Last week, for the first time in a generation, a significant number of Americans went to bed worrying whether the world would be there the next morning. Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea were hurling nuclear threats at each other, growing more shrill day by day.
No reasonable person looking at the verbal slugfest can envision a beneficial outcome for either side to initiate a nuclear exchange – or short of that, even a limited conventional warfare engagement. What’s scary for most people is the realization that neither Trump nor Kim is a reasonable person.
Set aside the personality shortcomings of the national leaders involved and the fear that either one could fall at a moment’s notice into an uncontrollable rage at a perceived insult, and the threat of a nuclear standoff with North Korea is less surprising.
It falls into a “Wag the Dog” scenario, following the plot of the 1997 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro about a President and his aides who see a limited war as a great way to shore up lagging poll numbers.
It can be argued that almost every president, given massive power as commander-in-chief of a mighty army and navy, falls prey to at some point during his term of office.
President Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada (an island nation with a population of 100,000, for those too young to remember the Reagan years) in 1983 – shortly after terrorist violence against American citizens and Marines in Beirut.
President George H. W. Bush, whose poll numbers were soft because some people saw him as ‘Wimpy”, invaded Panama in December of his first year as president (1989).
The invasion of Kuwait came the next year. Bill Clinton invaded Kosovo and bombed elsewhere in the Balkans just as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was getting underway.
President George W. Bush invaded Iraq as well as Afghanistan.
Former President Barack Obama inherited both those wars but supplemented them with air strikes and incursions into Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
All of these nations shared a trait with North Korea – they were smaller, sometimes tiny, compared to the U.S.A. Only Pakistan – like North Korea – has “the bomb.” And that makes the Korean question different.
Kim says he will be ready to bomb Guam – U.S. soil – with his missiles within a couple of weeks. If he “goes nuclear” as he has threatened, he could set off a doomsday scenario that could quickly spread beyond wiping out an island about half again as large as Philadelphia with a population of 150,000 civilians.
The U.S. would retaliate by bombing North Korea with a population of 26 million. Hundreds of millions of people live within ballistic missile range of North Korea. Escalation would almost certainly involve China and Russia.
Knowing this, Kim might try to limit a missile attack on Guam to conventional war heads.
Four to six missiles, well placed, could wreak havoc on Anderson Air Force Base and the U.S. naval station that make up the bulk of the military installations on the island.
But to what end? The U.S. could retaliate with cruise missiles launched from submarines to inflict even greater damage on North Korea. There’s no scenario that involves violence that has a good end for either side.
And to what end?
Looking back at past presidents and their “wag the dog” escapades, you see mixed – and usually temporary results.
Yes, a bump in the polls for a month or two. Yes, a distraction from other stories in the news. But, in the long term, Bush I lost his re-election campaign. Clinton was impeached. Bush II and Obama were polarizing figures.
But nuclear weapons changes everything. Nukes are a tail that wags the dog.
Tony May is a partner in Triad Strategies, a Harrisburg lobbying and public relations firm. His “Donkeys & Elephants” column appears weekly opposite conservative commentator Charlie Gerow.