Locked & Loaded

President Donald Trump warned Friday that U.S. military resources were in place, “locked and loaded,” should North Korea “act unwisely,” as foreign leaders called on Washington and Pyongyang to end a cycle of rhetorical threats raising the specter of nuclear war.
Mr. Trump made the comments in a tweet early Friday from a working vacation at his golf course in New Jersey. He later told reporters the U.S. is looking carefully at military options and said North Korea would face “big, big trouble” if it attacked the U.S. territory of Guam, which Kim Jong Un’s regime has threatened.
“I hope that they are going to fully understand the gravity of what I said,” Mr. Trump said. “And what I said is what I mean.”
Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping later spoke by phone and Mr. Xi urged restraint in dealing with North Korea.
The president hasn’t specified which precise actions by North Korea would trigger a U.S. response, heightening the unpredictability in the standoff with Pyongyang.
The result is a sense of uncertainty that has drawn comparisons to what Richard Nixon called “the madman theory”—the tactic of coercing an adversary into negotiations by signaling the U.S. president is sufficiently unhinged to carry out a catastrophic attack.
When Mr. Trump said this past this week that North Korea would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” many interpreted his comment as a threat of nuclear warfare, a departure from decades of restraint by U.S. presidents when discussing the possibility of Washington once again​using nuclear arms.
Historians say Mr. Trump’s behavior differs from Nixon’s attempts to execute the madman theory, in part because the late president tended to send his signals through military movements and undisclosed messages. They also said Nixon’s messages and actions were carefully calibrated, in contrast to the sometimes dissonant​statements​coming from the Trump administration about North Korea.
Mr. Trump appeared to express affinity for the concept this past week. On Wednesday, he retweeted an observation by a Fox News host describing his unpredictability as a “big asset.”
The president’s rhetoric has lacked precision about what North Korean actions would prompt a U.S. attack. His “fire and fury” warning last Tuesday suggested that repeated threats from North Korea​alone could prompt a U.S. military response. He and his advisers also have​raised the possibility of​ preventive military action​ to stop North Korea from gaining nuclear weapons that can strike the U.S.
Friday evening, Mr. Trump also said, when asked by reporters, that he wouldn’t “rule out a military option” for Venezuela. The South American country has been gripped by antigovernment protest as President Nicolás Maduro has been consolidating power in ways deemed dictatorial by American officials.
In that same media appearance, Mr. Trump said the U.S. is considering additional sanctions on North Korea, “as strong as they get,” while leaving open the possibility of military action.
“We will see what happens,” he said. “We think that lots of good things could happen, and we could also have a bad situation.” Asked if a bad situation meant going to war with North Korea, he said: “I think you know the answer to that.”
American leaders traditionally have stuck to the standard deterrence message: If North Korea strikes the U.S. or American allies, the country will suffer overwhelming destruction. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has been careful to adhere to that paradigm this week. Mr. Trump at times has followed suit but at other times been more ambiguous.
Asked about the strategy underlying Mr. Trump’s messaging on North Korea in recent days, a senior administration official said, “The president tweets for his own purposes and reasons.”
The official wouldn’t say whether Mr. Trump’s tweets and statements were intended to apply pressure not just to North Korea, but also to the Chinese, whom Mr. Trump said in a tweet late last month were doing “NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.”
“We know that China has more leverage over North Korea than any other single country does,” the official said. “We’ve seen China be cooperative, but we’ve also seen China hold back.” China initially resisted new economic sanctions but ultimately endorsed a United Nations resolution last weekend.
An hour before Mr. Trump’s tweet Friday morning, North Korea’s state media accused the U.S. president of “driving the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war.”
“It is ridiculous that the U.S. warmongers are unaware of the fact that even a single shell dropped on the Korean Peninsula might lead to the outbreak of a new world war, a thermonuclear war,” the statement added.
The uncertainty and tension prompted foreign leaders to call for calm. “I see no military solution to this conflict,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a news conference Friday.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the risk of military conflict between the U.S. and North Korea was high. The threats “are not stopping, and we, therefore, are very worried,” said Mr. Lavrov.
The tension comes as the U.S. prepares to begin scheduled military exercises with South Korea this month, which in previous years have provoked a response from North Korea.
There were no immediate indications that the U.S. military was moving personnel or equipment toward North Korea in preparation for an attack, and the U.S. hadn’t evacuated military and diplomatic dependents from the region.
Whether Mr. Trump is pursuing a deliberate “madman” strategy in his comments on North Korea has become a subject of debate.
“My sense is that’s not what we’re seeing,” said Abraham Denmark, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia during the Obama administration. He said ascribing the madman theory to Mr. Trump was likely just “a rationalization for chaos.”
Mr. Denmark said, however, that in the past when China has become nervous about the potential for conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing has grown more motivated to engage.
Beginning mainly in the 1950s, U.S. leaders engaged in a serious effort to determine how to negotiate with an adversary in a world with nuclear weapons, leading to descriptions of what Nixon would later call the madman theory.
“The idea was that you would turn uncertainty to your advantage, and you would do that by carefully calibrating threats—the opposite of what Trump is doing—to make use of the adversary’s anxiety,” says Jeremi Suri, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Nixon reportedly set out what he called the madman theory when he described his plan for ending the Vietnam War during a walk on the beach with his aide H.R. Haldeman.
“I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,” Haldeman recalled Nixon saying. “We’ll just slip the word to them that, for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed with Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button—and Ho Chi Minh will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Nixon attempted to put the theory into practice in 1969, when the U.S. military secretly simulated preparations for a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union with the hopes of coercing Moscow and Hanoi into ending the war. The effort failed, but because Nixon hadn’t spoken of it publicly, he didn’t face the prospect of having to back down from nuclear threats.
With Mr. Trump, the approach may be more of an impulse than a well-sequenced strategy, but historians warn public threats and ultimatums can lead to risky territory.
“You don’t bluff. You don’t bluff and back down,” said Jeffrey Kimball, professor emeritus of history at Miami University and author of a number of books on Nixon’s foreign policy. “That undermines your whole operation.”





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