Melissa McCarthy ended her latest impersonation of Sean Spicer — delivered in Easter garb on “Saturday Night Live” — by offhandedly mentioning, “And, by the way, the president's probably going to bomb North Korea tonight.”
Beyond the incongruity of a presidential press secretary announcing impending war while wearing a bunny suit, what made this moment funny was its small glimmer of plausibility.
Last week, NBC News reported that the administration was contemplating a pre-emptive attack if North Korea appeared to be testing another nuclear weapon. The United States dispatched a naval strike group led by the super carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, to the Korean peninsula. And there were fears that the hermetic regime might demonstrate its nuclear prowess over the weekend with an underground explosion on the 105th anniversary of the birth of its Stalinist founder, Kim Il Sung.
Now with one of those sudden atmospheric shifts that makes Donald Trump’s presidency resemble a mood ring, the tensions have ebbed. The NBC News report was debunked; Kim Jong Un found a less explosive way to honor his grandfather's birth; and a North Korean test missile exploded just seconds after its launch, sparking rumors of American cyber sabotage.
Instead of Twitter bluster, the administration is now stressing the potential for China muscling North Korea into submission. Mike Pence said Monday while visiting the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, “I know President Trump is very hopeful that China will take actions necessary to bring about a change in policy in North Korea, an abandonment of its nuclear program and its ballistic missile program.”
A job for grown-ups
It all sounds so responsible that you almost forget that Trump is president. The lurch toward a conventional foreign policy has given rise to glib talk about how such officials as Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster constitute an “Axis of Adults.”
Please forgive my skepticism.
Yes, we’ve come a lot way since the days when Trump angrily hung up on the prime minister of Australia and looked to Vladimir Putin as a role model. Hard to believe that just two months ago, Michael Flynn was the national security adviser and Steve Bannon was his powerful minder at the NSC.
But Trump — a man who views the world through the prism of real estate deals, 10-minute oral briefings and the slavish praise of “Fox & Friends” — is still the president of the world’s reigning superpower. And in a real crisis, it will be Trump who is at the head of the table rather than a card-carrying member of the Axis of Adults.
OK, sobered by the weight of the presidency, Trump probably has moved beyond the point when he might base his national security decisions on a show of hands from the Palm Beach billionaires dining at Mar-a-Lago. But the realistic fear is that in a crisis, Trump would revel in his self-created role as a “war president” communing with his inner George Patton.
The problem with depending so heavily on generals like McMaster and Mattis is not that they represent some far-fetched military takeover, but rather that they may prove too deferential to civilian authority to aggressively challenge the president. As for the reclusive Tillerson, there is something troubling in his disdain for both the career diplomatic corps and serious reporters who cover the State Department.
What history does teach is that a president’s top advisers need time to learn how to function effectively as a group. In a sense, every national security team needs a Bay of Pigs setback to learn whom to trust and whom to ignore in a crisis.
And Trump World, even with Bannon consigned to the sidelines, presents its own challenges. What does Mattis or Tillerson say when Jared Kushner pipes up at a crucial moment with well-intentioned insight that he picked up that morning from a hasty Google search?
There is a reason why North Korea has bedeviled American policymakers for nearly seven decades. In the fall of 1950, early in the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (another Trump hero) confidently briefed President Harry Truman that “the formal resistance” would end by Thanksgiving. Instead, by Thanksgiving, Chinese communist troops had surged across the Yalu River and MacArthur’s forces were in retreat.
American intelligence has had a dismal record in deciphering the inner workings of tightly sealed police states like North Korea. It is easy to dismiss Kim Jung Un, as John McCain did recently, as a “crazy fat kid.” But contrary to expectations, the enigmatic supreme leader has demonstrated a ruthless survival instinct during his five years in power.
All this argues for supreme caution and patience in dealing with a nuclear-tipped North Korea. Not only has there never been a foolproof plan to contain North Korea but it is also impossible to conceive of any military strategy that does not bring with it grave risks.
As Trump should now be learning, the problems that get passed from president to president are the intractable ones like North Korea. And even Trump — with his disdain for history — might recall that the last time this nation launched a preventive war, it destroyed both Iraq and the presidency of George W. Bush.
War is not healthy for children and other living things — plus it ruins real estate values. Or, to put it in terms that the president might understand, a miscalculation on the Korean peninsula could cost the Trump brand billions worldwide.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.