Probably the most dangerous imperative sentence in the world is this: “Do something!”
The dangers lie in each of the 2 words, “Do” because of its simple absolutism, “something” because of its definitive vagueness.
Such a call to action is much more likely to produce catastrophe than success.
But behind it is this implication, “act or look weak.” It takes a strong leader to hold his fire even as his critics call him weak and indecisive.
This underappreciated “negative capability” defined, for better or for worse, the foreign policy of Barack Obama, that is his resistance (critics would call it too passive resistance) to, as he famously put it, “Doing stupid stuff.”
If you believed Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, this was the part of The Obama Legacy that Trump was determined to destroy. But rhetoric is cheap, and campaign rhetoric is the bargain basement rag-bin of tough talk.
Now President, now acting in the real world, with enormous real-world consequences pending on his every international action, a less trigger-ready Trump roams the White House.
Given the perfect predicate to fulfill the “Do something!” mandate, the test flight of a North Korean ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) which looks capable of reaching Alaska, the President has so far stayed his hand.
For which, a large majority of the world is grateful.
There are a lot of good reasons for President Trump’s inaction, most of them having to do with the greater likelihood of disaster than success from any immediate response to Kim Jong Un’s provocation.
There is another good, if diminishing rationale for Trump to not do anything: the hands of the North Korean threat haven’t reached midnight yet. An ICBM is just a delivery system, and the ultimate threat it could deliver, a miniaturized nuclear warhead, with an even reasonably precise guidance system has not yet been perfected by Pyongyang. Neither has an ICBM with the range to reach Seattle or Los Angeles, much less Chicago, New York City or Washington.
But, most informed guesstimates say perfecting the North Korean nuclear threat to the US is just a few years away.
When our guest today, journalist/historian Mark Bowden published his thoughts on the North Korean threat on June 19 his concerns seemed almost prescient. Yes, there had been the mid-May test flight of what sure looked like a 3000 mile range ICBM, but its significance had been publicly down-played by both the Pentagon and the White House.
Then, just in time for the 4th of July, came a second test flight of what analysts around the world confidently identified as an ICBM with a 4000 mile range, enough to put the coast of Alaska in the target zone.
Immediately, the American news media was filled with assessments of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, most of them agreeing with what Mark had written weeks before about America’s options to do something, that, “All of them are bad.”
Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic magaizine. His most recent book is Hue 1968. His book Black Hawk Down a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club’s 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of “The 50 Books for Our Times.” His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game; Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, and The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.