At a Union/NDP conference in March 2002 in Ottawa I saw wall-to-wall US TV attacking Iraq in my room. My caucus report that America was going to war was instinctive. Helen Clark stood up immediately and said that we wouldn’t be following. The US war dogs are barking again, this time over Korea.
A recent article in Jacobin magazine had this assessment of the inside debate in the Trump administration:
While there have been hopeful signs in recent days, the administration remains deeply divided on North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are skeptical of military action, but National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster is apparently a strong proponent. McMaster’s more hawkish line has been echoed by UN ambassador Nikki Haley and CIA director Mike Pompeo, both of whom have been floated as potential replacements for Tillerson. If Tillerson leaves — or gets the boot — the balance of power could easily shift in the hawks’ favor.
The Japan Times notes that as there has been a definite uptick in the war rhetoric, the United States has also been moving military assets into the region and increasing training for a ground war.
Amid this palace intrigue, the United States is quietly moving military assets — bombers, ships, and fighter jets — into the Pacific region. These moves could be bluffs in support of what is at least honestly called “coercive diplomacy.” But they have a materiality too — and serve to remind us that war lurks as a real possibility.
Statements such as those of Marine Commandant General Neller that Marines will have to ‘steel themselves for a very tough fight in North Korea’ are as usual backed away from when they become public.
Our Foreign Minister Winston Peters was at a meeting in Canada convened by Tillerson to discuss the Korean situation. Ostensibly about increasing sanctions, Russia and China, states bordering North Korea, were not there. It was a meeting of allies in the Korean war that started in 1950 and has still not ended.
The Japan Times reported Tillerson’s words after the meeting:
On Tuesday, during a gathering in Canada of U.S. allies on how to beef up sanctions pressure on the North, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued some of his strongest words yet for Pyongyang, saying that time was running out for the isolated regime.
“We all need to be very sober and clear-eyed about the current situation,” Tillerson said when asked whether Americans should be concerned about the possibility of a war. “We have to recognize that the threat is growing and that if North Korea does not choose the pathway of engagement, discussion, negotiation then they themselves will trigger an option.”
But perhaps most tellingly of the shifting tone was Tillerson’s answer to a reporter’s question about reported talk in the White House of a limited military strike, what some have called the “bloody nose” option.
Although Tillerson, who has advocated for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, refrained from directly answering the question, the top U.S. diplomat effectively admitted the Trump administration has been considering such a move at the highest levels when he said he would not speak “on issues that have yet to be decided among the National Security Council or the president.”
Contacted by The Japan Times for comment on Tillerson’s remarks, the State Department was sanguine.
“I would advise against attempting to extract any ‘effective confirmation’ beyond the points clearly stated by Secretary Tillerson,” State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said in an email. “We will not parse his words.”
Cleary not convinced, the article went on to provide this sobering assessment from Van Jackson, a North Korea expert and Senior Lecturer here at Victoria University of Wellington. Jackson is a former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the Secretary of Defense.
(Jackson) said Tillerson’s remarks confirmed his belief that the White House has already been “on a war footing.”
“President Trump and some on his team have been actively shutting down off-ramps from the current nuclear crisis. That Tillerson is now saying these same things is disturbing because it suggests he’s been told behind closed doors to get in line.”
Jackson said his concerns, “which Tillerson substantiates,” is that Washington’s policy of heaping “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang is merely “a box-checking exercise aimed at trying to rally international backing behind the U.S. as much as possible before launching into a war, whether by ‘bloody nose’ or an Iraq-style invasion.”
He said the international community sees backing the maximum pressure campaign, of which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been one of the strongest proponents, “as a way of keeping the U.S. from taking rash action.”
“But it’s looking like the Trump administration is viewing it the opposite way — getting the international community to back maximum pressure so that they’ll be locked in to the next logical step — conflict — when it fails,” Jackson added.
Malcom Turnbull is already on record as saying that Australia will support the US if it comes to war. It is sincerely to be hoped that the New Zealand government led by Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters will not find itself locked into conflict if Donald Trump is the one who decides that diplomatic pressure and sanctions have failed. An article in Vox today makes the point that Trump’s state of the Union speech today resembled George Bush’s argument for war with Iraq.
We should be seeking clarity and assurances now from our government and supporting every effort for peace.