When president Trump threatened North Korea with "fire and fury like the world has never seen" virtually everybody objected to his intemperate overreaction. Though he shouldn't have spoken carelessly – making a bad situation worse by goading Kim Jong-un into ever greater provocations – critics shouldn't dismiss out of hand the possible merits of a preemptive nuclear strike. Except that, if it were the right thing to do it would be right for different reasons than any president Trump has yet articulated.
Most discussion frames the North Korean crisis as if it were about nuclear deterrence. Missiles, a balance of terror calculation, Armageddon – all familiar tropes. But deterrence takes care of itself. This time, the crisis is just about proliferation. Specifically, the proliferation of miniature nuclear bombs.
The potential proliferation of mini nukes is a relatively new global threat, one that becomes exponentially more complicated with each additional authoritarian state that operates an assembly line. Preventing such proliferation involves a vexing paradox: up to a point diplomacy can help, even if only to postpone the inevitable. But beyond a necessarily ambiguous moment, diplomacy – public or private – tends to further incentivize speed, concealment, lax controls and prevarication. That's because increasingly urgent communications signal a looming preemptive attack.
Some mini nukes could be distributed with intent, clandestinely. Some could be lost 'accidentally on purpose' from a bulging inventory. (The biggest worry in the case of Pakistan.) Some could just plain be lost, or stolen. Some could be sold to the highest bidder. Once Kim Jong-un fully masters miniaturization techniques and possesses more than a handful of mini nukes he will of course weigh alternative delivery options. And sanctions-resistant revenue streams.
Mini nukes can be small, smaller than man-sized. Enemies could successfully smuggle them anywhere, by land or sea. If a mini nuke detonated, say, in Washington D.C., but without any claims of responsibility, what could we do? Did the bomb originate in North Korea? Pakistan? Russia? "Wherever"? Using technical methods we could identify suspects but not with complete certainty.
Diplomacy might not work. A surgical military strike won't work in North Korea, due to its obstinate opacity. The hope that we could win a carefully calibrated low level conflict is, frankly, ridiculous. The military option boils down to a sudden, massive, overwhelming attack. Real annihilation. Kim Jong-un has made North Korea into a test case. We can't delay forever. Without a diplomatic solution it seems we face a binary choice: act preemptively or take the first hit ourselves.
To paraphrase the immortal words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, with apologies, "president thou never wert". Given the president's long and voluminous history of avoiding responsibility it is logical to suppose he will do all he can to avoid responsibility for a nuclear war. He doesn't mean his threats unless Kim Jong-un makes the horrible mistake of attacking first. The president has had enough briefings to understand the part about an historic decision taken at the highest strategic level. But he doesn't care about the part where he makes things worse by talking too much. His threats demonstrate casual cruelty, not courage.
"We reserve all our options" or variations thereof being the most that should be said before a preemptive strike, the president would be encumbered by an equal obligation afterward to explain it. But president Trump's incapacity for statesmanship, for genuine toughness, would make it impossible for him to explain the annihilation of North Korea gracefully, with tact, dignity, wisdom and regret. No sane individual wants to incinerate millions of innocent North Koreans or inflict tremendous collateral damage in north east Asia (including, by the way, the harm to a lot of Americans who happen to live at ground zero). Yet that may be exactly the grim decision that skilled leadership requires.
A lot of people make a good living constantly proving that there's nothing new under the sun. Well, here's a brand new conundrum that deserves a little more serious attention, both from the Washington establishment and from the media. It's the nightmare that's kept a few government employees up at night for years. Now it's time for us all to worry.