Mattis: “North Korea ICBM Not a Threat Right Now” Part 2

I promise we’ll get back to UFOs soon. But let’s turn now to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The North Korea technical was covered Mattis: “North Korea ICBM Not a Threat Right Now” Part 1.  This is about political process.

(The Diplomat) UN Security Council Unanimously Approves New Sanctions Against North Korea. Until very recently, North Korea was  the irritating pawn of balance-of-power games. Now it has become an unprecedented example of cooperation between competing spheres.

Without fanfare, there seems to be a new desire  to avoid conflict in the larger world. In the past century or so,  most conflicts involved the  pretext of at least one side that concealed the desire for war. There seems to be an unprecedented  aversion of state actors for high intensity conflict. It could be the only plus of terrorism, a constant, visceral reminder of the cost of conflict. But the current situation also vindicates Henry Kissinger’s assertion that diplomacy must be backed by the potential use of force.

The distillation:

  • A unique international  coercion by economic means of an outlaw state.
  • An adversary who, the intelligence community has concluded, satisfies at least some of the definitions of sanity, but not all of them. He has an unremitting blood lust.
  • A weapon of poor quality, but not proven to invariably fail in all modes of use.
  • The assumption that the adversary is sane enough to lack confidence in his poor quality weapon, and to understand the consequences to him of use.
  • Retaliative acts by North Korea in modes other than nuclear.
  • Random factors internal to North Korea in the area of political stability.
  • Clandestine factors. Hinted at, there is no point in guessing.
  • The risks of doing something, which include collateral damage to South Korea.
  • The risks of doing nothing.
  • The U.S. domestic political climate.

The last three items result from examination of ourselves. Their sum  are the inputs for the  three modes of accepted legality of war directed by the Commander-in-Chief: Congressional declaration, imminent threat, or implied by  the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

Declared war is no longer the norm. Starting with the Korean War of 1950-1953, presidents have on numerous occasions bypassed legal mechanism,  involving the U.S. in major conflicts without  legal confirmation of the power to do so. Unlike those prior conflicts,  North Korea then and now  presents a level of threat to national security not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both occasions test the assumption of rationality of the opponent.

The political context is provided by the Congressional testimony of Mattis and Tillerson to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 10/30/17. (The Hill) Mattis, Tillerson: No authority for military action in North Korea outside ‘imminent threat’. So rather than again stretch the war powers of the President, Mattis, Tillerson, and, no doubt, McMaster, have opted to shape the administration’s response to North Korea, as much as possible, to conform with:

  • The Constitutional right of Congress to declare war, which in the 18th century encompassed any prolonged conflict.
  • The power of the President, established by custom, to respond as Commander-in-Chief to an imminent threat.
  • The constraints of War Powers Resolution of 1973, which are most likely to limit the executive if an obvious imminent threat is not demonstrated.

The use of the war powers of the President as an adjunct to foreign policy have been subject to constant challenge and debate since 1973. The argument can be forcefully made that it is  essential  that force be available as an option  without the encumbrance of legislation for every action. The abuses can be stated with equal force. But quoting Mattis again,

“I believe under Article II, he has a responsibility to protect the country and if there was not time, I could imagine him not consulting or consulting as he’s doing something along the lines of for example of what we did at Shayrat air field in Syria where we struck that and Congress was notified immediately,” Mattis said. “In this case of North Korea, it would be a direct imminent or actual attack on the United States I think Article II would apply.”

The Shayrat strike was to stop a slaughter. If it had a connection with U.S. security, it is too distant to argue. But it had a very low risk of blow back. Let’s put  ourselves in the room again. Every President is conscious that  history will be his judge. But history has other actors as well: adversaries, friends, and chance. In (Face the Nation 5/28/17, transcript)  War with North Korea would be “catastrophic,” Defense Secretary Mattis says,

"But the bottom line is it would be a catastrophic war if this turns into a combat if we're not able to resolve this situation through diplomatic means," Mattis said.

If you’re a fly in the room, you might hear the comparison with selling a stock short. If you’re long a stock, all you can lose is what you paid for it. But as with shorting a stock, a war with North Korea could have unanticipated costs.

The interview continues:

SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: We consider it a direct threat even today, the North Korean threat. As far as that specific threat, I don't want to put a timeline on it. At this time, what we know, I'd prefer to keep silent about because we may actually know some things the North Koreans don't even know.

We  began this piece with Mattis’s statement of 12/16 that North Korea is not a threat. We have a statement from 5/28 that it is. Since then, what has changed? The North Korea threat combines two extremes with one policy implication:

  • In contrast with  grinding land warfare, the North Korea threat can only be appreciated as an idea.
  • In spite of the lack of visceral cues such as bullets and blood, the North Korea threat is the most serious of all, both in risk and gain.
  • Policy makers have decided that a serious war, with serious risk, calls for a conservative interpretation of Presidential war powers, with an eventful trigger, understood by a broad swath of Americans.

The more significant the required trigger, the longer a strike is deferred, with possible loss of effectiveness. This could occur with actual deployment of nuclear tipped ICBMs to locations resistant to attack. But in spite of our overwhelming advantage in brainpower, circumventing-the-trigger is an open-ended question. It can’t be absolutely nailed down.

The magnitude of the required trigger is a compromise between eventfulness and factors of risk and reward not known to open source. What might that trigger be?

  • A missile-born  atmospheric detonation in the Pacific.
  • A long range test of ICBM standard trajectory, possibly with a survivable reentry vehicle, although it is not required to pose an EMP threat.
  • A deployment surge.
  • An orbiting satellite, or constellation of satellites, of plausible size and mass to contain a nuclear device.
  • A threat of unconventional delivery. The channels of communication relating to the North Korea threat, which are currently vibrantly clear, would suddenly become opaque.

An orbiting warhead is not part of any of the development tracks we have seen. But the Hwasong-15 is a new, second track. A third could be imagined. Could Kim Jong-un be a  strategist of sophistication? Could he be capable of  circumventing the trigger? A rapid surge of deployment, a fait-accompli?

(Reuters) North Korea likely to pursue talks, South says in rosy New Year forecast. It could be a sophisticated move of obfuscation, to interfere with a response if a trigger occurs. In a culture of elder-hierarchy, negotiations have precedent with the father, Kim Jong-il.

We’ve made the lists. But Occam’s Razor slices right through them, with the conclusion of  Reuters: Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible. Sometimes a person can’t back up. We’ve seen this on all scales; from the trivial lie that cascades to the absurd, all the way to the dictator in the bunker.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.




Leave a Reply