Tuesday, Senator Lindsey Graham said war is coming.
“I’m saying it’s inevitable unless North Korea changes because you’re making our president pick between regional stability and homeland security,” the South Carolina Republican told Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show.
“Unless?” At the moment, it does not look like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is going to “change.”
“If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there,” Graham said. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And he has told me that to my face.”
“He”? That would be the president of the United States. The senator was speaking for himself, but he was almost certainly relaying a message from Donald Trump.
That message, it appears, was intended primarily for China. Graham, after saying he thought the president was serious, gave advice to Beijing, telling the Chinese to believe the American leader.
But is Rex Tillerson also a believer? In a surprise visit to the State Department briefing room Tuesday, the secretary of state tried to tamp down tensions by saying the United States is not seeking “regime change” or looking for “an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel.” And he went further by noting that the U.S. “would like to sit and have a dialogue about the future.”
But dialogue does not seem to be on the commander in chief’s menu. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not, when given the opportunity, walk back Graham’s description of the president’s views. As she repeatedly said later Tuesday afternoon, “We’re weighing all options, keeping all options on the table.”
Perhaps Trump is trying to apply Nixon’s “madman theory,” in other words, attempting to convince others that he is so volatile, unpredictable, and dangerous that they should do what he wants.
Yet even if this is the president’s plan, there are three principal problems with the approach. First, should America use force to disarm the Kimist regime and thereby begin a general conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Americans in America may not die, but Americans in Asia almost certainly would. The U.S. has 28,500 servicemen and women in South Korea, 47,000 more in Japan, and others scattered throughout the region.
Guam, with the sprawling Andersen Air Force Base, is home to about 6,000 members of the armed forces. The island itself is a U.S. territory whose 170,000 residents are American citizens. It would be one of Kim Jong Un’s first targets.
Of course, there are also Americans, out of uniform, who would be in harm’s way. There are more than 100,000 U.S. civilians in Seoul alone.
Second, Washington relies on its alliance partners, like Japan and South Korea, to serve as America’s forward defense perimeter. Trump, through Senator Graham, just said the lives of “thousands”—if not tens of millions—of their citizens are expendable. China and North Korea want to break America’s regional alliances, but nothing Beijing or Pyongyang could say or do would be more effective than Graham’s words in separating Washington from its longtime allies.
Third, Graham, by talking about the inevitability of the use of force, ignores a range of tools at the disposal of the Trump administration. The dominant narrative in Washington, which Graham implicitly accepts, is that “North Korea will never give up its nukes and missiles” and “China will not help Washington disarm the North.” Maybe those propositions are true, but no one knows what China or North Korea would do under severe pressure from the United States. Washington has never applied such pressure.
The U.S. has sanctions on North Korea, but they are not nearly as strict as they could be. American measures have been designed, as U.S. officials and military officers say, to bring North Korea to its senses, not to its knees. Washington has not in fact attempted to apply knee-bending pressure to the Kim regime.
More important, U.S. administrations have applied almost no pressure on China, even though the Chinese are Pyongyang’s enablers and, worse, have been supplying critical equipment to the North’s weapons efforts. For instance, the intercontinental ballistic missiles tested on July 4 and July 28 rode to their launch sites on Chinese transporter-erectors. The North’s most advanced missiles—far more sophisticated than the ones tested last month—look to be copies of China’s JL-1 submarine-launched missile.
Moreover, the U.S. has only begun to enforce its laws against Chinese banks for money laundering for Pyongyang. To its great credit, Trump’s Treasury Department on June 29 designated Bank of Dandong, a smallish Chinese institution, a “primary money laundering concern” pursuant to the Patriot Act, but Washington has yet to go after Beijing’s largest state banks, which have also been cleaning Pyongyang’s cash. If Trump were to deny a single large Chinese bank access to its dollar accounts—in other words, essentially put it out of business—Beijing would have an incentive to prevent the imposition of other death sentences on its financial institutions.
Before Trump uses force and starts what could be history’s next great conflict, he has a moral obligation to exhaust all non-kinetic options.
At this moment, Washington has overwhelming leverage over China. Xi Jinping, the Chinese ruler, is vulnerable in the run-up to the Communist Party’s 19th Congress this fall. His economy is fragile, and he needs access to American markets more than at any other time of his career. He also needs to prevent a breakdown in relations with Washington, for which he would be blamed by jealous rivals for power. Therefore, Trump, by threatening to break off ties, may be able to cripple Xi politically. The threat of ending Xi’s career may be enough to get him in line on North Korea.
In short, Trump should use America’s overwhelming leverage over China so that China uses its overwhelming leverage over North Korea.
“We’ll handle North Korea,” the president told reporters Monday. “We’re going to be able to handle them.”
He can do that by handling China first, something far preferable to the Graham Option.