The Secretary of State says that the President's threat yesterday to subject North Korea to "fire and fury like the world has never seen" was just Donald Trump's attempt to speak to Kim Jong Un in the only language the hereditary dictator is presumed to understand. Tillerson promptly translated the remark into more conventional language as a reaffirmation that "the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and our allies, and we will do so." The Washington Post noted an important shift in emphasis; the secretary promised a response to an "attack," while the President threatened a response to "threats." Greg Sargent believes that Tillerson is trying to prevent "fire and fury" from becoming Trump's "red line," an equivalent to President Obama's mostly empty threats to the Syrian government. At issue is what the current President means by "threat." The current presumption seems to be that hotheaded Trump was provoked by the verbal threats of the North Korean government, and that, as Tillerson suggested, he was responding to trash talk with trash talk. If that's what the President meant when he said the Kim dynasty "best not make any more threats," then the clock is already ticking for "fire and fury," as the Kimites have already answered him by threatening to launch missiles at Guam. If Trump doesn't answer with "fire and fury," we should expect to hear criticism at least from the neocon right -- Senator McCain has already called it an irresponsible statement -- and mockery from Pyongyang. It may be one thing to bully and bluster the same way that Kim Jong Un does, but it will be another for the bluster of a President to be as empty as Kim's often is.
Of course, no one has asked what Trump really means by "fire and fury." For all we know, it could just mean that North Korea will have made him really, really mad. They could well face fire and fury like Twitter has never seen -- and wouldn't that be preferable to the worst-case scenario some people assume? If history judges his words, they'll be judged by what Kim Jong Un does in response. Trump's hope, no doubt, is that the dictator will be intimidated by his obvious power to return to the negotiating table, in which case, if the terms end up favorable to us, the President will claim a win. For all we know, Trump may be practicing the kind of "madman" diplomacy Richard Nixon occasionally indulged in, in an attempt to persuade Kim that he is, in fact, a different kind of President whom the dictator must deal with differently. It's hard to say, however, whether Kim Jong Un is more or less likely than, say, an American liberal to perceive Donald Trump as a dangerous madman. Either way, the smart play for the dictator would be to negotiate, perhaps to meet Trump face to face. After all, the President often seems greatly impressed by strong leaders who are beloved by their people, and no one projects that image more persistently than Kim Jong Un. They might actually get along great, and while I do mean that as something of a slap at an oddly ingratiating tendency of Trump's it would also be something of a relief to have a President not conditioned by neo-thinking to see the Kim dynasty as evil incarnate, a thing to be crushed unconditionally rather than dealt with diplomatically. The risk now is not so much that Trump might treat the destruction of North Korea as a moral imperative, but that he may feel it necessary to follow through on his threat to prove his dominance, not only abroad but at home. He'd be better off asking his advisers why North Korea is building nukes. If it's not to export communist revolution, then it must be for national defense -- and that should make it simple for the President. Is it in the national interest -- by his standard, the interest of actual Americans -- to maintain a permanent confrontational stance with ad admittedly repugnant regime that still would not be an existential threat to the U.S. under ordinary circumstances? Is it in the national interest to defend South Korea at all costs? Is it in the national interest to perpetuate a conflict that inevitably will be exploited by more serious potential antagonists to distract us while they advance their agendas? All of that is for Trump and his team to decide, but not to take for granted as his predecessors have. He needs to take his vacation seriously, resist the temptation to get into some macho showdown with Kim Jong Un, and give the cooler heads he's hired a chance to prevail.