It is generally believed that foreign adversaries deliberately try to test a new U.S. president early in the first term. Just past the 200-day mark for President Trump, we had not yet seen a major international foreign policy crisis.
That all changed with this week’s sudden and startling news concerning North Korea.
On Saturday, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a rising star in the administration, skillfully marshalled a new round of sanctions against North Korea in a 15-0 Security Council vote, notably including support from Russia and China. This round of sanctions, which will cut North Korean export revenues by one-third when fully implemented, is widely seen as the toughest international sanctions package ever passed against Pyongyang.
This vote was timed to lead into the ASEAN Summit in Manila, where even North Korea’s foreign minister made an appearance. Following the successful vote at the U.N., the summit featured productive diplomatic sessions on how to further isolate the North and promote regional security and stability.
But landing like a hand grenade in the middle of the summit was an explosive report that the North may have already succeeded in making a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on a ballistic missile that could reach much of the U.S. mainland. The finding, based on an analysis completed last month by a single U.S. intelligence agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, soon dominated the cable news networks and caused a domestic panic.
This story provoked President Trump’s now-famous response at an opioid roundtable meeting at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he warned that “North Korea best not make anymore threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
This statement was quickly condemned as “bellicose,” “unhelpful” and other similar adjectives by a range of Democratic lawmakers and even some Republicans like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona.
North Korea’s state-run news agency responded to Mr. Trump’s words several hours later by suggesting that the North Korean regime would target the U.S. territory of Guam, home to more than 6,000 American service members.
While White House aide Sebastian Gorka told Fox News the showdown was “analogous to the Cuban missile crisis,” cooler heads quickly prevailed. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who was coincidentally headed to Guam for a refueling stop, told reporters, “I do not believe that there is any imminent threat” from North Korea and that “Americans should sleep well at night.”
Secretary of Defense James Mattis also offered some wise and concise comments: North Korea “must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons. [North Korea] should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”
Mr. Mattis continued, “While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth. [North Korea’s] actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
So where does this leave us?
North Korea’s threat to the U.S. is clearly moving more rapidly than we anticipated and, so far, increased diplomatic pressure has not changed the regime’s unacceptable behavior.
North Korea wants to protect itself and ultimately reunify the Korean Peninsula, an unimaginable fate for South Korea, our strong ally.
The short-term imperatives appear to be: de-escalating the rhetoric; unifying our allies (Japan, Malaysia and South Korea); strongly pressuring China to take more drastic steps against North Korea; credibly offering a specific military deterrent to the North Korean regime; and beginning to shape what diplomatic negotiation could look like.
Many experts are criticizing this White House, but all previous policy efforts have failed. No one who has tried to solve this problem has succeeded.
Unity, humility, clarity and diplomacy are needed now for the Trump administration to be successful in resolving what has now become a full-blown crisis. The stakes could not be higher.
• Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin, Texas- and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. His national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” is produced in partnership with The Washington Times. His podcast may be found on iTunes, Google Play, and at MackOnPolitics.com.
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