On Preventing War with North Korea

by Jim Geraghty

In today’s Jolt, making the click-through worth your while: Trump’s critics forget how deterrence works, how Google radicalized New York Times columnist David Brooks, and why being an outrage-driven social justice warrior appeals to the lazy.

This is the last Jim-written Morning Jolt until August 21. I will return with either an awesome tale of an ambitious family vacation or just rocking back and forth and murmuring, “we’re never taking the kids on a long flight again, we’re never taking the kids on a long flight again.”

Convenient Amnesia on How Deterrence Works

This morning, President Trump tweeted, “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!” Unsurprisingly, this is causing Trump critics to freak out.

Begin with the assumption that we do not want to fight a war on the Korean peninsula. If we want to avoid that, we need to deter North Korea from taking any other actions that will be so provocative, they will require retaliation. If North Korea were to hit Guam, sink a U.S. naval vessel, or fire artillery at American troops in South Korea, failure to retaliate would be to declare a form of surrender; it would demonstrate we and our allies fear war so intensely that we are willing to accept loss of life to avoid it. Of course, this effectively gives the green light to more acts of military aggression.

As mentioned yesterday, North Korea’s recent history is littered with aggressive acts that have killed and injured South Korean soldiers and civilians. The regime announced this week it was considering launching long-range missiles toward, but not directly at, Guam. And our intelligence agencies now think they have successfully miniaturized devices.

Each of those individual risks – North Korea’s habitual unpredictable aggression, their possession of nuclear weapons (that may or may not work), their missiles that can hit the United States – is separately a tolerable problem but collectively, they represent a risk that the American people cannot accept.

The only way deterrence works is if the other guy gets convinced that you’re willing to actually fight. In a game of chicken, the only way the other guy swerves is if he’s convinced you’re not afraid to have a head-on collision.

In other words, to preserve peace, North Korea has to believe that the United States is completely willing and able to fight a war, and fight it until the regime in Pyongyang is destroyed.

It is worth noting at this point that neither side is declaring an intention for a first strike. Neither side is likely to do this, because that would cost the element of surprise to announce it in advance. All of the heated rhetoric about “fire and fury” and “final doom” is basically an exchange of pledges for a devastating counterattack if the other side strikes first. While both sides are capable of launching a devastating counterattack, it is worth noting that there is in imbalance in that devastation. If North Korea did their worst, it would be terrible for South Korea, very bad for Japan, and bad for the United States. But if America and its allies inflicted their worst, North Korea would cease to exist.

For what it’s worth, none of the Korea policy experts quoted by the Washington Post think war is imminent.

‘He Should Seek a Non-Leadership Position.’

Well, now you’ve done it, Google. You’ve gone and radicalized New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The mob that hounded [fired Google engineer James] Damore was like the mobs we’ve seen on a lot of college campuses. We all have our theories about why these moral crazes are suddenly so common. I’d say that radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general is producing intense anxiety. Some people embrace moral absolutism in a desperate effort to find solid ground. They feel a rare and comforting sense of moral certainty when they are purging an evil person who has violated one of their sacred taboos . . . 

Google CEO Sundar Pichai fired Damore and wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not O.K.”

That is a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo. Damore wrote nothing like that about his Google colleagues. Either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob.

Regardless which weakness applies, this episode suggests he should seek a non-leadership position. We are at a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats. That’s when we need good leaders most.

When a guy fouls up like that, you know what consequence is coming: Brooks will never take him to his favorite fancy Italian sandwich shop.

Who Has ‘Radical Uncertainty about Morality, Meaning and Life’?

Let’s pick at that paragraph from Brooks about “radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general,” because it feels like there’s still some meat on that bone, so to speak. One of the periodic complaints I find myself expressing about American society as I get older is the fear that the search for novelty and “edginess” has driven too many voices to celebrate our villains and demonize our heroes.

Think about anyone who’s been targeted by a social justice warrior online mob for writing or saying something offensive or controversial, and think about the consequences for their actions compared to society’s more infamous figures. Chris Brown walks the streets a free man with the music industry and his fans collectively choosing to forget his brutal beating of Rihanna. Ray Lewis pled guilty to lying to police in exchange for prosecutors dropping a charge of murder; when his playing days were over he worked for ESPN and now does commentary on Fox Sports One. (Quite a few people will point to the current president as a giant inversion of American values. Whatever else you think of him, he is not a polite, respectful, humble, or gracious man.)

Speaking generally, conservatives probably don’t feel like they too are experiencing  “radical uncertainty about morality, meaning and life in general.” The nice thing about being a traditionalist is that you don’t need to constantly revise what you think based on the latest trends. The right thing to do yesterday is still the right thing to do today, and it will be right tomorrow.

I suspect the social justice mobs target a random Google programmer, or Lena Dunham publicly indicts random American Airlines employees for “transphobic talk” she claims to have overheard, because these are very easy targets and very easy “problems” to solve. Society has no shortage of real problems: drug addiction, poverty, homelessness, crime, lack of economic opportunity, those who need counseling or mental health treatment, angry young men lashing out with random violence at strangers, radicalized groups plotting violence on a mass scale.

Experience has taught us that all of those problems are difficult to solve, and many are intertwined. Oftentimes our efforts to solve those problems take two steps forward and then one step back, or they solve one problem but create another. The “broken windows” theory of police work drives down crime rates, but then policemen put Eric Garner in a chokehold for selling cigarettes without a license, and people wonder if the strict enforcement of minor laws has gone too far. Trying to solve any of society’s real problems requires determination, flexibility, empathy, and most of all, patience.

By comparison, whipping up a froth of anger around some random person, with no high-powered lawyers, media friends, or money, over a perceived sexism, racism, transphobia, etcetera, that’s quick and easy! It’s a simple story, usually resolved in a matter of days: Someone commits the thought-crime, the social justice warrior discovers it, calls attention to it, the denunciations and outrage grows until some authority, usually the employer, fires the person as punishment. Then the social justice warriors celebrate; someone has paid a serious financial and reputational price for daring to offend them. Then they move on, looking for the next one. To be a social justice keyboard warrior, you don’t need much determination, flexibility, or patience, and you certainly don’t need empathy. All you need is anger.

ADDENDA: Sometime in the near future, appearing in this space: an edition of the pop culture podcast discussing how every big media company seems to want its own streaming service, Amazon’s Communist-mocking Comrade Detective, upcoming fall television shows from the inspired to the idiotic, and our listeners’ picks for the best commercials of all time.

The Morning Jolt

By Jim Geraghty