“We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals." —Barack Obama, April 2016
The media recently went ballistic over President Trump’s impromptu promises of “fire and fury” in reply to the latest North Korean threats—and even more so when he later doubled down under criticism and claimed he had not been tough enough. But American leaders have always resorted to such blunt talk in exacerbating circumstances such as the current one.
Recall Bill Clinton’s now widely quoted remark that it would be “pointless” for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons because using them would mean “the end of their country.” Likewise, President Harry Truman once promised Japan a “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth” after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. Japan apparently got the message that there was no way out but unconditional surrender. President John F. Kennedy referred publicly to an “abyss of destruction” during the Cuban crisis.
And President Ronald Reagan was the master of the apocalyptic allusion. Remember his hot mic quip: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes”? Or his “evil empire” reference to the Soviet Union, delivered to a group of Florida evangelicals? George W. Bush was channeling Reagan when he dubbed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an “axis of evil”—“axis” was a World War II allusion that left no ambiguity, especially when married to the Reaganesque use of “evil.”
The media seems to have also forgotten the (now prescient) 2006 Washington Post joint op-ed by former Defense Secretary William Perry and future Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The two former Clinton administration officials called for a preemptory U.S. strike on a North Korea missile site. They mostly discounted the threat that North Korea would hit Seoul in response: “Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not. . . .But diplomacy has failed, and we cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature.”
Later, Perry and Carter backtracked somewhat from such calls for nuclear brinksmanship. But in retrospect, given North Korea’s new nuclear capabilities, their idea of limited preemption might have been right. Regardless, publishing their preemptive call for war did not enrage North Korea to the point of no return.
By using such strong rhetoric, Trump was likely trying to remind North Korea and China that the United States is not necessarily the predictable rational actor they had assumed it was, but is now subject to episodes of fury and anger, especially when its West coast citizens are routinely threatened with extinction.
Of course, there are various ways for a president to sound dangerous—which should be distinguished from the various ways he actually becomes recklessly dangerous by sounding too accommodating or keeping silent.
The most inflammatory thing a recent president has said might have been President Barack Obama’s hot mic, quid pro quo quip. Obama got caught stealthily offering Russia a deal affecting our national security: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him [Putin] to give me space. . . This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” Given our current uncertainty about the effectiveness of our missile defense systems, Obama’s offer to back off now seems particularly chilling.
Trump’s bombast was at least invoked for the sake of collective U.S. defense. Obama, in contrast, was making concessions for his own gain: “give me space… my election… I have more flexibility.” And talk about electoral collusion! Putin, remember, was especially aggressive only after the 2012 election, as Obama had hoped, when he ceased giving Obama “space” and dropped the pretenses of reset by invading Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, and upped his interference into Western elections.
Trump was also vague in his “fire and fury” warning. If off the cuff, it at least was not foolishly specific, as Obama had been with deadlines to Iran on nuclear proliferation, “step-over lines” to Putin, and “red lines” to Assad. All these threats went unenforced and contributed to an insidious loss of U.S. deterrence capability.
Trump was also likely playing good cop/bad cop. Later, Defense Secretary James Mattis also emphasized the existential consequences facing North Korea. Yet, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster were focusing on the international community and diplomacy, as a means to emphasize carrots as well as sticks.
The carrot/stick routine was reminiscent of Nixon’s “mad bomber” or “madman theory” of collusion with his supposedly more sober subordinates. Nixon’s Chief of Staff H. R. Halderman later wrote that Nixon insisted on acting the madman and quoted Nixon once as bragging: “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button,’ and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
There are also many ways to be reckless in calm and measured tones. In July 1990, Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie reportedly assured Saddam Hussein, in careful diplomatese, that the Bush administration had no interest in adjudicating “Arab-Arab” border disputes between Iraq and Kuwait. A relieved Saddam invaded Kuwait a few weeks later. We might have wished that she had hinted about the coming fire and fury had he dared try. Then, at the conclusion of the 1991 Gulf War, George H. W. Bush urged “the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” They did just that both immediately following Bush’s call and later in the 1990s on the assumption that the United States would help—and were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein as we largely sat by and watched.
No diplomat was more judicious than Secretary of State Dean Acheson. When he carefully offered a review of U.S. defense obligations at the National Press Club in January 1950, he either inadvertently or by design left out mention of South Korea. A few months later, North Korean communists invaded the south in a war that would eventually kill millions.
Susan Rice, former National Security Advisor, has sharply criticized the tough-guy rhetoric of President Trump. She has urged Americans to accommodate themselves to the idea of a nuclear North Korea with missiles pointed at the U.S. mainland, just as Americans had grown accustomed to the threat of nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Her admission seems to be a confession that the Obama administration’s laxity (“strategic patience”) accelerated North Korean missile development—and that the administration always assumed (but never stated publicly) that nuclear missiles pointed at the West coast were acceptable risks.
Much of Rice’s tenure in the Obama administration was characterized by public statements that sounded as calm and careful as they were either unhinged or abjectly untrue: the five public assertions that the Benghazi catastrophe was due to a video; the denial that the Iran agreement contained hidden side deals; the initial denial that she had any responsibility for unmasking and leaking the names of Americans caught up in government intercepts; the assurance that Assad had given up all his chemical weapons; and the false pledge to honor UN resolutions about Libya that limited American action to enforcing no-fly-zones and humanitarian aid—even as it bombed Muammar Gaddafi out of power .
All these declarations were delivered in professional tones and all were rank deceits that did the United States incalculable damage. Indeed, destroying the Gaddafi regime—after it had pledged reform and had given into U.S. pressure to give up its advanced nuclear weapons program—was a disastrous decision that may have convinced Kim Jong-un to resist efforts to de-nuclearize. Why would North Korea now surrender its nuclear weapons, when the last time a dictator did just that, his regime was bombed to smithereens by the U.S. military?
In regard to North Korea, measured diplomacy and mellifluous talk over the last three decades have done little but bring us to the point where nuclear-tipped missiles may soon be able to incinerate a U.S. city. Taking the position of “strategic patience” may have met Foggy Bottom’s standards for acceptable diplomacy. But surely the North Koreans saw it as a reckless form of appeasement to be leveraged rather than as magnanimity to be reciprocated.
There are many ways that presidents and their subordinates talk—or keep mum—in times of crisis. Most of them are far more dangerous than promising “fire and fury” when a nut points nuclear missiles at the American homeland.