By Robert Moore
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump gained some of his strongest support - and criticism - for his promises of "winning so much" if elected to the Presidency. While this rhetoric was largely scoffed at by the Washington establishment, many Americans identified with this hope after decades of political paralysis and economic uncertainty at home and seemingly endless wars abroad, and it helped propel Trump to the White House.
Ironically, what could be the biggest political threat to the Trump presidency now, even amidst the daily controversy and seeming dysfunction coming out of the White House, is the failure to live up to his lofty “winning” campaign promises by waging a preemptive war on North Korea.
That the U.S. military would be able to defeat North Korean forces in strictly tactical terms is undisputed. However, it is beyond such a narrow definition of warfare and success where the political danger lies for Trump. As much as the public may appreciate a president who is willing to talk tougher and more definitively, Americans by and large are not prepared for the war we would most likely face in on the Korean Peninsula. Contrary to the advice that the President is getting from his national security team, the immediate and long-term costs of such a war would be astronomical in terms of blood, time, and treasure—and would severely hamper his domestic agenda and electoral prospects.
In the event of a conflict with North Korea, the immediate concern would become the estimated amount of life that could be lost, especially if the North Korean conventional arsenals are in functioning order. Over the past 40 years, the American people have become accustomed to conflicts with relatively small casualties when compared to our preceding military engagements. The potential casualties amongst the thousands of U.S. service-members and their families in South Korea and Japan, not to mention the millions of innocent people living in the Pacific region, would be of a catastrophic level that most Americans have never experienced—and that would just be in the first days.
Then there is the impact of a possible Chinese intervention, as they possess a much more capable military than their North Korean counterparts. If China became involved it would greatly exacerbate the cost and duration for the United States while putting an advantageous resolution in even greater doubt. Because of their geographical proximity, China would be able to escalate with personnel and logistics much quicker than our military from the other side of the world.
While it is not certain what the Chinese would do, there are several important reasons why the president’s advisors should more closely consider their possible reactions.
China has long held the closest relations to North Korea of any country in the region, and along with mutual agreements that could legally compel the Chinese to defend Pyongyang, political concerns may not allow them to stand idle as a conflict erupts in their back yard. The government in Beijing has become wed to the concept of renewed Chinese leadership in the Pacific and global influence, and a failure to deliver would weaken their hold on domestic power.
Further, the potential of a united Korea allied with the United States—with American troops on its border—is troubling for a Chinese regime attempting to assert its interests. While the United States and China may agree in a general sense about the North Korean’s development of nuclear weapons, Washington and Beijing are far from seeing eye-to-eye on a solution, much less the political end state following a military intervention. Yet for some reason, those closest to President Trump downplay these political factors and act dismissive towards any Chinese concerns. As the first Korean War should tell us, they do so at great peril.
The Chinese may also intervene to prevent a catastrophic humanitarian crisis from becoming their problem. Any regime decapitation in North Korea or weakening of the central government could trigger a massive migration of hungry and sick refugees towards the north. China would be ill equipped both materially and politically to deal with such a crisis and would act decisively in a preventative nature if necessary.
Such a humanitarian disaster would be yet another political concern for President Trump. While he swore off “nation building” during his campaign, it is difficult to imagine the United States watching idle as millions of people starve or sticking some of our closest allies with the responsibility of cleaning up. Even under the best of conditions, a stabilization and recovery effort on the peninsula would be a monumental undertaking of enormous expense and time.
President Trump should recognize the political risk posed by involving the United States in a costly, casualty-heavy, and prolonged conflict overseas. Whether it was his business acumen or his personal feelings during the primary campaign, Trump recognized the public’s weariness of internationalist-dominated foreign policy in Washington and wars in the Middle East. His “America First” brand foreswore costly interventions into the concerns of other nations and would refocus our government’s efforts on vital priorities at home, distinguishing him from other candidates.
Yet by undertaking a preventive attack on North Korea absent an imminent threat, President Trump would be mortgaging his legacy and his ability to govern by walking away from the promises that brought him to the White House. The role of a statesman is to know how and when power should be applied or restraint and prudence be shown, and candidate Trump showed those instincts during his campaign. He should consider all options to deter the North Korean threat before embarking on a plan that would make him look even less like a winner than the predecessors he maligned.
Robert Moore is a policy advisor at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on January 18, 2018. Read more HERE.