North Korea

45* allowed for a brief pause from his hawkish rhetoric toward North Korea during Hurricane Harvey, but now the threat of nuclear war is real again.

Multiple cabinet members have made harsh declarations of the Kim regime following its most recent nuclear test, in which a hydrogen bomb was mounted to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This means that the hermit kingdom feasibly has the capability of leveling an entire city in South Korea or Japan — two important U.S. allies in East Asia. However, North Korea also knows that its own destruction would soon follow such an attack, given America’s nuclear capability. This would normally be a deterrent, as the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction has been a cornerstone of nuclear policy since the onset of the Cold War.

On Sunday, 45 issued an ominous series of tweets expressing disappointment with South Korea over its “appeasement” of North Korea, and with China for “trying to help but with little success.” He also said that he was considering punishing China — a close ally of North Korea and key trade partner with the U.S. — by “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.” He added that “other options” would be on the table as well:

In addition to 45, both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley are ramping up talk of military action following the Kim regime’s sixth nuclear test. Mattis hinted there would be a “massive military response” if any of America’s allies or Pacific territories like Guam were attacked. Haley suggested North Korea was “begging for war” in its continued defiance of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning its nuclear program and international sanctions.

This rhetoric is particularly revealing, given that 45 himself said he would be open to meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in May. It’s also notable that several months before 45’s election, Kim said he would be willing to commit his country to nuclear non-proliferation despite his father, Kim Jong-Il, pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. In a May 2016 speech, Kim also said he would only deploy nuclear weapons if his country was attacked.

Given these declarations by both leaders, it seems that the North Korean nuclear threat could be de-escalated through careful diplomatic compromise, like the U.S. promising to cease military exercises in the region in exchange for North Korea beginning the process of disarmament. However, it very well may be the case that 45 is seeking to escalate tensions with the hermit kingdom as a means of boosting his record-low approval rating.

While it may seem overly cynical to suggest that the administration is willing to go to war over polls, it’s important to take a look at recent history. PBS NewsHour recently pointed out that 45’s presidential approval ratings have been below 40 percent more than any other first-year president in American history, citing Gallup’s end-of-August weekly estimate showing the president with just a 37 percent approval rating. Gallup’s three-day average, however, was even lower, with 45 only having the approval of 34 percent of Americans.

Former President George W. Bush had wildly fluctuating approval ratings during his presidency, largely due to the initiation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Following the September 11 attacks, Bush launched a bombing campaign in Afghanistan in response to the Taliban’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden, and saw his approval rating jump from 51 percent to 90 percent in just two weeks. Bush’s approval rating never dipped below 86 percent for the rest of 2001, after Operation Enduring Freedom (the current war in Afghanistan) was launched in October.

George W. Bush approval ratings before and after the 9/11 attacks (Gallup)

Those ratings wouldn’t last, though, as the U.S. economy plunged into a recession in 2002 and 2003, following the passage of Bush’s tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited just a small percentage of wealthy Americans. During that recession, Bush’s approval rating fell all the way back down to just 58 percent prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (the second war in Iraq). However, once the bombing of Baghdad began on March 20, 2003, Bush’s approval rating soared once again, peaking at 71 percent in the days following the start of the war:

George W. Bush approval ratings before and after the start of the second Iraq war (Gallup)

In April of 2003, Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport acknowledged that while he didn’t personally believe George W. Bush’s sudden jump in approval ratings was directly tied to the developments of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the war was nonetheless having a significant impact on how the public perceived of the administration.

“Most polls show [Bush’s] rating at about 70%, and news stories imply that this relatively robust rating is a result of the positive news coming back from the Iraqi war front. A story on Newsweek‘s Web site, for example, reads, ‘A NEWSWEEK poll shows the president’s approval rating soaring on the news of military victories in Iraq,'” Newport wrote. “The American public’s approval of the job the current president is doing certainly went up as the war began, and the roughly 70% job approval ratings he is receiving now are well above the historical average for all presidents.”

A war with North Korea would be disastrous for all involved, and it would be incredibly vain and ignorant for a U.S. president to wage war just to save his own approval rating. But remember — this is the same president who admitted that he timed the announcement of his pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio with Hurricane Harvey because he knew cable TV ratings would be higher than normal. This is also the same president who said he witnessed “first hand the horror and devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey,” yet had that claim debunked by a reporter embedded with the presidential detail who said 45 never even got close to any damaged areas.

45 is not a normal president, and these are not normal times. America must stay vigilant and be ready to oppose war with North Korea at all costs if we aim to stop the first use of nuclear weapons in over 70 years.

(*EDITOR’S NOTE: is now exclusively referring to Donald Trump as “45.” Please read our official statement on Twitter explaining the decision.)


Scott Alden covers national politics, education, and environmental issues for Grit Post. He is a proud Toledo University graduate, and lives in Inkster, Michigan.

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