In the last two weeks, Donald Trump has been waging a war of words on two fronts — a domestic battle against NFL and NBA athletes and a foreign fight against "Little Rocket Man," North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. One war is dominating the headlines. The other carries with it a risk of a nuclear exchange.
Or does it?
If you follow Twitter at all, you were aware of a collective gasp this weekend when Trump responded to a typically bellicose North Korean speech at the U.N. with this tweet:
Days before, Kim Jong-un crafted his own personal insult for Trump, telling his people, "I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire." It seems that both leaders have decided to get personal, but — as the campus radicals are fond of saying — the personal is political, and tough words have been accompanied by tough actions.
North Korea, for its part, has detonated a purported hydrogen bomb and launched two missiles over Japan since Trump began his bellicose rhetoric. It's also threatening to detonate a nuclear weapon in the Pacific and shoot down U.S. planes that fly north — even if they're out of DPRK airspace. U.S. actions have been more restrained.
Its most aggressive recent action was a flight north, up the eastern coast of North Korea, by B1 Lancer bombers and F-15 Eagle fighters. The planes stayed in international waters, but they flew farther north than any other American plane this century.
These words and actions together raise the chances of war, and many Americans are understandably nervous, but the chances that the war of words will escalate into full-blown conflict are still relatively low.
To understand how the risk can escalate — yet the chances of war remain low — consider these three key realities:
First, North Korean leaders know that they would not only lose a war with the United States, they would also lose their regime and, quite possibly, their lives.
Second, to the extent that North Korea has any hope at all of achieving a victory, it has to strike first, achieve a degree of surprise, and find a way to deter the plannedAmerican counterattack (thus the rush for enhanced nuclear capabilities).