We used to laugh at the clownish, buffoonish rhetoric that came out of North Korea, with its dire threats to wreak catastrophic destruction on its enemies. "If the United States dares tease our nation with a nuclear weapon and sanctions," NK officials said just this week, "the mainland United States will be catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.”
I mean, only cartoon villains and numbskulls talk like that, right?
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” a grim-faced President Trump told reporters Tuesday, his arms hugging himself tight. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. (Kim Jong Un) has been very threatening, beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Taken on its face, that's pretty extraordinary: If North Korea dares to continue its bellicose language, we'll go nuclear? And as it turns out, North Korea does indeed dare. A few hours later, it strode across Trump's newly drawn red line by announcing that it was considering a missile strike against the U.S. territory of Guam, warning that it would create an "enveloping fire" on the island where important U.S. military bases are located.
On Wednesday morning, Trump then returned fire:
The problem is that statement isn't true, and anybody with any degree of knowledge on the issue knows it isn't true. Our nuclear arsenal is certainly massive, capable of wiping North Korea off the map many times over. However, it is by no means "far stronger and more powerful than ever before" thanks to Trump. It hasn't changed even a whit from when Trump took office in January.
Yes, a long-term, trillion-dollar modernization effort is underway, but it began at the direction of President Obama and has yet to have an impact. Yes, Trump signed an executive order in January telling the Pentagon to study whether our nuclear deterrent is "modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats," but if that study is actually underway, it has yet to produce a single recommendation, let alone be acted upon.
In short, Trump is once again lying. His statement is bluster and bluff, and what's more it is easily exposed as bluster and bluff. And that creates a variety of difficulties.
1.) Bluff and bluster traps the bluffer: If you read through the leaked transcript of Trump's private conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, you saw Trump trying to squirm his way out of his campaign promise to build that infamous wall and make Mexico pay for it. The wall was the "the least important thing we are talking about," he admitted privately to Peña Nieto, but he also admitted that because of his campaign rhetoric, he had to keep pretending to demand it. The only person whose freedom of movement is affected by that wall is Trump himself.
Likewise, when Trump threatens nuclear armageddon, it increases the pressure to carry through with that threat, or at least pretend to do so. And that's not something that you can take lightly.
2.) It further undercuts Trump's already shredded credibility: U.S. Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Trump's language Tuesday but also brushed it aside, saying he no longer puts much credence in the president's statements anyway. American voters are increasingly coming to the same conclusion, and after watching Trump for six months, foreign leaders are too. This American president talks loudly, but he carries a tiny stick.
3.) It's one thing for a paranoid, highly isolated pariah state such as North Korea to indulge itself in such childish rhetoric. We're the United States, the leader of the free world, the guarantor of global stability. We're supposed to be the responsible party in this situation, the sane and reasonable one. But that's not how we're acting, nor is it how we're perceived.
"The most disruptive force in the world today is the United States of America,” says Michael Hayden, CIA director under President George W. Bush and one of a number of Republican foreign-policy officials appalled at the incompetence of this administration.
4.) Bluster can be useful when used as part of a well-thought-out plan. In North Korea's case, for example, bluster is clearly a conscious national strategy, and they use it well. In Trump's case, though, this is bluster attempting to substitute for a plan. This is bluster because it feels good, bluster because you have no idea what else to do.
And by this point in the game, everybody knows it.