High among President Trump’s first-year achievements: Appointing James Mattis secretary of Defense. His experience, knowledge, dedication and just plain toughness qualify him, perhaps uniquely, for what he clearly sees as the most important mission of his life — ensuring that America’s military forces are equal to the threats they will face over the years ahead.
This month, the Pentagon released its National Defense Strategy, a document that expresses Mr. Mattis’ vision — what he believes must be done if America is to prevail within “a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.”
He freely acknowledges that we’re not where we need to be: “Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding.”
The Mattis NDS gives top priority to the long-term threats posed by China, a rising power with global ambitions, and Russia, a declining power that, with Vladimir Putin at the helm, deploys its resources shrewdly.
These “revisionist powers” seek “to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” For these and other reasons, they pose the “central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security.”
That’s seems sensible and it’s certainly forward-looking. So what’s making me nervous? The possibility that insufficient attention is being given to North Korea — not the biggest crocodile in the river but the one closest to the canoe.
There’s no mystery about how the hermit kingdom became a major strategic threat not only to its neighbors but also to the United States. For a quarter century, one president after another, Republican and Democratic alike, adopted ineffective polices or simply chose to ignore the totalitarian dynasty as it developed nuclear weapons and increasingly sophisticated missiles to deliver them.
Such policies might have been defensible if, at the same time, the U.S. had been developing a comprehensive missile defense system — the “defense umbrella” that, nine years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised would be built to shield both Americans and American allies from nuclear weapons launched from anywhere. In the end, the administration she served decided not to invest in such capabilities. President Obama had other fish to fry.
So now, how long before Kim Jong-un, the pudgy 30-something dictator with the street-gang haircut, can be confident of his ability to vaporize an American city? The answer is soon. The only debate is over how soon.
Foreign policy Pollyannas say not to worry: We deterred the Soviet Union. We can deter North Korea. But the Soviets, though evil, were rational. They’d suffered enormously during World War II. They understood that a nuclear exchange would leave no winners.
I’m not confident that we — the intelligence community emphatically included — have any real insight into the psyche of a hereditary dictator who executed his uncle with an anti-aircraft gun and had his half-brother assassinated with a chemical weapon in a crowded international airport.
Besides, Mr. Kim can utilize nuclear-tipped missiles without launching them. He can say: “You capitalist pigs, you imposed sanctions and impoverished my proud nation. You’ll now send me a billion dollars a month if you want me to keep my missiles in their silos.” Any reason to suppose such blackmail would not succeed?
About this, too, we need to be realistic: If we accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, nuclear non-proliferation will become an idea whose time has come and gone. How would we prevent other countries — Iran, to be sure, but many others — from acquiring their own nukes?
Finally, there’s no reason to think Mr. Kim would not sell or even give away any weapons he produces — nuclear, chemical or biological — to terrorists and other malign actors who would be thrilled to deploy them against American targets.
The Trump administration has ratcheted up its sanctions campaign — though not yet enough. If Mr. Kim’s nuclear ambitions are to be frustrated by non-military means, “maximum economic pressure” will need to be applied. He must be made to see that the U.S. has the power — and the will — to destroy his country’s economy, to force a total collapse.
At the same time, we’d do well to persuade him that should non-military means fail, the Pentagon has viable military options — not good options, perhaps, but options preferable to allowing American cities to be held hostage indefinitely.
Maximum economic and military pressure is not a substitute for diplomacy. On the contrary, only maximum economic and military pressure can empower American diplomats to negotiate from a position of strength. Isn’t it time we learned this simple lesson?
I’ll end on a hopeful note: The NDS that was made public this month is actually the “unclassified synopsis of the classified 2018 National Defense Strategy.” It’s possible — even likely — that the classified version contains creative and elaborate plans to frustrate Mr. Kim’s ambitions and neutralize the imminent threat he poses.
“This strategy establishes my intent to pursue urgent change at significant scale,” Mr. Mattis writes in the conclusion to the NDS. Its purpose is to outline “what we must do to pass intact to the younger generation the freedoms we currently enjoy.”
Can we at least agree, on a bipartisan basis, that we owe that much to our children? If so, can Congress, on a bipartisan basis, at least agree to provide Mr. Mattis with the funds he needs to accomplish this most important mission of his life?
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.