West column: Dangers of a ‘Bloody Nose’ strike on North Korea

As State of the Union coverage was in full swing on Tuesday night, another story was quietly breaking in Washington — the Trump Administration’s once-likely nominee for the critical post of ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, was apparently out of the running.

Cha is a former leader on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and a professor at Georgetown University. Folks on both sides of the aisle consider Cha a foremost North Korea expert. Unfortunately, Cha appears to have been removed from consideration for the ambassadorship largely because he disagrees with the Trump administration’s consideration of a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea.

The “bloody nose” idea is essentially the thought that Kim Jong Un’s regime can be deterred from further nuclear and missile testing and development by a preemptive strike on government or military targets in North Korea. It is likely an appealing strategy to President Donald Trump, a man obsessed with displays of strength and telegenic conflict. He received nothing but praise from the media for a similar strike on Syria in April of last year, despite the fact that the strike did nothing to further a military or political endgame in that civil war.

There are numerous problems and almost incalculable risk associated with the “bloody nose” plan. For one thing, the deterrent benefit of a limited strike hinges on the ability of the enemy to understand that it is, in fact, limited. We know little about North Korea’s defenses and have no way to be sure that Kim Jong Un would be able to differentiate, say, a conventional strike from a nuclear one. Additionally, with channels of communication between Washington and Pyongyang anything but clear, there would be no surefire way to clarify to him that incoming missiles were a warning shot rather than the start of his personal Armageddon.

Moreover, even if he did understand he was being hit with a limited strike, we have no way to know he wouldn’t react with escalatory behavior. His regime is obsessed with projecting strength and defiance, meaning that he could respond by accelerating nuclear production -- or by lobbing conventional or even nuclear weapons towards Seoul or Tokyo.

If he chose force, more than 70,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan would be in immediate danger, along with millions of civilians living in countries the United States is treaty-obligated to defend. It seems almost impossible that a military response by North Korea would not escalate into an all-out war that could easily draw in other major regional players (including nuclear-armed China).

Would-be Ambassador Cha knows all this and more; he laid out a far more robust accounting of the possible consequences as well as a full alternative strategy in a Washington Post op-ed piece just this week.

Unfortunately, Cha’s expertise appears to have fallen on deaf ears in the Trump Administration, part of a wider pattern and problem with how the administration approaches the world.

In the Trump orbit, it’s not just government by the rampantly corrupt (a Health and Human Services secretary accused of insider trading drug company stocks), flagrantly hypocritical (Centers for Disease Control Director who invests in tobacco), grossly abhorrent (an AmeriCorps head who went on racist radio rants), or cartoonishly bizarre (a deputy assistant with no discernable value-add and allegedly wanted by the Hungarian police).

On top of these recent examples and more, the Trump administration’s active rejection of experience and expertise is harming America’s ability to do good in the world. This is, to be sure, compounded by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s crippling of the State Department and the president’s own insistence that he knows all which is knowable. Even so, the hard pass on Cha’s skills and knowledge in exchange for a military strategy that seems to lead directly to ruin sums up the Trump administration concisely.

This systemic problem -- a deep rot born of arrogance and incompetence -- within the Trump administration cannot be solved overnight, if at all.

So for now, as the search for a qualified, level-headed ambassador to South Korea starts anew, the most important thing we can do as citizens is to demand reason and restraint in the face of any possible conflict with North Korea.

The “bloody nose” strategy is ill-suited to the nature of the enemy and the fragility of the situation. But until cooler heads and wiser minds can prevail, that strategy continues to put us at a deadly serious risk.

Graham F. West is the communications director for the Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project though views expressed here are his own. Reach West at gwest@trumancnp.org.