When the drumbeats sounded for a military invasion of Iraq in 2002, the U.S. and the rest of the world were still catching their breath from bombing Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The United States and its allies had barely made ground in Kabul in late 2001, toppling the ruling Taliban and beginning the process of mustering political support for local governance and a foray into democratic rule.
It was only months later that more U.S. troops were soon steering armored tanks across the border from Kuwait and into southern Iraq, beginning a campaign in March 2003 whose ripple effects are still felt today even after combat in Iraq — for the U.S. and its allies, at least — is officially over.
Now, 100 days into the new administration of President Donald Trump, the world is again being subjected to panic over the unpredictable behavior of a mysterious tyrant whose unquestioned rule over an impoverished people threatens his neighbors in particular and the world at large.
One could be forgiven for thinking the world was again on the cusp of a major war, this time with North Korea. The Trump administration has sent the USS Carl Vinson carrier group into waters near the Koreas, and sped up the deployment of a missile defense system to Seoul. At the end of last week the entire Senate was bussed down the road from the Capitol to the White House to be briefed about the latest dangers posed by the rogue state. Former and current officials are on the airwaves warning about everything from the possibility that North Korea might produce electro magnetic pulses that could knock out electrical grids, to suggesting we might embark on ‘defensive’ measures to “eliminate this problem in North Korea,” as retired Admiral Robert Natter said on Fox News last week.
“The threat today has escalated to the point where it’s the most serious threat that we’ve had on the Korean peninsula probably in the last 30 years,” Natter said. He suggested the administration try to resolve the crisis with the help of the Chinese government, but “if North Korea starts firing missiles at our ships, we have a responsibility to defend ourselves by taking out those systems before they’re fired.”
At least on Fox News, the bent towards pushing for war has found an audience. A Fox News poll reported that 53 percent of those polled believed that military action would be necessary to deal with the threat from North Korea, and they were ok with the U.S. doing that.
But unlike the march to war in Iraq in 2003, the North Korea saga is not being advocated with the same breathless intensity that much of the White House press corps exhibited nearly fifteen years ago. In large part, today’s mainstream media has been Trump’s greatest critic and for many observers, the bluster over Pyongyang is almost considered an attempt to deflect from the myriad issues the new president is unable to escape because of constant coverage.
“The combination of the volatility of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and the unpredictability of Trump is leading to a game of brinkmanship with far-reaching consequences,” wrote Mark Seddon, a former speechwriter for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. “Unsurprisingly perhaps, some see Trump’s new muscular foreign policy as a distraction from his troubled domestic agenda. Others believe that North Korea and the United States were always going to reach this stage as long as Pyongyang was forging ahead with its weapons program.”
To North Korea experts, very little has actually changed. Even though everyone from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are lockstep behind their commander-in-chief in their tough talk, the reality is far more subdued.
“This is mostly still par for the course: lots of rhetorical bluster from the U.S., but really we are not going to start a war,” said David Kang, director of the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute. “The Senate briefing [shows that] the U.S. is pursuing strategic patience but not calling it that.” Leaving the briefing, many senators told reporters that the administration didn’t lay out a basic strategy for how it would deal with any missile threat from North Korea, and that essentially what the White House is doing mirrors the policy President Barack Obama’s administration was pursuing: sanctions and diplomacy.
“Given the presence of many sober-minded strategists and policymakers in the administration, it seems reasonable to conclude the military taunts are a bluff,” wrote John Delury, associate professor of Chinese studies at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. “If so, they are a distraction from the real, pressing question: How much longer should they wait on economic pressure generated by Chinese sanctions, rather than pursue diplomatic options opened up by direct dialogue and engagement?
Trump’s talk may be an attempt to prod Beijing into greater action, but that could backfire. At the UN Security Council this week China accused the U.S. and South Korea of adding to the situation by expanding their military exercises in the region. “The use of force does not solve differences and will only lead to bigger disasters,” said Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister. “Let’s put aside the debate of who should take the first step and stop arguing who is right and who is wrong.” Whatever the Trump administration chooses to do, this time there is greater opposition from global leaders than there was in 2003.
When the prospect of war with Iraq was first suggested, the reaction was stunned surprise, international demonstrations and not very much second-guessing from either Washington’s allies or the media. It happened in large part because of the belief that it would be a quick war with little cost. Now however, the world knows somewhat better. Nations have lived with over 15 years of draining conflict that has spurred revolutions in the Arab world, displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their countries, and spawned terror groups that strike at will in the heart of thriving cities.
President George W. Bush went into Iraq under the shadow of the 9/11 attacks and the determination to root out any international terrorist threat that might target the homeland. A war with distant, opaque North Korea will be a harder campaign for President Donald Trump to sell.