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Trump's nuclear non-policy

People walk past a street monitor showing news of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile test in Tokyo, Japan, July 4, 2017.
Toru Hanai | Reuters
People walk past a street monitor showing news of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile test in Tokyo, Japan, July 4, 2017.

The gentlemen in Pyongyang have decided that President Trump is to be taken neither literally nor seriously.

It is difficult to blame them.

Kim Jong-un's crackpot regime launched an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States, and President Trump, commander in chief of the most awesome war-making apparatus ever assembled in the course of human history, responded with a brace of tweets.

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In January, Trump had promised that North Korea would not be permitted to obtain intercontinental missile capability: "Won't happen," he tweeted.

Did happen.

What now?

The upside of having Donald Trump as commander in chief is that he is a coward, and the downside is that he is a fool. His instinct will be to pursue the least-risky course of action, which may be prudent, but he is so willfully ignorant that he cannot possibly understand the risks associated with the channels of action open to him, including the risks of inaction.

The ironic thing is that Trump is trying to outsource this work to China.

Trump's tweet following the North Korean ICBM launch found him pleading — "Begging like a dog," as he is fond of putting it — with Beijing to "put a heavy move" on Pyongyang. Beijing and Moscow are indeed taking the lead on this issue and have proposed to put a heavy move on the United States. So far, the Beijing-Moscow consensus is that the North Korean situation should be deescalated by limiting future U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises and by eliminating plans to extend U.S. missile-defense capabilities in northeastern Asia. These are not exactly in the interest of the United States, and not exactly not in the interest of China and Russia, which also called upon Washington to respect the "sensible concerns" North Korea has about possible foreign aggression.

Candidate Trump no doubt added to the mirth of the primary season with his showmanship, his comically brazen dishonesty, his schoolyard-bully nicknames for his opponents, and the rest of it. But Republicans, in a fit of cultural pique, nominated him, and Americans decided that they had had their fill of Hillary Rodham Clinton (a little of her goes a very long way), and so the free people of these United States installed a quondam game-show host and failed casino operator as their chief executive. Trump, to be fair, is doing exactly what they wanted him to do: antagonizing the media with dopey Twitter gifs and doing all he can to épater les bourgeois.

As for the business of performing the duties of the president, Trump is missing in action. He was surprised by the North Korean ICBM launch, but then he is surprised by many things, such as the contents of Republican health-care legislation that he claims to support.

He was elected to be a giant middle finger to the so-called Establishment. (If the Establishment does not include Manhattan real-estate heirs and Chuck Schumer cronies attached to NBC franchises, what kind of establishment is it, anyway?) Now that middle finger is on the button, and the world is on the brink of a genuine nuclear crisis.

Trump has a battle plan for his war with CNN, a subject about which he has no doubt given a great deal of thought and toward which he can apply some real expertise as a television entertainer. But North Korea menacing Alaska (or perhaps California, soon enough) with a nuclear weapon?

Perhaps Twitter ought not be our first line of defense.

These were dangerous times to begin with: In addition to the Hermit Kingdom's dreams of nuclear blackmail, there is the familiar and persistent threat of Islamist savagery and its permutations from Thailand to Congo, the ongoing cartel war that threatens to turn our immediate neighbor to the south into a failed state, and the opportunistic ambitions of Russia and China. These dangers have been compounded by the lack of anything resembling a coherent foreign policy or national-security program from the Trump administration, which is a clown show of media drama. The Trump administration includes a cabinet with some of the finest figures in American public life, and it has at its disposal a Republican-controlled Congress eager to enact conservative reforms and to hand the administration as many wins as it can. But in the absence of actual presidential leadership, all of that is coming to naught.

And the void left by the absence of American leadership calls up malevolent spirits from the vasty deep.

Barack Obama and his administration did a great deal of harm to the long-term prosperity and international credibility of the United States, harm that was mitigated, unintentionally, by President Obama's critical shortcoming: He never quite figured out that the job of the president includes more than making speeches. Trump is as grandiose as Obama in his self-conception but less ambitious in his execution, and so has replaced Obama's addiction to speeches with his own addiction to Twitter.

What will he tweet when the first North Korean nuclear warhead is detonated over Tokyo or Anchorage?

Commentary by Kevin D. Williamson, a roving correspondent at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNR.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

©2017 National Review. Used with permission.