Among his special skills, President Trump likes to make vague, blustering threats to those who annoy him. Often the threats are hollow. Often he cleans them up within a few days, or at least changes them around so that it becomes clear that he doesn’t have an actual plan to follow through. Sometimes it’s as juvenile as the time, during the campaign, when he said of a protester who had just been removed from one of his rallies, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” That passes for brave and tough in some quarters, although he never actually punches anyone and, if he did, it probably would cost him a lot of money, unless presidents have immunity for face-punching.
This faux toughness is sad and pitiful, but not world-threatening, and his admirers lap it up.
More serious is when he seems to be threatening a possible nuclear attack, as when he issued this warning to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un like this one to a gaggle of reporters from his golf club semi-vacation, which we’ll call threat iteration No. 1:
North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States … They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.
Which he later clarified with this nonclarification, which we’ll call threat iteration No. 2:
He [Kim Jong-Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.
What does Trump believe would qualify as a sufficient “very threatening” action by Kim to bring about this historic act of “power,” considering that the world has previously seen two cities hit with atomic bombs?
Maybe you are comfortable with this level of ambiguity as to what “threatening” action by North Korea would bring on this unprecedented display of power. According to me, it would be better to make clear what the lines are, so Kim would not accidentally cross one in the act of trying to figure out how far he is allowed to go (if he cares, and who among us wants the fate of the earth to hang on the ability of Kim to figure out what Trump views as sufficiently “threatening” to bring on the new world record for a display of destructive power?).
I wished, I hoped that Trump’s third iteration of the red line that would bring on the show of power that the world has never seen before had been a little clearer. And for a second I thought it was. But he seems to either be unable to discipline what comes out of his mouth, or perhaps he believes that it is wise to promise massive retaliation for a transgression that he can’t describe with any precision. Iteration No. 3 went like this:
This man will not get away with what he is doing. … If he utters one threat in the form of an overt threat … or if he does anything with respect to Guam, or any place else that is an American territory, or an American ally, he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.
I like that he mentioned Guam, and other U.S. territories and U.S. allies. It seems to begin to circumscribe what it is that he thinks would justify the massive blood-shedding that he keeps threatening. But the problem remains that he won’t even vaguely specify what sort of action would justify this retaliatory carnage, especially because he never actually says that Kim would have to do anything more than “utter” a “threat.”
If uttering a threat violates the laws of nations, Trump had better book a flight to The Hague to stand trial for threat-uttering, because he can’t seem to stop. Of course that won’t happen, but what bothers me is that if he is trying to communicate the boundaries of behavior that Kim should respect, Trump is failing utterly, because he can’t stop drawing a line for carnage that is called “threat uttering.” Threat uttering is what the Kim dynasty does, and the world has survived it for three generations.
OK, enough about that. Instead, I’ll close with what it looks like to draw a clear line, and it turns out to come from a very famous case that ended pretty well.
On Oct. 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy asked for time on all TV networks to inform America and the world of a problem his administration had been grappling with in secret, the confirmed evidence that Cuba, with Soviet support, was erecting sites that would soon be capable of launching Soviet-supplied nuclear missiles at targets in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States.
You can read the speech here, or (even better, because you get the drama of JFK’s calm but composed delivery, you can watch it here. It’s almost 19 minutes long and worth your time if you are a history nerd like me.
I’ve had plenty of ups and downs in my life in my view of JFK. And they continue. But in the matter of delivering an ultimatum at a time of planet-threatening danger, he seemed to get that it was time to be serious, sober, prepared and crystal clear.
Unlike Trump, who even when he does have a worked-out statement can’t seem to help ad libbing in ways that fuzz up his message, Kennedy read his threat carefully and calmly, from a prepared script, so Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was behind the covert construction of missile launching sites in Cuba, would know exactly what he had to do avoid a world-threatening nuclear war, and exactly what would happen if he didn’t do it. On that last point, the big line in Kennedy’s broadcast was this:
It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.
I wish Trump would study it as a lesson in clarity. By the way, although the full story is more complicated than just what JFK read on the air, the plan worked.
P.S. After writing this piece Monday I saw that John Harrigan of Falcon Heights also decided to explore the Cuba Missile Crisis for “lessons in leadership” across that tale and Trump’s contretemps with Kim on the op-ed page of the Monday Strib. He drew “six lessons in leadership” from the comparison, and you can read it here.