A former head of the CIA, the sane and steady four-star Air Force General Michael Hayden, recently went on record as predicting that in less than four years North Korea will have the means to destroy Seattle. “I really do think,” he said, “it is very likely that by the end of Mr. Trump’s first term, the North Koreans will be able to reach Settle with a nuclear weapon on board an indigenously produced intercontinental ballistic missile.”
Hayden’s grim view of North Korea’s ambitious, relentless march to being a nuclear power is in keeping with that of other experts. While Graham Allison, director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is somewhat less worried that North Korea will launch a nuclear-tipped missile at a major American city, he is somewhat more worried that it will sell a nuclear warhead (or nuclear material) to a group capable of smuggling a bomb into the U.S. The point is that many if not most foreign policy experts consider North Korea the single greatest threat to America’s national security.
How to stop North Korea from presenting such a clear and present danger? By virtually every account, there is only one way that falls short of military action. By getting China to help us. By getting China to exert diplomatic, economic, even military pressure on North Korea to cease and desist from posing an extreme, even existential threat to the American homeland.
There’s just one small problem. President Obama has failed to move the needle even a whisker on this one. And president-elect Trump seems determined to engage China in what many of our most sober observers consider dangerous provocations. Maybe Trump will succeed where Obama failed. Maybe China will react to Trump’s tough guy approach in a way that works in America’s favor. Maybe Trump’s talk with the leader of Taiwan will prove not a foolish gaffe but a fresh start. Maybe.
The risks in any case are high. Trump focuses and even fixates on economic competition with China – on what he claims is currency manipulation, unfair competition, and excessive taxing of U.S. imports. But the far, far greater challenge for the U.S.-China relationship is reaching an understanding on what to do about North Korea.
The situation will soon become untenable. No American leader – not civilian or military – can permit North Korea to get to the point of being able to launch a nuclear attack on American soil. But few American leaders – civilian or military – are willing to say out loud how dire and direct the threat. Which is precisely why, if leaders don’t get it sooner rather than later, if they don’t act to mitigate the threat, including leaders at the state and local levels, followers, ordinary people, will have to start beating the drum. Beating the drum slowly but steadily – and increasingly loudly.
Let me put it this way. If I lived in Seattle, I would take General Hayden’s warning seriously – very, very seriously. Failing visible progress on this issue in, say, six months, I would buy me a drum.