Tough talk is not strategy

President Trump used more of his “tough talk” on Tuesday and this time instead of the target being TV pundits or fellow Republicans, North Korea was his target.  Rather than argue the merits of Trump’s rhetoric, here’s what I’ve been thinking about in regards to U.S. strategy to deal with North Korea.

One of the most extreme options gleefully tossed about by saber-rattlers, many of whom are blathering bimbos and know nothing about military strategy, history or much else, besides cheering on “Trump being Trump”, is advocating a preemptive strike on North Korea’s missile sites.

Let’s be clear, despite semantical tap dancing, a preemptive strike is an act of war.

Unemotionally evaluating options is how I approach strategic-thinking, so in coming up with options, we need to understand the terms and what they mean in terms of military force.  While some pundit experts advocate using the preemptive strike option to curtail North Korea’s nuclear capability and couch it in terms of being almost a risk-free effort that will prevent war in general, nuclear holocaust in specific, and be a version of “deterrence”, let me repeat:

A preemptive strike is an act of war.

It’s an option, but so often with U.S. military strategy dealing with cultures that are very different than American and western culture, our strategists end up completely taken by surprise when their well-intentioned, competently executed strategies end up mired in many unforeseen and complicated consequences. For a primer in this outcome just sit back and take apart the evolving U.S. “war on terror”, or however you want to describe our military actions since 9/11.

Our leaders still regale us with the #1, #2, even #3 top Islamist leaders killed, but as John McCreary and other strategic experts have pointed out – decapitation strategy does not defeat Islamist terrorist groups.  They quickly find a new leader, often rebrand under a new name and the trend is the new version is more violent and difficult to deal with than the previous.  You would think that all military strategists worth their salt would have put this in their “lessons learned” file, but nope, many still tout this as a selling point for their “kill them all” strategic offerings.

Just as with Islamist terrorists groups, with North Korea, the United States doesn’t have good strategic options.  The countries that can impact North Korean behavior, China and Russia, are adversarial to the United States and would prefer that our strategies fall flat.  Beyond the big picture geopolitics, there are plenty of other factors that impact how China and Russia view the North Korean situation.  Even something like China looking at a potential North Korean refugee crisis on their doorstep, if the North Korean regime collapses, influences how China deals with North Korea.

After listening to punditry experts from the Trump tough talkers to the Clinton apologists, to the Obama leading-from-behind crowd, since Tuesday, I was thinking of Waco of all things.  How the Clinton administration handled Waco still bothers me and not because I have any sympathy for David Koresh or dislike of the ATF, but because there were children caught in the middle of an armed confrontation.

The airwaves were filled with experts selling everything, from blow up the compound to using tanks, to playing loud music as psychological warfare, and nothing got Koresh to surrender.

I don’t remember the academic’s name, but I saw him on a TV news show talking about apocalyptic cults and movements in history and he described the psychology of apocalyptic leaders.  I told my mother in a phone conversation that all they’re doing is feeding his apocalyptic delusions and he will die rather than surrender.

So, after almost two decades of dealing with a larger apocalyptic movement, with leaders who revere those who die for the cause, why are many of our strategic thinkers perplexed by the regeneration of these groups, no matter how many times we kill their top leaders?

For Christians and Jews, this concept that persecution feeds the faith should be easy to recognize.  The early Christian church fortified its faithful with heroic tales of those individuals, who stood strong against overwhelming force.  With apocalyptic movements, dying for the cause feeds the cause and in the case of  Islamists, they have the Islamic religious teachings that ground their actions.  They have a much larger pool of potential followers than a lone kook like David Koresh.

I’m not a psychologist and I sure am not an expert on North Korea, but after listening to so much tough talk in the past couple days, I think that we need a careful study of the possible outcomes from any U.S. policy courses we could follow, from appeasement up to taking out the regime.  We need to study the various U.S. and other countries actions in regards to North Korea, in recent decades, and carefully study what the North Korean reactions were.  We need to consult experts on paranoid delusion, because North Korea is not only a totalitarian, Stalinist regime, it has so oppressed its people, that there are millions of North Koreans steeped in a life controlled by ruthless propaganda, fear and intimidation.  They are thoroughly indoctrinated.  These people aren’t going to rise up and embrace liberators.  Just like when the U.S defeated the Taliban or when Saddam was removed, the initial euphoria quickly evaporated and what we faced were people who distrusted us and who were used to being controlled.  Many found more affinity with Islamist resistance groups than with U.S. troops occupying their countries.

And the other thing I was thinking is that we need to talk with the people who will be most impacted by any actions we take in regards to North Korea – South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.  This is not a time for reckless rhetoric; it’s a time for careful, serious strategic planning.  It’s also a time for robust diplomacy.

A miscalculation on how we think North Korea will react could be way more catastrophic than the Clinton administration miscalculation on how David Koresh would react.  We have tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the line of fire and Seoul is less than 200 miles from North Korea.  Things could escalate quickly and President Trump doesn’t concern himself with “details”.  Any missteps or hiccups in decision-making could cost a lot of lives, very quickly.

The thing that President Clinton did that infuriated me the most was before he made decisions, he put his finger to the wind, to test how it would reflect on his popularity in the polls.  This morning on Twitter I saw Todd Starnes had a poll:  “Should the United States launch a first strike against North Korea?”  It infuriated me, because the question of a first strike isn’t about looking “tough” – it’s WAR.  Assuredly, it is NOT a decision to be made based on opinion polls!

I was 19 years old, assigned to a Pershing missile unit in Germany in 1980.  I knew nothing about the Army, U.S nuclear strategy or war.  A very good 1st sergeant taught me the single most important lesson on all three.

He told me, “Kid, war is serious business!”

I realized that I knew nothing about war, so I started signing books out at the post library and reading.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading about military strategy since then. I realized long ago, there’s always more to learn and new perspectives to think about.

Perhaps, at the very least our president could take time out from golfing and watching “the shows” on TV to do some serious studying U.S. strategy, because he is the commander-in-chief.   President Trump is responsible for making these decisions, not the generals surrounding him.

The decisions he makes could cost thousands of American lives and the lives of hundreds of thousands children.

Time to quit with the petty posturing, buckle down, study policy, read some history and LEAD, Mr. President.



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Filed under Foreign Policy, General Interest, Military, Politics

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