After his threat to “totally destroy North Korea,” Trump upped the ante in his game of “whataboutism”—a form of logical jiu-jitsu used to win arguments by changing the subject. Americans must beware of Trump’s whataboutism or risk going to war.
Donald Trump is a master of deflection. If an issue he disagrees with comes to the forefront, he most often attacks with a Tweet, name calling, or a claim of fake news. He attempts to deflect attention by alleging some malfeasance in a totally different area. His recent call for a second special prosecutor to investigate Robert Mueller and the FBI is an example.
With the Mueller investigation closing in on Trump’s and his minions’ possible collusion with the Russians, beware of the ultimate deflection—a conflict (war) with North Korea. This even though the overt war of words between Trump and “Rocket Man” has lessened.
History is full of rulers, autocrats, and populists who “manufacture” foreign adversaries (even if they’re real) as a way to rally people and divert their attention from domestic issues.
Hitler, as a populist, diverted attention after WWI by blaming countries in Europe for much of Germany’s economic and domestic woes. WWII resulted.
As things deteriorated domestically and the price of oil tanked, Vladimir Putin diverted attention by invading East Ukraine and annexing Crimea. Russians rallied around their flag and motherland.
In Argentina, dictator Leopoldo Galtieri cracked down on political opposition by launching “the dirty war,” in which nearly 9,000 left-wing extremists were “disappeared.” As Argentinians railed against those actions, Galtieri diverted their attention by invading the Falkland Islands and engaging in a 78-day war with Britain. (I learned this firsthand when I taught at the Argentine War College in Buenos Aires. Senior military students were told the decision to invade the Falklands was totally misguided and a political attempt to divert attention away from domestic problems.)
Make no mistake by thinking matters here could never get as bad as these examples. Trump, Stephen Miller, and other political cronies may very well use the North Korean situation to their political advantage by making Trump look and act like a Pattonesque strongman. Diplomacy be damned.
Trump’s choice of words in dealing with North Korea are incendiary, dangerous, and totally misguided—like throwing gasoline on a fire. If he decides the Mueller investigation jeopardizes his presidency and business empire, he may well deflect attention by firing Mueller. Or, he may pull the ultimate deflection from his playbook and get us into an intended or untended shooting match with North Korea.
From a personal perspective, I’ve been to Korea four times on “business.” If you’ve been there too, you know that millions of South Koreans live within 25-35 miles of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and within artillery range of 20,000+ North Korean artillery pieces dug into rock caves. And those are just the conventional weapons.
We can always hope Trump’s generals—James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly—and other seasoned professionals in the national security community can persuade Trump to use information, economics, and diplomacy instead of military might. But do not be surprised if he pulls the ultimate deflection and uses the military dimension of U.S. power.
These are extremely dangerous times, and it is up to us, as citizens, to wake up, intervene with our political decision makers, and stop this march toward a military solution. It is far more preferable to pursue and enlist committed support from South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the UN, and other countries.
Using military force is always an option, but it should also always be the last one.
Dr. Robert E. Neilson holds a PhD in Public Policy/Public Administration. Though retired now, he taught graduate courses for more than 17 years at the National Defense University, where he was also department head.