The crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs now builds to a perilous pitch with no precedent in at least two decades. There are two features of this regress that are essential to recognize in order to understand why Northeast Asia is where Washington’s policy cliques now announce a new passage in the grand scandal of American foreign policy.
One, there is nothing inevitable about the ticking-clock emergency now unfolding on the Korean Peninsula. It has been induced. As suggested in an earlier column, the current crisis—in one or another form, at one or another velocity—was more or less scheduled to proceed no matter who took the White House last November. Two, this latest confrontation in Northeast Asia cannot be viewed in isolation. A chain of events lies behind it. It is necessary to recognize how these events are linked if we are to understand that the policy cliques are about to add one more failure to the pile they have long insisted on accumulating.
I will begin at the beginning.
The morning after that cruise-missile attack on Syria two weeks back, a well-wired source I have known for more than a quarter of a century telephoned from Washington with an advisory. “Don’t miss the way Trump and Tillerson timed the announcement of the attack on the Shayrat airfield,” he urged. “They were at Mar-a-Lago. Xi Jinping had just arrived for his summit. This wasn’t happenstance. It’s all about China’s insistence that the US open talks with North Korea.”
His implication was quickly clear. To cast the point in historical terms, Shayrat is to Beijing as Hiroshima was to Moscow long ago, the message on both occasions being, “This is what we’ve got. This is what we’re prepared to do.”
Within hours of that exchange, the head of the Pacific Command, the ever-belligerent Adm. Harry Harris, ordered—however bungled the order, we now learn—the USS Carl Vinson, a carrier-strike group, to waters off the Korean Peninsula. The following Tuesday, President Trump tweeted, “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! USA.” A day later, Trump gave Fox Business Network an interview in which he went most of the way to confirming my source’s suggestion that the attack on Shayrat was intended, to a considerable extent, as a message to the Chinese. “Mr. President, let me explain something to you,” Trump recalled telling Xi. “We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away.” This was over dessert, Trump took evident delight in elaborating, “and we had the most beautiful chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.”