Senator Lindsey Graham is in his own right a very important foreign-policy spokesman for his congressional party. But of late he has also gotten close to his 2016 presidential rival, Donald Trump. And as most Americans get into a happy zone for the holiday season, Graham is suggesting we could be closer than anyone realizes to a hot war with North Korea. Uri Friedman explains:
[Graham] estimated the odds that the Trump administration deliberately strikes North Korea first, to stop it from acquiring the capability to target the U.S. mainland with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile. And the senator’s numbers were remarkably high.
“I would say there’s a three in 10 chance we use the military option,” Graham predicted in an interview. If the North Koreans conduct an additional test of a nuclear bomb—their seventh—“I would say 70 percent.”
A 30 percent chance of “the military option” is scary enough, given the horrific consequences of even a non-nuclear war with North Korea. One authoritative estimate suggests that 60,000–300,000 people in South Korea (including U.S. servicemembers) would die in the first few days of such a conflict. But Graham’s suggestion that another North Korean nuclear test would bring Donald Trump very close to a decision to launch a preemptive war is a real warning. Predictions of that seventh nuclear test are not hard to find, as an October article from The Guardian observes:
The North Korean foreign minister’s recent warning of a possible atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific ocean should be heeded, a senior Pyongyang official has told CNN.
“The foreign minister is very well aware of the intentions of our supreme leader, so I think you should take his words literally,” Ri Yong Pil, a senior diplomat in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview aired on Wednesday.
Perhaps more decisively, the whole logic of the North Korean nuclear program is on a collision course with Trump’s policy of preempting any capability for Pyongyang to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons. North Korea sees obtaining such a capability as the sine qua non of its security against attack. So threats from the U.S. encourage the regime simply to accelerate its development of both weapons and delivery systems. And that means war, Graham suggests:
Graham spoke with clarion confidence about the president’s intentions. He said that one of Trump’s first big decisions as president was whether to adopt a policy of denying North Korea a long-range nuclear capability or of containing that capability by, for example, making clear that North Korea would be destroyed if it used its nuclear weapons against the United States …
Trump eventually chose denial, according to Graham, and that choice is now “in our rearview mirror.”
And so, unless North Korea completely reverses its long-term national security strategy, armed conflict is just a matter of time:
“I don’t know how to say it any more direct: If nothing changes, Trump’s gonna have to use the military option, because time is running out,” Graham said.
Some may dismiss such talk as designed to support a bully-boy bluff from Trump. But remember this is coming from Lindsey Graham, a man who has never been reluctant to consider shooting wars as a lively option, particularly in faraway lands:
Graham downplayed concerns that the eruption of hostilities between the U.S. and North Korea could kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Korea and put tens of thousands of American troops stationed in Seoul in harm’s war, saying Trump needs to think about the American homeland first.
“Put yourself in President Trump’s shoes for a moment — where does your allegiance lie?” he said. “Isn’t your primary purpose as President of the United States to protect the American homeland from a nuclear weapon attack by a guy like Kim Jong-un? … He’s gonna pick homeland defense over regional stability and he has to.”
The unthinkable isn’t unthinkable to Graham or to Trump, and both are locked into a strategy that makes war with the equally implacable North Koreans a good, if horrifying, bet for the near future.