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We are deterred.
That's the only possible way to read the confessions of Donald Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who inexplicably vomited out a variety of compromising thoughts in an interview with an adversarial journalist at a liberal publication. The interview is packed with juicy tidbits, but the comment with the broadest policy implications is receiving the least amount of attention. In that interview, with The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner, Bannon confessed that the administration's rhetorical posture regarding a conflict with North Korea is utterly hollow.
"There's no military solution," Bannon said. "Forget it."
"Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don't die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don't know what you're talking about, there's no military solution here," he added. "[T]hey got us."
So much for "fire" and "fury."
Lay observers can be forgiven for thinking this concession amounts only to acknowledging reality. It's not exactly a state secret that North Korea's dug-in artillery positions on or near the 38th Parallel, just miles from the South Korean capital, represent a significant deterrent threat. At no point, however, did an administration official—much less one as close to the president as his chief strategist—suggest that this threat was sufficient to stay the commander-in-chief's hand.
The president and a variety of administration officials have made a conscious effort to communicate (both to Pyongyang and to Western lawmakers) his willingness to entertain the prospect of a preventative first strike on a narrow set of North Korean targets. The risks of such strikes, ranging from provoking a limited or full-scale retaliatory response to environmental and collateral damage, are real. That might be bluster, but it serves a utilitarian purpose.
It is unclear that the United States will accept a nuclear North Korea with the reliable capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. It's not even clear that America will be able to live with a North Korea that can strike U.S. troop positions in South Korea and Japan, which could occur with almost no warning. Making Kim Jong-un's regime understand that the U.S. will not tolerate a nuclear-capable North Korea creates an incentive to de-escalate and head back to the negotiating table—even if those are negotiations to which the U.S. and its allies are not party.
The prospect of a first strike might have been a bluff. If that was the strategy, however, it was one to which the U.S. had committed itself. It was not Steve Bannon's role to undermine the president and force the United States to retrench from its current position.
Even though this approach is reckless, it makes sense if Bannon's objective was to take the prospect of preventative warfare off the table. That notion falls apart when taking into account the ostensible purpose of Bannon's call to Kuttner, who is a trade hawk and a friend to the complaints of labor union activists: to rag on China.
"We're at economic war with China," Bannon said. "On Korea, they're just tapping us along. It's just a sideshow." He added that, on the present trajectory, there would be an "inflection point" from which America will not recover. In 25 or 30 years' time, he said, it will be the People's Republic and not the United States that is the world's global hegemon. "[T]he economic war with China is everything," Bannon averred.
This is some pretty blatant sabotage. If the United States lacks a military solution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula, it needs a diplomatic one. The only party that can execute that objective is China, and the Trump administration has been making admirable strides in convincing China to get off the sidelines. If Bannon had his way, it seems, all progress toward compelling Beijing to abandon the Kim regime would be done away with; and all because of one man's obsession with a glorious Sino-American trade war.
This interview was grossly irresponsible. The kind of freelancing in which the president's chief strategist engaged in has blown the treads off the administration's existing strategy. This was not done in service to the president or the country, but to Steve Bannon and his fanatical commitment to isolationism and protectionism. He's done his president and his country a disservice. Steve Bannon has to go.
Commentary by Noah Rothman, associate editor at Commentary Magazine. Follow him on Twitter .
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter