We need to take seriously the possibility that Donald Trump is not trying to stare down North Korea, with his provocative tweets and statements on the growing nuclear crisis, but instead goad Kim Jong-un into lashing out – maybe with a first strike – so the US can respond militarily.
To this point, the operating assumption has been that Donald Trump is treating North Korea like a rival real estate developer, or maybe one of the many people who have sued him over the years. That is, he's trying to intimidate the hermit kingdom into backing down.
That's the hypothesis most have gone by, as Trump made his infamous "fire and fury" remarks, childishly nicknamed Kim the "Rocket Man," and saying "we'll see," when asked if the US was going to attack North Korea.
If that's the strategy, it isn't exactly working, and Trump has to know that by now. Kim Jong-un continues to test his missiles, and continues to develop nuclear warheads. He continues to trade barbs with Trump, most recently getting a lot of attention for bringing the word "dotard" back into the American lexicon.
Yet, Trump continues to make threats via Twitter.
This weekend, Trump declared that "only one thing" will work with North Korea, and it doesn't take a four-star general to know what that means – force. To those who served in the US Military, it sounded a lot like an alarm that war would be imminent.
That's not the only time Trump's tweets have sounded like a declaration of war. His tweet late last month that North Korea "won't be around much longer" necessitated the White House press secretary telling the White House press corps that, no, Trump wasn't issuing a declaration of war, via Twitter. Trump's comments have so alarmed Republican Senator Bob Corker that he said, "I think when you're in a situation that is as real as this one is and as sensitive as this one is, the lesser public comments you can make, the better."
That said, constantly making statements that sound like declarations of war, only to pull them back, doesn't seem like a good strategy to get someone to cave in negotiations, and give away their nuclear program. Above all, Kim Jong-un's top priority is himself, and his power. He isn't about to give up the only thing that he has, that he believes protects him from the kind of regime change the US undertook in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
However, the situation in North Korea is on a hair trigger. If something could be said that made Kim Jong-un to believe that we've crossed the Rubicon, and are coming for him, he may lash out, in a last-ditch effort to protect his regime.
Maybe that's Trump's goal.
Trump might not be the smartest person to ever sit in the Oval office, but he has enough sense to know that the world would reject a preemptive war in Korea. Most Americans, too, are opposed (67 percent, according to a Washington Post poll).
However, if North Korea would lash out by striking first or taking another action tantamount to a declaration of war, the politics become a lot easier for the administration, both internationally and domestically.
Indeed, that's the concern I have heard from Members of Congress that I have talked to. They're steadfast in their belief that the president must ask them for authorisation to go to war against North Korea. Right now, they would absolutely not approve war powers for Trump, but are worried that Trump will cause North Korea will do something to box Congress in, forcing them to approve a new Korean War.
War would also rally the media to his side. Surely Trump noticed the over-the-top praise he received for firing missiles into an empty airfield in Syria. Gone would be the stories about Russia, and legislative failures, as they made way for "rah rah" stories about the war effort.
Would Trump set off a war just to "wag the dog" in that way?
If nothing else, Trump has shown himself to be insanely cavalier, if not a sociopath, in regard to the massive loss of human life that a resumption of the Korean War would entail. Retired Brigadier General Rob Givens told the Los Angeles Times that the Pentagon estimated a conventional war would cost 20 000 lives in South Korea per day – American and Korean. One war game estimated a total of 8 million dead if a war went nuclear. That war game didn't even assume North Korea had a missile capable of reaching the US.
Those numbers make my stomach sink, as I think about the deaths of the men and women in uniform. Those numbers keep military spouses up at night. Surely, most Americans are on edge, thinking about the horror of a renewed Korean War.
As commander-in-chief, Trump has surely heard those numbers, too. But knowing the massive loss of life that war would entail didn't stop him from winking and smiling, and offering a coy, "you'll see" when asked in the Oval Office if he was talking about war with North Korea, when he told the world that his dinner with military leaders was "the calm before the storm."
Add it all up, and it is a distinct possibility that Trump is not trying to get Kim Jong-un to yield. He's trying to get Kim Jong-un to strike.