuch as he lets the Pentagon dictate policy, adding his own victory culture braggadocio, he is the telos to which all of this was heading.