Want a hint of what the Trump administration will do about the Korean peninsula? Watch Secretary of Defense James Mattis

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Secretary of Defense James Mattis hasn’t given a firm indication where he would come down on military action against North Korea.

After the skaters and skiers, the curlers and hockey players head home at the end of the Olympic Winter Games, the one figure most worth watching for a hint of what awaits the Korean peninsula is the baggy-eyed ex-Marine known as “Mad Dog” or the “Warrior Monk.” 

Barring some catastrophe, the games will succeed in providing a respite from worries that North Korea and the United States are edging toward war — possibly with nuclear weapons. But a diversion is all it’s likely to be.

Chances are that North Korea’s decision to participate in the games represents little more than another of the tactical maneuvers it has perfected over decades. It’s possible that Kim Jong Un has blinked just a bit, but seems more likely that he is working just as hard on his nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. 

Meanwhile, harsh language from President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, plus the decision to drop a candidate for ambassador to South Korea who opposes a “bloody nose” strike at North Korea have led some to conclude Trump is considering just such an attack. In theory, it would serve as a warning short of launching a full-scale war. In practice, many experts doubt that once begun, a conflict could be contained.

Enter Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired Marine general.

Because Trump seems to have a thing for military men, because of Mattis’ fearsome reputation as a ground commander and because of his responsibility for America’s vast war-making capability, his voice is likely to be highly influential. So far, he hasn’t given a firm indication where he would come down on military action against North Korea.

Mattis is unafraid to unleash the U.S. military in what he considers the right circumstances. But he also is regarded as something of a scholar, and he has first-hand knowledge of how things can go badly wrong. He privately opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, ended up commanding 25,000 Marines charging toward Baghdad, and witnessed the messy aftermath.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr started her recent analysis this way: “Defense Secretary James Mattis begins his second year in the Trump Administration with perhaps just one absolutely crucial task — stopping President Donald Trump from going to war against North Korea.”

That may be overstating it a bit, but you get the idea how important this is.

While Kim’s motives remain opaque, there have been signals that Washington is reconsidering its options. This New York Times report describes a split among senior officials surrounding Trump — National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on one side, and Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the other. Tillerson appears to have little influence, making Mattis all the more important.

McMaster, like the others, is said to still prefer a diplomatic solution, but wants the Pentagon to present Trump with more military options. The Times quotes officials as saying the Pentagon is worried Trump will move too quickly toward military action.

James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, says McMaster seems to be following a Cold War-era script that includes riskier military preparations to get the attention of North Korea and China. 

After months of vetting, the Trump administration also pulled the plug on the nomination of Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea. Cha isn’t known as a softie when it comes to North Korea. But opposing a “bloody nose” strike was apparently enough to kill his nomination.

After it was pulled, Cha outlined his views in the Washington Post. If the U.S. considers Kim irrational, such an attack would put American citizens in South Korea — a population the size of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati — at risk “on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.”

Instead, he argued for building on existing sanctions, supplying more sophisticated weapons to South Korea and Japan, imposing a blockade to prevent North Korea from nuclear proliferation and continuing to prepare for a defensive war.

So where might Mattis come down on all of this? He has stood out in the Trump administration by arguing against the use of torture and for the importance of alliances. He has been careful with public statements, and in the case of North Korea still emphasizes diplomacy — backed by military preparedness. If he starts moving off of that formulation, it could be very significant.

As bad as Iraq was, a war on the Korean peninsula probably would be much worse. The threat of chemical and biological weapons never materialized in Iraq. In North Korea they are a real possibility — along with nuclear weapons.

The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins quotes Mattis as saying after a speech several years ago that he would have considered resigning his military command if he had been asked by a civilian leader to do something “unethical, immoral or … felony stupid.” But he also stressed the importance of chain of command. “Words like ‘You serve at the pleasure of the President’ — you can’t say, ‘Those words only count when I agree, and the President agrees with me,’” Mattis said. 

Mattis is in a tough spot that’s likely to get tougher. As the situation develops, it will be important to listen very carefully to what he has to say. 

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 02/09/2018 - 08:17 pm.

    What does Kim Jong Un want?

    Good analysis, even if an unwelcome reminder that the Earth remains poised on the tip of the nuclear balance. I didn’t expect to read anything in the article about it but it would be good to know if there’s anyone understands what Kim Jong Un wants or expects from having nuclear weapon capability? Does he expect capitulation on the Korean peninsula to North Korea’s claim to sovereignty over the entire peninsula? Or does he want to be a “world player”, an insecure, little man looking for respect from bigger ones? Israel got the nuclear bomb against the wishes of the US and quietly “joined the club” with little fanfare. India and Pakistan got it so too. Haven’t heard much lately about these Nations’ threats of use of the bomb though their antagonisms at least rival the possible threats of a confrontation on the Korean peninsula. With all the “jokers” out there with nuclear weapons, why does the possibility of North Korea joining them create so much angst in Washington and the US?

  2. Submitted by William Beyer on 02/10/2018 - 10:29 am.

    Mattis

    Maybe Mattis is our only hope…As reported by Ian Wilkie in Newsweek on 02/08:

    “Lost in the hyper-politicized hullabaloo surrounding the Nunes Memorandum and the Steele Dossier was the striking statement by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that the U.S. has ‘no evidence’ that the Syrian government used the banned nerve agent Sarin against its own people.”

  3. Submitted by Wayne Nealis on 02/10/2018 - 11:09 am.

    Some steps to ease tensions and change US policy

    Some thoughts on excellent questions in above comment. These points are from a recent Voices OpEd of mine MINNPOST kindly published.

    1. The first step is to stop insisting North Korea end its nuclear program as a pre-condition for talks. NK is not going to give up its weapons. So, long at the US keeps threatening them, deterrence is logical.

    2. Experts writing in a March 2017 publication of the U.S. Army War College characterized this long-held policy and others in frank terms. “Insanity has been described as doing the same thing again and again, while expecting a different result each time. This truism aptly characterizes U.S. dealings with North Korea over the last 7 decades.” Yes, they said, 7 decades.

    3. Take steps to normalize relations with North Korea and negotiate a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice.

    4. Stop threatening North Korea and negotiate. Insisting they give up their nukes before hand is intended to fool the American public. Since millions will died in a war….including tens of thousands of US citizens….talking is the ONLY way.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/11/2018 - 11:12 am.

    Mattis’s Problem

    Is not NK, its the guy in the WH! The egotistical president has to have a war to fill out his ego bingo card. Its clear he sees himself as akin to 3rd world military dictators of past and present. If they can have parades to show how big “small” their ….. is, than surely the most powerful military on the planet needs a parade to demonstrate his superiority, nothing better than a military parade to honor and salute the king, or perhaps latest self anointed god. We will notice there is no Teddy Roosevelt “walk soft but carry a big stick” humility in this white house. The common man, regardless of nationality or location, is nothing more or less than collateral damage for the greater honor and glory of “T”. And we know the congress will do nothing to stop, limit, minimize and or contain this new “police action”, probably just write a credit card check for another $500B or so! Good Luck Mr. Mattis!.

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