AFTER Donald Trump gave the order to fire 59 cruise missiles at an air base in Syria last year, no one seemed more surprised than the president himself. Ordering military action wasn’t like deciding to buy a building, he mused on CBS News. “These decisions are unbelievable—you know, in terms of importance because it’s human—it’s…it’s…it’s killing. I hate it.” Is it credible that someone so shocked and tremulous after launching a strike that mangled a few planes and killed fewer than a dozen people could start a war in North Korea or Iran that might claim hundreds of thousands of lives?
Mr Trump seems to want people to think so. Despite denouncing America’s invasion of Iraq as “the single worst decision ever made” earlier this month, he has hired as his national security adviser one of the few people who still defends it. John Bolton has also advocated pre-emptive strikes against North Korea and Iran. “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you don’t wait until it has struck before you crush it,” Mr Bolton said last year, paraphrasing Franklin Roosevelt. “I would argue that today North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and Iran’s, while we’re on the subject, are the rattlesnakes of the 21st century.” Mr Trump has also nominated one of his most hawkish advisers, Mike Pompeo, to be secretary of state. The outgoing CIA boss is another advocate of regime change in Iran and North Korea. Indeed, Mr Trump’s policies towards those countries, while stopping short of that aim, are increasingly consistent with it.
He has sworn to denuclearise North Korea. Further nuclear provocations by Kim Jong Un would be met “with fire and fury”, he said last year. He also tasked his outgoing national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, to give him a wider array of military options against Mr Kim’s regime, including plans for a so-called bloody-nose attack, intended to weaken it without provoking nuclear war. The president is meanwhile unpicking the multinational deal to roll back Iran’s nuclear-arms programme, which raises the chances of the Iranians resuming the programme and reduces, perhaps to zero, any prospect of the resulting crisis being handled diplomatically. The Washington foreign-policy crowd, in which Trump fans are rare, is aghast. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says America is heading for war with North Korea, Iran or both. “This is the most perilous moment in modern American history,” he tweeted.
It is a worrying time, all right. Yet the fears about Mr Trump’s readiness to unleash mass violence are probably inflated.
The surge in apprehension about Mr Trump is fuelled by long-standing concerns about his character and judgment, new ones about his national-security set-up and a startling departure from his anti-war campaign rhetoric. On the trail he castigated every recent American intervention: in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan (“We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place”), as well as in Iraq. The world would be better off, Mr Trump argued, if every recent president had ignored foreign affairs and “gone to the beach”. To those scouring his rants for an ideological thread, this seemed in line with the isolationist whiff of America First. As Mr Trump had in fact supported most of those interventions at the time (though he denied it), that credited him with too much consistency. The president, as his new enthusiasm for sabre-rattling suggests, has no ideology and few well-informed beliefs. He has instincts and a day-to-day appreciation of interests, chiefly his own.
In this case that is probably reassuring. True, even in his more dovish phase, Mr Trump seemed obsessed with nuclear weapons: the prospect of Mr Kim being able to nuke Manhattan horrifies him. And he has plainly become more hawkish in office, as most presidents do. Barack Obama took charge vowing to end his predecessor’s wars, then bombed seven countries. Yet it is still hard to imagine Mr Trump starting a war unless he thought he would gain from it personally, and he would not gain from a bloodbath. The first Gulf war, which was short, victorious and saw light American casualties, is the only American war since 1947 that remained popular long after it was launched. War with North Korea or Iran would be a different matter.
The art of the nuclear deal
The fact that Mr Trump appears to have come close to setting red lines on North Korea does not alter that analysis. Like any businessman, he is accustomed to asking for a lot and settling for less. His genius lies in having the gumption to claim he got everything he asked for nonetheless—which may prove useful here. Mr Kim, who knows as much about leverage as Mr Trump, is highly unlikely to give up his several dozen nuclear devices, since that would be to sign his death warrant. But it is possible to imagine him agreeing to concessions, such as a freeze of his long-range missile programme, in return for economic benefits, and Mr Trump proceeding to call that victory. There are many ways that could go wrong. Were North Korea to emerge from that negotiation as a recognised nuclear power, an Asian arms race might ensue. But war would have been averted. If so it would probably mean the unyielding Mr Bolton turning out to be less decisive than many fear. This seems likely. The president likes Mr Bolton’s damn-your-eyes style, but has a way of surrounding himself with diverse opinions, and tires of ideologues. Even if he gives Mr Bolton a good run, moreover, there will remain a strong safety-device in the form of James Mattis, the admired defence secretary. He is for the Iran deal and against trying to bloody Mr Kim’s nose.
This is hardly ideal. Mr Trump, Mr Bolton and Little Rocket Man are about to assume a combined lead role in maintaining global security, which in itself raises the risk of a catastrophic miscalculation. Yet the notion that this president would be any likelier to risk Armageddon than his predecessors is unconvincing. It is a measure of dark times that such an idea seems a relief.