What Trump must learn from Hawaii

By Bonnie Kristian

Saturday morning, Hawaii woke up to the worst-case scenario. Across everyone’s phone screens flashed an all-caps message from the state’s emergency agency: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

It would take 12 minutes, from 8:07 a.m. to 8:19 a.m., for any government figure to publicly state the alert was a false alarm. That initial response came from the Twitter account of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and it was fully 38 minutes before a second text message finally confirmed to panicking Hawaiians and tourists that they were not, in fact, about to get hit by a ballistic missile.

In Hawaii, the aftermath of the false alarm was that rare sense of communal camaraderie that sometimes bubbles up among us. But here on the mainland, we quickly got down to the business of pointing fingers—or, more specifically, debating whether they ought to be pointed at the White House.

In the immediate sense, of course, the answer is no. The false alarm was triggered because, as Hawaii’s governor put it, someone “pushed the wrong button” during what was supposed to be a routine test. The mistake was local. It did not come from Washington. President Trump had nothing to do with designing, implementing, or managing the alert system, and there is no way he or his administration could have prevented this.

But that does not mean the Trump administration—and specifically, those establishment hawks within it who are foolishly pushing for preventive war on North Korea—is free of culpability.

As many have noted, had the same false alarm been sounded in years prior, Hawaiians would have been more circumspect. Many would still have taken cover, and wisely so, but there can be no doubt that months of reckless escalation in U.S.-North Korea relations contributed mightily to Saturday’s terror. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in particular have been beating the drums of war since summer; Hawaiians were not unreasonable to suppose they drew Pyongyang into their deadly rhythm.

More important than laying blame, however, is the task of ensuring this false alarm is never made real.

Gabbard, a military veteran whose foreign affairs realism is informed by her deployments to Iraq and Kuwait, wasted no time in arguing for a more responsible foreign policy to keep her constituents (and all Americans) safe from an actual North Korean strike.

“The people of Hawaii are paying the price now for decades of failed leadership in this country, of failure to directly negotiate [with North Korea], to prevent us from getting to this point where we're dealing with this threat today, setting unrealistic preconditions," she said on ABC’s This Week. Gabbard called on the president to “sit across the table from [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un without preconditions, work out the differences, figure out a way to build this pathway towards denuclearization, because there is so much at stake.”

What happened Saturday in Hawaii was awful, but it is child’s play compared to the horror preventive war guarantees, and Gabbard is right that deterrence and diplomacy is our surest guarantor of security and peace.

Though he is notoriously changeable on this subject, at least in his public statements, Trump at times seems to realize this, too. He spoke favorably of personal negotiations with Kim in a Wall Street Journal interview published this week, a comment in keeping with his semi-regular proposal of direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang. In November, for example, Trump said “sitting down with people is not a bad thing” and he is “certainly be open to doing that” with Kim.

That impulse is correct, and Trump must not let McMaster, Haley, and other advisers of their ilk deter him from that course.

Trump would also do well to take note of Gabbard’s shrewd argument Sunday that setting over-harsh preconditions for diplomacy with Pyongyang is a self-defeating stance for Washington. For diplomacy to be successful here, Gabbard explained, there can’t be preconditions like, “saying ‘North Korea, we're only going to talk to you if you first get rid of your nuclear weapons.’ What would be the point of having a conversation if they get rid of their nuclear weapons? There would be nothing to talk about at that point.” Indeed, if the goal of the talks is to address Kim’s nuclear development, it is bizarre to demand, as Haley did earlier this month, that North Korea “agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have” before the talks begin.

Also key to the success of nuclear negotiations is for Washington to recognize Pyongyang’s conception of nukes as a means of regime change deterrence.

Gabbard made this point in her arguments Sunday, and Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a conservative military historian, has similarly described North Korean nuclear development as a “huge game of blackmail.” Contra his elaborate boasts, Bacevich says, Kim presides over “an exceedingly weak and arguably very fragile regime” whose “principle objective is to remain in power.” Trump, who campaigned on his opposition to ill-advised regime change efforts in Iraq and Libya, should understand this, too.

If we are to avoid making Saturday’s scare come true, the Trump administration must learn from recent foreign policy failures to pursue a prudent course of de-escalation with Pyongyang, trusting that America’s diplomacy is part of her might, and that war is not the only, first, or best option in our toolkit of defense.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report on January 16, 2018. Read more HERE.