National Security & Defense

The Corner

What Trump’s North Korea Tweets Mean and Don’t Mean

Last night Donald Trump continued his presidential tradition of responding to North Korean taunts and provocations with taunts of his own. Responding to Kim Jong Un’s Monday boast that “the entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk,” Trump tweeted the following:

Why aren’t people reacting offline the way so many are reacting online — with fear and outrage? I’d submit that it’s because most people know the difference between bluster and an actual cocked pistol. When millions of people were streaming into the streets to try to stop the Iraq War, they were marching at the same time that more than 100,000 American troops were pouring into the Middle East. The preparations for war were open and obvious. 

What about now? No one appears to be making serious preparations for war. There are no known large-scale troop movements, and aside from the occasional show of force fly-by Air Force jets, there are no known significant movements of aerial assets. Our two wars against Saddam Hussein (a weaker opponent) were preceded by large-scale troop buildups, and given the risks of even a limited strike against North Korea, it’s difficult to imagine that we’d risk launching a second Korean War without at least deploying additional South Korean and American assets. 

This reality, however, cuts both ways. Absent preparation, Trump’s tweets come across as bluster. They lack credibility. North Korea is legendary for its wild, over-the-top threats and ridiculous rhetoric. In fact, its rhetoric is so fanciful that a Twitter parody account consistently fools even prestige media into believing it speaks for the North Korean regime. It’s often genuinely hard to discern between truth and comedy. With his tweets, Trump is devolving into Kim Jong Un’s verbal sparring partner, and — as time passes — the world is learning to take his words just as seriously. In fact, test yourself. If Trump tweets and General Mattis speaks, which person do you want to hear from the most? 

Thus, the main effects of Trump’s tweets are to stoke the online outrage machine, impair his credibility, and to unsettle a certain number of well-meaning Americans. They’re not unsettled enough to take to the streets, obviously, but they’re unsettled nonetheless. This is a problem, not a crisis, but it’s a problem entirely of Trump’s making. Mr. President, put down that phone. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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