As State of the Union coverage was in full swing on Tuesday night, another story was quietly breaking in Washington: The Trump Administration’s once-likely nominee for the critical post of Ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, was apparently out of the running.
Cha is a former leader on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and a professor at Georgetown University; folks on both sides of the aisle consider him a foremost North Korea expert. Unfortunately, he appears to have been removed from consideration for the ambassadorship largely because he disagrees with the Trump Administration’s consideration of a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea.
The “bloody nose” idea is essentially the thought that Kim Jong Un’s regime can be deterred from further nuclear and missile testing and development by a preemptive strike on government or military targets. It is likely an appealing strategy to President Trump, a man obsessed with shows of strength and telegenic conflict. He received nothing but praise from the media for a similar strike on Syria in April of last year, despite the fact that it did absolutely nothing to further a military or political endgame in that civil war.
There are numerous problems and almost incalculable risk associated with the “bloody nose” idea. For one thing, the deterrent benefit of a limited strike hinges on the ability of the enemy to understand that it is, in fact, limited. We know little about North Korea’s defenses and have no way to be sure that Kim Jong Un would be able to differentiate, say, a conventional strike from a nuclear one. Additionally, with channels of communication between Washington and Pyongyang anything but clear, there would be no surefire way to clarify to Kim that incoming missiles were a warning shot rather than the start of his personal Armageddon.
Moreover, even if Kim did understand he was being hit with a limited strike, we have no way to know he wouldn’t react with escalatory behavior anyway. His regime is obsessed with projecting strength and defiance, meaning that he could respond by accelerating nuclear production - or by lobbing conventional or even nuclear weapons towards Seoul or Tokyo. If he chose force, more than 70,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan would be in immediate danger, along with millions of civilians living in countries the United States is treaty-obligated to defend. It seems almost impossible to see how a military response by North Korea would not escalate into an all out war that could easily draw in other major regional players (including nuclear-armed China).
Would-be Ambassador Cha knows all this and more; he laid out a far more robust accounting of the possible consequences as well as a full alternative strategy in a Washington Post op-ed piece just this week. Unfortunately, his expertise appears to have fallen on deaf ears in the Trump Administration - and this is part of a wider pattern and problem with how the administration approaches the broader world.
In the Trump orbit, it’s not just government by the rampantly corrupt (a Health and Human Services Secretary accused of insider trading drug company stocks), flagrantly hypocritical (Centers for Disease Control Director who invests in tobacco), grossly abhorrent (an AmeriCorps head who went on racist radio rants), or cartoonishly bizarre (a “deputy assistant,” with no discernable value-add, allegedly wanted by the Hungarian police). On top of all these recent examples and more, it is the active rejection of experience and expertise that is harming America’s ability to do good in the world. This is, to be sure, compounded by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s crippling of the State Department and President Trump’s own insistence that he knows all which is knowable - but the hard pass on Victor Cha’s skills and knowledge in exchange for a military strategy that will lead to ruin sums it up concisely.
This systemic problem - a deep rot born of arrogance and incompetence - within the Trump Administration cannot be solved overnight, if at all. So for now, as the search for a qualified, level-headed Ambassador to South Korea starts anew, the most important thing we can do as citizens is to demand reason and restraint in the face of any possible conflict with North Korea. The “bloody nose” strategy is ill-suited to the nature of the enemy and the fragility of the situation. But until cooler heads and wiser minds can prevail, it puts us at a deadly serious risk.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.