U.S. Sen. Todd Young is a former Navy intelligence officer, an intellect in the tradition of Richard Lugar and a pragmatist. So when he conjures the notion of a potential nuclear war, perhaps just months or weeks away, it makes one sit up straight.
The war drums are beating within the administration, with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly saying “all options are on the table” when it comes to the rogue North Korean regime of dictator Kim Jong Un. At the G-20 summit last week, Trump promised something “pretty severe” after North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. Trump promises a paradigm shift, and Kim keeps thumbing his nose and lobbing off missiles.
“We’re not being passive,” Young, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said mid-June. “The time for strategic patience has passed, as Sec. (of State Rex) Tillerson has stated. I think we needed to change course. Simply standing by and hoping Kim Jung Un will be welcomed into the community of nations is not going to work.”
Young explained, “I know contingency planning has taken place in respect to all options. The last thing we want is to have to resort to a military option. I think it’s appropriate for this administration to keep all options on the table, but there are still economic tools we can use, diplomatic tools that remain on the table. Sequentially we can tighten the thumb screws on the North Korean regime, but there aren’t many good moves left on the chess board.”
Essentially, we have two leaders who are confronting each other, and neither wants to lose face.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on CBS Face The Nation, “A conflict in North Korea would probably be the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes. The bottom line is it would be a catastrophic war...if we’re not able to resolve this situation through diplomatic means.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly is a Democrat who sits in the Senate Committee on Armed Services, and I asked him if there’s a scenario where a preemptive U.S. strike would be a good move.
“I can’t get into that,” he said with a grim face.
What do Hoosiers need to know?
“No. 1, my first obligation is the defense of this country, our citizens,” Donnelly said. “The leader of North Korea has said he plans to put a nuclear warhead on top of an ICBM and send it here. I have to take him at his word. The subcommittee I am the ranking member of, the Strategic Forces, is...responsible for our missile defense. It’s responsible for nuclear warheads, nuclear weaponry, all of our submarines. This is exactly what we’re working on.”
Donnelly and Young would prefer to pressure the Chinese with “real sanctions” on their banks and companies that make missile parts for the North Koreas.
“Secondly, on the strategic forces side, we have to work with the Chinese, but we don’t farm out our national defense. We’re responsible for it,” Donnelly said. “I expect to see a continued understanding how important it is that, as we move forward, we have all our tools on the table. What I mean by that is nuclear submarines. North Korea knows we have attack submarines ready to go.”
This is where some of the temperament issues with President Trump come into play. Neither he, nor Vice President Pence, have served in the military.
I mentioned Trump reportedly told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a May phone call that Washington had sent two nuclear submarines off the Korean peninsula and said a “major, major conflict” was possible.
That, in Donnelly’s assessment, was a “bad move.”
“That is classified,” Donnelly continued. “I work with these folks, and the people who know where they are is about as small a group as you can possibly think of. Their families have no idea. The critical advantage they give us is anyone thinking about taking action against us understands they are out there somewhere. No one will ever find them. Except when you tell them where they are.”
Certainly the Russians and Chinese deployed assets to locate them. Was that a serious security breach?
“Yes. It was,” Donnelly responded. “It was an extraordinarily serious breach."
And what does Lugar think? Pressed by NPR’s Scott Simon, Lugar noted the U.S. and China “do not have similar interests.” He wrote Trump, urging bilateral talks with the North Koreans, saying, “We need to make certain they know that in the event there would be an attack, it would be met appropriately and would be the end of the North Korean regime.”
In essence, for the first time in human history, a nuclear super power is seriously and operationally contemplating the preemptive elimination of another nuclear state. There could be hundreds of thousands of U.S., Korean and Japanese casualties.
It’s a chilling prospect for which you need to ponder and prepare.