Don’t get me wrong. I hardly mourn Steve Bannon’s departure from government.
Writing in The Huffington Post last summer, right after Bannon replaced Paul Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager, I was one of the first to warn of the dangers Bannon posed. Having met Bannon during his Hollywood years, I wrote that even back then “he was an angry, racist, egregiously aggressive, and inappropriately temperamental character.”
But I also cautioned at the time that Bannon was “whip smart with a sophisticated understanding of how the media works” and that Democrats and progressives underestimated Bannon’s ability to harm Hillary Clinton at their peril.
Sad to say, I was right. Bannon brought two strategies to the Trump campaign that were key to Trump’s razor-thin electoral college victory over Clinton.
First, he melded Trump’s instinctive connection to anti-immigrant, “build the wall” racism to a relentless populist focus on jobs and Clinton’s history of support for corporate trade deals.
Second, through meticulous research funded by the billionaire Mercer family, he focused on the soft corruption of the Clintons through the nexus of the Clinton Foundation, paid Wall Street speeches, and foreign and domestic oligarchs. He helped make Clinton appear even more untrustworthy than Trump to enough undecided voters.
One Dove Down
Without Bannon’s strategic guidance, it’s likely that Trump wouldn’t be President. There’s a special place in hell for that.
But there was another side to Bannon that has been lost in the turmoil over his departure from the White House. The New York Times characterized him as the White House’s “resident dove. From Afghanistan and North Korea to Syria and Venezuela, Mr. Bannon… has argued against making military threats or deploying American troops into foreign conflicts.”
As Trump’s loose lips were threatening “fire and fury” on North Korea, bringing the world closer to nuclear war than at time since the 1992 Cuban Missile Crisis, Bannon told Bob Kuttner, editor of the progressive American Prospect,
There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there no military solution here.
No Military Solution
In his blunt, politically incorrect way, Bannon was willing to say what few American politicians or pundits are willing to say: There is no military solution for preventing the North Korean regime from enhancing the nuclear capacity it already possesses, much less to rolling it back.
Any “preventative” strike against North Korea, whether nuclear or conventional, would likely rain “fire and fury” not only on North Korea but on South Korea, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths, including tens of thousands of Americans, within a day or two and the economic/political/social collapse of a key American ally.
The border between North and South Korean—the so-called demilitarized zone or DMZ—is less than 40 miles from Seoul, with a population of 25 million, including tens of thousands of US troops and hundreds of thousands of American civilians.
North Korea has 8,000 large artillery guns lining the DMZ which could reign death and destruction on hundreds of thousands within a few hours. A former US commander in Korea estimates that if a grid were laid across Seoul dividing it into three-square-foot blocks, these bombs could, within hours, “pepper every single one.”
Add to that the fact that North Korea already possesses a large arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. It’s already a nuclear power with a likely 30-60 nuclear weapons as well as short to medium range missiles capable of delivering them against neighbors, including South Korea and Japan.
That North Korea has had the ability for decades to destroy its sworn enemy, South Korea, with conventional weapons, not to mention chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, but has not done so, indicates that like Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, North Korea can be contained.
The Kim Jung Un regime may be one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. But there’s no indication that it’s suicidal. Indeed, the Kim family’s decade-long development of a nuclear arsenal can be viewed as quite rational. The ability, if attacked, to destroy its neighbors and perhaps, one day, even to attack the U.S., is the brutal regimes ultimate insurance policy against any attempt by the U.S. and its allies to attack it or overthrow it.
The memory of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is an object lesson to the Kim regime on why it dare not give up its weapons of mass destruction. In response to Western demands, Gadhafi gave up his WMD program in 2003 in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions and promises of security. In 2011, Gadhafi was overthrown with the aid of US airstrikes and ended up beaten and dead in a ditch. Kim is not about to risk the same fate.
Stalin and Mao were also brutal dictators and sworn enemies of the U.S. and the West, with large nuclear arsenals and conventional armies that dwarf those of North Korea. Yet the world avoided nuclear conflict through the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD. MAD sounds mad, but it has worked for the past 70 years to avoid nuclear conflict.
A nuclear-armed North Korea is scary and dangerous. But there’s no reason to think that North Korea is any more likely to launch an offensive nuclear strike than were Stalin or Mao.
Indeed, the greater danger is that a war of words between Kim and Trump, combined with provocative military actions, could lead to a misunderstanding that would could start a nuclear war.
Time to Deescalate
It’s time to end the war of words and deescalate military threats.
As one retired senior U.S. commander said, North Korea building ICBMs with nuclear warheads is “a done deal”. A pre-emptive American military strike on this capability would be far more dangerous and deadly than the use of deterrence to prevent its use.
Hopefully, if Trump doesn’t understand this, H.R. McMasters and James Mattis do.
Most likely, American military and foreign policy experts won’t officially accept the reality of North Korea as a nuclear power. But hopefully, they will continue the decades long American policy under both Republican and Democratic Presidents, of avoiding provocative military measures against North Korea.
In the meantime, for all the harm he’s done in other areas, Steve Bannon was right to assert that there’s no military solution to the North Korean problem.
It’s time for other voices from the left, right, and center to publicly acknowledge this truth.