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John F. Kennedyand Nikita Khrushchev

Image credit: U. S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Does China Believe Donald Trump Is No Jack Kennedy?


It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union. (President Kennedy’s televised address, October 22, 1962)

Congressman Darrel Issa and former UN Ambassador John Bolton have compared the situation the United States now faces with North Korea to the Cuban missile crisis. This is an apt comparison. Indeed, the present crisis has a thornier aspect, because North Korea’s status as China’s cat’s paw is every day tacitly denied in media reports and commentary that insist on identifying Kim Jong Un’s government as a “rogue” state.

However, it is, de facto, a Chinese dependency. With this in mind, it makes sense to compare Kennedy’s stance during the Cuban missile crisis to President Trump’s response to the now fully mature threat of a North Korean nuclear strike against United States territory, and that of other nations, like Japan and South Korea, in the Pacific region.

Kennedy “went on national television…to inform the American people of the developments in Cuba, his decision to initiate and enforce a ‘quarantine,’ and the potential global consequences if the crisis continued to escalate. The tone of the President’s remarks was stern….” His speech included the dramatically succinct declaration of US policy quoted above. Responding to the Soviet Union’s attempt to create facts deeply threatening to the United States, Kennedy’s words were not couched as a threat, but as a factual statement of policy, re-enforced by assertively defensive military actions, already under way.

Kennedy’s policy statement treated the attempted missile emplacements as a threatening Soviet action, not a threat from the Soviet client state, Castro’s Cuba. If the threat matured into action, despite US actions to prevent it, President Kennedy stated, in no uncertain terms, that the United States would launch a full retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union, not just the missile sites in Cuba.

How does this compare with President Trump’s response to the nuclear missile threat from North Korea? President Trump and his cabinet level officers, Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, have clearly stated that they hold China responsible for North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. Though the process has taken years instead of months, the Chinese government has contrived to place missiles in North Korea capable of inflicting serious damage on the United States, and other countries of the Pacific region.

In this respect, the present Chinese government may have succeeded in doing far more than the now-defunct Soviet Union aimed to achieve. China is not directly threatening the United States and other nations. They are threatening us by proxy, with deniability, on account of their North Korean henchman, however factually implausible. And though President Trump and his team profess to know that their denials are false, Mr. Trump speaks and acts in terms that accept and seem to verify them. He responds to threats from Kim Jong Un with a combination of words and deeds. He does so, quite literally, with sound and fury, saying that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States…They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

This fulsomely threatening remark caused the knee-jerk anti-Trump brigade to let fly a barrage of prissy criticisms.They decried it as dangerous, intemperate and unbecoming the gravity of his office. However, when his words pricked a response from Kim Jong Un threatening a nuclear attack against the American Island of Guam, President Trump flung this in the faces of his detractors as proof that his words were not yet tough enough.

The comparison with President Kennedy’s response to the missile threat from Cuba suggests that President Trump is certainly right about this. However. the reason he’s right does not have to do with his words, or even with such deeds as the United States has taken to vaunt its military readiness to deal with North Korea. Despite the appearance of brash toughness, President Trump, while bravely confronting the barking dog with all manner of mayhem, seems to be letting its master off the hook. He has not sternly reminded those really responsible for Kim’s threatening posture of where the consequences for their feisty pit bull’s misbehavior must fall. In this respect, the Chinese rulers may be tempted to believe (however mistakenly) that Donald Trump is no Jack Kennedy.

China’s Communist rulers may mistakenly believe that they have accomplished what the Soviet Communists failed to achieve: They have put the United States and other Pacific nations under threat of nuclear attack outside the framework of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Yet, if and when the United States moves to respond to act against North Korea, they are still in positioned invoke that framework, so as to characterize any action the US Government proposes to take against North Korea as an attack against China, that will not be tolerated. Their repeated statements about the military maneuvers, routine and otherwise, conducted by the US in the region, in conjunction with South Korea and other nations, have been couched in language consistent with this scenario.

Because North Korea is China’s cat’s paw, by trading threats with Kim Jong Un, the US consents to treat an inferior agent as an equal. By doing so, we lose face. We invite contemptuous doubts, not only about our own sense of our status, but about whether we think we still have the power to back it up. Do those who confidently know themselves to be on top of a situation purport to test themselves against blustering, foolish weaklings? Or do they disdain and ignore their barking, sternly challenging the true masters of the power the fools only pretend to control?

At the moment, President Trump is enthusiastically treating the unequal contest with North Korea as the main event, even though he and his colleagues profess to understand that China is the real contender. Does he “stoop to conquer”, as it were, or is US posturing a bluff? If so, will China call it, to see whether in fact the US still has the superior hand? Do China’s rulers interpret President Trump’s exchanges with Kim Jong Un as evidence of neophyte brashness, likely to evaporate when the life-and-death stakes of superpower confrontation are clearly placed on the table? Are they inclined to believe that, when push comes to shove this time, China’s rulers will play the trump card, and the United States will fold? This could lead them to miscalculate America’s resolve, so that they allow the situation to ripen in a way that pushes the clock forward past midnight, toward the glaring prospect of a Great Power nuclear showdown.

This prospect may still give China pause, but only if we rip away the fiction of North Korea’s “rogue” status. President Trump would be well advised to cease all the verbal fisticuffs with China’s North Korean stooge. To avoid misunderstanding, President Trump should matter-of-factly update President Kennedy’s application of the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, to suit the present circumstances: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from North Korea against any nation in the Pacific region as an attack by China on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon China.

If China incorrectly believe that their patient cultivation of the North Korean threat has successfully given them a hand the United States lacks the will to confront, at the very least, this sternly simple indication of US resolve will force them to rethink this potentially fatal error. But it must be issued well before China forces our hand by letting Kim act out his irretrievably stupid threats. China must strip their henchman of the power to do so, or MAD will be the consequence of their irresponsible failure to do so.


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