Keep to the high road

Aug 9, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

'Fire and fury' threats on North Korea don't make Kim Jong Un look crazy, they make him look right

Immediately after Donald Trump threatened Tuesday to unleash "fire and fury like the world has never seen" if North Korea keeps up its threatening tone on the United States, there was unanimous agreement on something: No U.S. president had ever before used such language in such a context.

It is dangerous talk, delivered from a drastically different place on the world stage from our typical spot. North Korea is a small, unstable, belligerent nation trying to walk with the big boys. It wants to be noticed, to be feared, to be seen as legitimate in a world which has had a hard time doing that, and it sees joining the nuclear weapons club as the way to achieve this supposed legitimacy. Short of that (so far), it engages in an unending parade of threatening rhetoric, threatening imagery and threatening announcements about its military ambitions and capabilities.

As of Tuesday, apparently, those capabilities moved closer to full nuclear missile operations than had been believed possible.

The United States, on the other hand, is the greatest world power. It strides the globe with legitimacies and capabilities unmatched and unchallenged. Such has been the case for decades. Militarily, it knows no equal, including possession of a fearsome and highly developed nuclear arsenal capable of total destruction - not just of a seaport or a city, but of civilization.

The world must hope the dissimilarities don't end there. Because Tuesday, when the president used a luncheon convened to discuss the opioid abuse problem as the chance to lurch into his rehearsed statement threatening to destroy North Korea (and then repeat it, awkwardly, moments later), he sounded rather like North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Un. The blurted speech. The harsh tone. The apocalyptic language. The boastful threat. Read a printed transcript with the names and nations blacked out, and you might well think it was Kim Jong Un talking.

The United States is long past the point of having to remind North Korea how mighty we are. Everyone knows that, including Kim Jong Un. We could turn North Korea into a junkyard in about half an hour. The president was stating the incredibly obvious.

Through history, our nation's posture in global affairs has been being the grown-up. We use measured tones. We tend to speak in terms of strong policy and clear strategy, not coarse insult and wild threat.

Hours after the president vowed "fire and fury" if North Korea "made any more threats," North Korea made more threats. Kim Jong Un said his nation was mapping out an attack plan for Guam, the U.S. territory in the South Pacific where about 6,000 U.S military personnel and another 155,000 civilians live. All of them are American citizens.

So, what now?

The problem with instantly escalating the rhetoric of a conflict while TV cameras are rolling, as the president did Tuesday, is that it walks us right to the edge of war with no way to back off without looking confused, disorganized and inept. Those words could be used to characterize much of the new presidency so far, but this episode raises the stakes - sharply and unnecessarily.

Part of our nation's advantage over North Korea and other rogues is that we tend to leave the incendiary rhetoric to them. North Korea has railed for years that the United States is an imperialistic, militaristic bully that really wants to go to war with North Korea. Kim Jong Un pumps up this talk in order to help keep his people fearful and compliant, and to demonstrate that he is a strong leader.

Trump's public remarks play right into that. Instead of cultivating Kim's well-deserved image as a half-crazy tyrant with weird hair and weirder ideas, we have done him a favor. We have made him look right.

In the parlance of a football game, North Korea now has bulletin-board material for the locker room. "See?" he will say. "It is just as I have said. Evil America wants to destroy us. The president said it. So, 10 million of you loyal subjects will have to continue to live in wretched, hungry poverty so I can make more nuclear missiles."

Cooler heads - and, apparently, there still are a least a couple of them in the new administration - are predicting that this will end up being judged as a mistake, not a catastrophe. Please, please, could it also be a learning moment as well? We have an indispensable role to play in world leadership, and it's best when we play it on a much higher road.

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