August 16, 2017



An international crisis, if handled deftly and quickly by a sitting president, invariably revives or bolsters that president's standing and popularity. John Kennedy got a spike after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. George H.W. Bush got a spike after the 1991 Gulf War. George W. Bush got a spike after Sept. 11.

With Donald Trump's approval rating now hovering under 40 percent, the president desperately needs a spike. What he doesn't need a thermo-nuclear war, with the megalomaniac dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, dropping one of his ten nuclear-tipped missiles on Guam and on Seoul, South Korea.

In the 1962 situation, when the Soviet Union shipped dozens of intercontinental ballistic missiles to Cuba and began assembling the nuclear missiles, which had a strike capacity of Washington and the entire U.S. eastern seaboard, Kennedy had three options: (1) A surgical air strike, which meant bombing the missile sites and killing all the Soviet technicians; (2) a military invasion, which could have taken days to reach the missile site; or (3) a diplomatic solution, which eventually occurred, whereby the U.S. pulled its ICBMs out of Turkey, the Soviets all their ICBMs out of Cuba, and the U.S. gave a no-invasion pledge.

Unfortunately for Trump, he has only two of those three options. A diplomatic solution is improbable. The U.S., along with most of the Western world, has been imposing economic sanctions on North Korea for decades, cutting off trade and the materials to build nuclear weapons. The 24.8 million citizens live in abject misery, at poverty levels, with virtually no consumer goods, while the communist dictator spends vast sums on military hardware, including missiles, which he now has online, with a range as far as Guam, with a population of 165,000, which is 3,800 miles west of Hawaii. Guam was seized from Spain after the 1898 Spanish-American War, and is a U.S. "possession." One-third of the island is occupied by the Andersen Air Force Base, and 60 percent of the island's income is derived from the military or military-related sources. Tourism, especially from Japan, is critical. In the past, Kim Jong-un has threatened to nuke the island, but the threats are no longer idle.

As noted in Michael Crichton's 1990s best seller "State of Fear," governments and politicians utilize and propagandize fear to seize and maintain control. Those which are communist or fascist use fear, both internally and externally, to propagate their political system. Those which are capitalist have politicians who use fear to get into power and stay in power.

Kim Jong-un's repressive regime, created by his late father and his communist predecessors, is modeled on the Soviet Union. The populace lives in a police state where dissent is ruthlessly suppressed and dissenters liquidated. That insures internal control. And the populace is bombarded with incessant propaganda that external "imperialist" - a pseudonym for capitalism - forces are set to invade. For 40 years, from post-World War II through the late 1980s, the U.S.S.R. used that ploy which, combined with the KGB, kept their populace docile, fearful and impoverished.

In South Korea, with a population of 51.1 million, the per capita-income is $5,569 and the gross domestic product is $238 billion. The country is a flourishing monument to capitalism. North Korea's per capita is $1,038 and GDP $22.9 billion.

Trump's problem is that Kim Jong-un is paranoid with delusions of grandeur. He knows the world is arrayed against him. He knows the populace is restive, citizens are confined to concentration camps, and that the threat of obliteration, by the U.S. and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization treaty members, is a great pretext for suppression. The tyrant is on the world stage, as he has been for a decade. He has the wherewithal to cause mass destruction. If he nukes Guam, that would incinerate 165,000 people; if he nukes Seoul, South Korea's capital, that would incinerate 10 million people; if he nukes the DMZ on the border, with 36,000 U.S. troops, that would incinerate another million. The economic sanctions have not been effective. Lack of imported consumer goods is not going to destabilize his regime.

So Trump has two solutions: Either take out the nukes, which would certainly cause the North Korea troops at the border to rampage into South Korea, and the launching of any remaining nukes. Or take out Kim Jung-un.

However, past U.S. responses to "international incidents" didn't involve a "nuclear option." Some of them involved the use of force, usually successfully unless it led to war. Some involved the use of deceit. They had varying outcomes:

Spanish-American War (1898): The U.S. military was arthritic, the Army more so than the Navy. Spain, which had a vast colonial empire in the American hemisphere, including Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, was fading. William McKinley was president, and the U.S. was just coming out of a major economic depression. But a bunch of "war hawks," led by assistant Navy Secretary Teddy Roosevelt, with newspaper collaboration, inspired a "Free Cuba" drumbeat, with American annexation the subtext. When a U.S. ship was sabotaged and sunk, the provocation led to war, which was short and quick, with Roosevelt's "Rough Riders" leading the conquest of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Roosevelt was elected vice-president on the 1900 ticket with McKinley, who won big, and to the presidency when McKinley was assassinated in 1901.

World War I (1914-18): "He kept us out of war" was Woodrow Wilson's 1916 campaign slogan. Europe was in turmoil, with the British and French resisting Kaiser Wilhelm's aggression in trenches throughout France. But after getting reelected, Wilson used the sinking of an American passenger ship to get America into war, and then, after triumphing, into the League of Nations. Wilson emerged a non-hero. Economic dislocations precipitated a 1918 Republican congressional takeover and a 1920 presidential win.

World War II (1939-45): With America still suffering the residue of the Depression, Europe was under siege by Nazi Germany. Hitler had invaded Stalinist Russia, its erstwhile ally, and Britain was the last outpost of democracy. Franklin Roosevelt was in no position to go to war. Isolationism was rampant. But Roosevelt used the international "crisis" as a pretext to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940, and won. Pearl Harbor enraged the populace, and Roosevelt went to war, winning again in 1944.

Korean "Police Action" (1950-53): General Douglas MacArthur had thousands of troops in Asia, and when the Red Chinese invaded the Korean peninsula, he deployed them, ready to invade China. President Harry Truman, in what he called a "police action," not a war, sacked MacArthur, and the ensuing stalemate caused Korea to be split in half. American troops still patrol the DMZ between the countries.

Suez Canal (1956): After Egypt "nationalized" the Suez Canal, Israel, British and French troops invaded to reclaim it. President Dwight Eisenhower was then president, and the "crisis" boosted him to a huge reelection.

Vietnam War(1954-73): After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, a climactic 1954 battle in northwest Vietnam against Ho Chi Minh's guerilla forces, with 26,000 casualties, America was pulled into the defense of Southeast Asia on the "domino theory" pretext. Eisenhower sent military "advisors" to prop up the South Vietnam government, Kennedy sent more. But it was President Lyndon Johnson, after Kennedy's 1963 assassination, who went to war, boosting troop strength to over 500,000. Vietnam was a war that could not be "won" in the conventional sense, and was not fought in that way. By 1968, after 50,000 deaths, Johnson was so unpopular that he declined to run for reelection. It was Richard Nixon who coined the term "Vietnamization," pulled out U.S. troops, and let the communists take over in 1973.

Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): Like Trump today, Kennedy had limited options. A nuclear war seemed possible, if not probable. If Kennedy had let the Soviet missiles remain in Cuba, his political viability for 1964 would have collapsed. Belatedly, Nikita Khrushchev understood the consequences of a nuclear exchange, and backed down. In the U.S., Kennedy was seen as tough and heroic, and would have won easily in 1964.

Iranian Hostages (1979-81): After three tough years of inflation, gasoline shortages, and recession, the last thing President Jimmy Carter needed was for a bunch of Iranian "students" to grab and hold hostage American diplomatic personnel and keep them. Diplomatic negotiations, as well as military rescue attempts, failed. Carter was voted out in 1980.

Gulf War (1990-91): When Saddam Hussein's Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait and other oil-producing Middle-East countries in 1990, Bush responded swiftly and effectively, sending U.S. troops and firepower into the region. They pushed the invaders back to Iraq, but didn't finish the job, allowing Hussein to remain in power. Bush had a popularity spike, but still lost in 1992 to Bill Clinton.

Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (2001): Terrorism was not a domestic concern until the World Trade towers were obliterated. President Bush's response was firm and resolute, but there was nobody to retaliate against. A "War on Terror" was launched, which continues to this day, costing billions of dollars. In 2004, Bush was reelected.

The president promises "fire and fury." Kim Jon-un promises to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." Kim Jon-un won't remove missiles from his own soil, and will build more with greater range. Trump has a real problem.