Kim Jong Un called the president’s bluff
© Getty images

Bluff catching is a sophisticated poker strategy. It describes a hand too weak to play against an opponents’ normal value betting range, but one that is still strong enough to have showdown value against bluffers. The key is to correctly size up an opponent as a bluffer. Up against a former casino magnate, North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, turned out to be a pretty good bluff catcher. 

Last week, President Trump promised “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen” if North Korea made more threats against the United States. North Korea, despite having a weak hand (around an estimated 10 to 30 nuclear warheads versus America’s 6,600), promptly announced a plan to engulf the U.S. territory of Guam with “enveloping fire.” Although Trump’s redline had been crossed by the new threat, “fire and fury” did not rain down on Pyongyang. That’s what calling a bluff looks like.

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And that’s the problem. If Kim Jong Un thinks Trump is a bluffer, and if Trump is afraid to be seen as one, then the risk of a catastrophic miscalculation has escalated. By his Guam threat, Kim could be overplaying his hand and provoke a war. Trump subsequently warned that Kim would “regret” any strike on U.S. territory, but will Kim believe him? 

 

Trump’s “fire and fury” threat reflects everything about him that alarms much of the world. According to reports, Trump threatened to start a war without asking the advice of the experienced men and women he appointed to counsel him on whether and when to start a war.

A monumental ego (“I alone can fix it”) converged with Trump getting in touch with his inner Zeus — thunderbolts and all. The venue for the threat was so weird that it undercut the credibility of the threat. Once, momentous policies that could lead to war were made only after tense meetings in the White House Situation Room, the nation’s command center for coordinated and informed national security decision making. In the Trump era, the Situation Room is the clubhouse of a Trump golf course.

If only someone would make Trump read the accounts of the White House decision making in the October 1962 showdown with the Soviet Union over the nuclear missiles in Cuba. After a deliberative process involving senior national security officials that weighed the consequences of the available options and produced a well thought-out strategy, President Kennedy went on national television to announce the blockade of Cuba. He also stated, in a deadly serious but calm way, his policy that, if any nuclear missiles were launched from Cuba against the Western Hemisphere, there would be “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." You knew he wasn’t bluffing and the Soviets knew it too and they backed down. 

If a dangerous confrontation with North Korea is unavoidable, this White House better stop doing dangerous-stupid and do dangerous-smart. Trump could learn from President Reagan’s handling of the Soviet bloc’s deployment during the Cold War of intermediate-range nuclear missiles for potential use against NATO military forces. Reagan and NATO didn’t engage in empty, bellicose posturing, but instead matched the Soviet deployment by deploying Pershing II intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe for potential use against the Soviet bloc forces. Their actions spoke louder than any words, produced a standoff, and the Soviet Union entered into a treaty under which both sides withdrew their intermediate range missiles.

In both the Cuban missile crisis and the Pershing II deployment, Kennedy and Reagan did dangerous-smart — adopted a calibrated strategy, articulated clear justifications rooted in imminent threats, marshaled support from the public and America’s allies, avoided inflammatory rhetoric and didn’t back down.

Trump threatened “fire and fury” if North Korea made more threats, even though Kim Jong Un and his father before him have made warlike statements for decades. Trump then backed down when — to no one’s surprise — North Korea made more threats. 

In this particular poker game, the table stakes are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. President Trump better stop doing dangerous-stupid.

Gregory J. Wallance is a writer, lawyer, former federal prosecutor and the author of the forthcoming: “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow on Twitter @gregorywallance


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