“Fire & Fury” or “Shock and Awe”: it is always the start of a Quagmire

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

If we weren’t talking about two nuclear-armed states with unhinged leaders, the war of words between the US and North Korea would be hilarious. Trump’s threat Tuesday 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” was empty rhetoric and the government of Kim Jung-un knows it, which is why they immediately teased Trump that they were going to hit Guam with a missile strike. The counter-threat was just as absurd as the initial one.

This sort of over-heated rhetoric is hardly unprecedented and always weakens the United States.

North Korea is a country with a $17 billion gross domestic product (nominal) and a population of 25 million. I’m sure it has its virtues, but military weight in world affairs isn’t one of them. It is in a league with Nepal, Gabon and Iceland economically. Population-wise it is in the same league as the Cameroons and Madagascar. The US has a population of 320 million and a GDP of $18.5 trillion.

When I heard the phrase “fire and fury,” I couldn’t help thinking of George W. Bush’s threat of “shock and awe” against Iraq in March of 2003.

The threat was intended to convince Saddam Hussein and other embers of the Iraqi elite to flee the country without preconditions.

It did not work. The US failed to find Saddam, and failed to decapitate the regime.

The American Air Force did rain down destruction on Baghdad, but Baghdad did not surrender.

The army was sent in, grunts on the ground having to fight Iraqi armor and other units. Increasingly the military realized it had been duped by W.’s rhetoric. As Iraqi soldiers discarded their uniforms the better to engage in a guerrilla war, one general got into trouble with the highly scripted White House when he admitted that this was not the war they had gamed for.

The shock and awe that was supposed to make Saddam surrender without a shot, and to cow the Iraqis into submission, Instead the US was drawn into an Iraqi quagmire that continues to this day.

When they start talking shock and awe in Washington, friends, it is time to hunker down for the long haul.

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Related video:

AP: “Trump: NKorea Will Be Met with ‘Fire and Fury'”

23 Responses

  1. I seem to remember that the snake oil salesman, Tony Blair, was selling we British a similar story about Saddam Hussein being able to each us in 45 minutes with chemical weapons. Of course, it was a pack of lies just as the rubbish about North Korea being able nuke America is. However, North Korea may well be able to do some serious damage to South Korea, the capitol of which is only a few miles away. If the maniacs in the American military do blow up the nuclear weapons and reactors in the North, the radiation could smother the South if the wind is in the right direction. Much better to have talks, lift all sanctions and stop threatening North Korea. Countries without Nukes get beaten up and destroyed by the Americans, so who can blame the North Koreans for having nukes themselves.

    • To the contrary, the “maniacs in the American military” are anything but that. As we saw in today’s calmer comments from Mattis, the US military is quite sober and rational – unlike our utterly unhinged POTUS. And they also know the effects or drifting radiation.

      Also, yes, we can blame North Korea for developing nukes. There’s no rationale. The US has conducted desultory talks over the decades and they can continue. Unfortunately, it’s been a hard slog. If the Kims and their fat cat friends in authority insist on building nukes while impoverishing and repressing their citizens, that’s revolting and they deserve our contempt.

      But no, there’s no immediate reason to launch a war against Pyongyang.

      • The Commander of the US Military is anything but sober and rational and the US Pacific Fleet commander said recently he would launch a nuclear strike against China if ordered.
        “Every member of the US military has sworn an oath to defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the officers and the president of the United States as commander and chief appointed over us,” Admiral Swift said.
        No rationale? NK was devastated by US bombing in a war which has never officially ended. The North Koreans have faced nuclear weapons based in South Korea and Japan for decades and a policy of first use against a non-nuclear armed state. Two states which under international pressure gave up their nuclear programs were attacked and overthrown with the last 15 years.
        From a North Korean perspective, the nuclear program ensures survival.

      • General Mattis’s remarks that North Korea should give up its nuclear program or face “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” does not sound very sober and rational to me. America is by far the more dominant force in this contest. If you study the history of the Korean War you will learn that America dropped so many bombs on North Korea that nearly every substantial building was destroyed. As U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay said: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.” The United States even threatened to use nuclear bombs against what was left of North Korea. More than one million people were killed in that war on all sides.

        The United States has many bases in South Korea with at least 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. During the past few weeks, the United States has flown B-1 and B-52 bombers over North Korea, etc. Why is it so difficult to sit round a table with North Korea and talk about a denuclearized Korean Peninsula? Instead of the talk of “fire and fury” that is dragging the world to the threshold of another massive war over North Korea, won’t it be better to start intense negotiations, similar to the remarkable Iran nuclear deal and resolve the problem once and for all? U.S. ally Israel is another country with a massive nuclear arsenal. Why is there no fuss about forcing Israel to give up its illegal weapons? There is a great deal of double standards here.

  2. The evidence, unfortunately, is that our so-called “civlization” has failed. We proved to be collectively stupider than rats, who will not live in their own waste products if given a choice.

    We thought we were doing that, but it turns out that we have taken the closed box that is our atmosphere, and poisoned it against our children’s and grandchlidren’s survival; our political-social arrangements are also in too many cases more unhelpful to human survival than otherwise.

    It seems likely the rats, the ants, the microbes and others will have their chance to rule the earth.

    Nevertheless, for the sake of our brains, our bodies, and yes our souls, it is necessary to be optimistic, and to continue to struggle to get ourselves and our communities into more sustainable positions.

  3. North Korea very much carries weight in military world affairs, as it plays a pivotal role as buffer state between China and US best ally S-Korea. China does NOT want a US-allied reunified Korea at its borders. Already they are quite displeased with US air defense batteries protecting S-Korea from missile attacks.

    The nuclear proliferation of the Kim regime is also making Japan quite nervous, which could entice them to go nuclear themselves; another scenario China absolutely does not want to see unfold.

    Add the thousands of artillery rounds that will land on Seoul in any major conflict between N-Korea and whomever, and you have a country that punches well above its weight in international affairs, both politically and yes, militarily.

    The US could defeat North Korea in a day, literally. But that would mean thousands of casualties on both sides of the border, and a refugee problem the likes of which the world has rarely seen. Again, China does not want to absorb a couple million undereducated, malnutrioned Koreans.

    The only solution that benefits everyone (except the North Korean people) is the status quo, which with Kim’s ambition is becoming (or indeed has become) untenable.

    There is no good solution, only variations of bad ones. The can has been kicked down the road by at least half a dozen US presidents, and it’s special ed tantrum child 45 that will have to choose which path to go down next.

    Hunker down indeed.

    • “The only solution that benefits everyone (except the North Korean people) is the status quo, which with Kim’s ambition is becoming (or indeed has become) untenable.”

      There is another solution which is readily available but has not been tried because the U.S. does not want to try it: negotiating a diplomatic peace. The parameters of such a peace are well understood.
      1. Direct negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea.
      2. Stopping the joint military exercises held by the U.S. and South Korea, which North Korea rightly regards as threatening.
      3. Negotiation of a treaty formally ending the Korean War and recognizing the state of North Korea. The U.S. never did this–only a cease-fire was signed at the end of the Korean War.
      4. In return for official recognition as a legitimate state and pledges that they will not be invaded, North Korea would give up their nuclear arsenal.

      It would be possible to negotiate this and much more. The North Koreans are legitimately afraid of invasion and destruction at the hands of the U.S. After all, during the Korean war we did destroy virtually all of the infrastructure of their country–all buildings, bridges, factories, etc.–something they have not forgotten.

    • The USA can NOT defeat NK in even six months time.

      Sure, the USAF can kill lots of civilian humans and create lots of rubble piles, but the NK military has carefully hardened their military sites and will be able to make life in SK and Japan very tenuous at best for a long time. NK military can also make the lives of invading USA soldiers very miserable and short.

      Before you get all hyper about USA military, remember that the rag-tag USA colonists were able to defeat a much better British military in the 1700s and the Vietnamese were able to defeat the USA in the 1970s. A NK homeland protector with an AK-47 can kill a lot of invading Americans.

      In the real world, much of the USA “magic” war toys are worthless, as evidenced by the USA defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. USA soldiers are still getting killed in ambushes in both countries.

      The USA military is no where as powerful as the myths pretend.

  4. It is truly scary that President Trump is making these threats on the anniversary of the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed upward of 200,000 innocent people in those two cities. When he says that he will unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen before” on North Korea, does he really mean that he intends to drop a nuclear bomb on North Korea and kill more innocent people than was the case in Hiroshima? Does he realize that if he does so and North Korea retaliates against South Korea, Japan and Guam how many millions will be killed?

    Kim Jong Un is clearly a narcissist and an unreliable leader. When the world is faced with two narcissist and unreliable men who are in possession of nuclear weapons we are really in trouble. Clearly it seems that there is no mechanism in North Korea to check and restrain Kim Jong Un. One wonders if there is really an effective mechanism in the United States that can stop Trump blowing up the world before he departs from a position for which he is ill suited.

  5. Not to downplay the seriousness of the situation but I suspect Trump will come up with a derogatory name for Kim in the fashion of Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted or Little Rubio.

    Something like ” I call him Kim Jung- unmanly! When I finish with him he’s going to be very un-happy!” Maybe I should Twitter Trump and see if he takes the bait.

  6. Trump is obviously upset that North Korea is a distraction upsetting his idiotic plan to start a war with Iran.

  7. It was curious to observe Trump’s body language. Both hands clamped firmly under his arms. Likely they were shaking.

    He is in a different league now. His failures no longer result in lawyers fees. I doubt that Kin Jung Un or the rest of the world was impressed. We have had two leaders, Trump and Bush, who were in way over their head. A country, no matter how powerful, can stand only so much incompetence.

    • We shouldn’t discount the body language when its this unmistakable. Yes, a cigar is often just a cigar, and the room may have just been drafty, but what I sense is seriously sweaty palms.

      The US military has been studying the NK problem for a long time, and I’m confident they have a non-nuke option ready to neuter them. Remember that demo of the MOAB a little while back in Afghanistan? Dozens of those things could have the impact required.

      Not saying the poor saps in SK and Seoul in particular wouldn’t get their hair mussed, but…

      NK has either got this whole business (correctly) gamed out, and will pull off the Mother of all diplomatic shake-downs, which is very possibly their intention, or Trump will feel compelled to pull the trigger one Friday afternoon when everyone’s taking a nap.

  8. Quotes from the most recent DOS briefing on the subject:

    …..there is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region much less in the homeland.

    Well, we have long said that North Korea has a long way to go before the United States would consider having talks with them, negotiations with them.

    They know what they need to do. We’ve been clear on our expectations of that government.

    This attitude will not get anyone anywhere. The US wants North Korea to relinquish all its cards before negotiation starts. That’s not negotiation. Kim Jong-un won’t. Indeed, why should he; Gaddafi did and ended being dragged from a culvert, beaten, and sodomised with a bayonet before being shot. Saddam also abandoned nuclear weapons and was dragged dishevelled and disorientated from beneath a building and hanged amid a bunch of jeering Iraqi’s. Neither makes for a particularly appealing prospect. Therefore all threats to Kim Jong-un would need guaranteed removal, and it’s difficult to see how that could be in the present geopolitical situation, Trump or no Trump.

    Besides, as Oliver writes above, without Kim Jong-un’s nuclear activities the peninsular might well unite and, despite any (fingers crossed) agreement made with the Chinese, there would soon be US weapons and forces disporting along the 900 mile Chinese border, making the Chinese feel much as the Russians with NATO seeping into Ukraine. If Trump removed the THAAD system from the south and ceased US naval and other provocations in the area, sitting down instead with Putin and Xi Jinping they might come up with something, but that won’t happen either. Hunker in a bunker.

  9. The fire and fury would equate to tactical nuclear warheads, which would mean the end of North Korea, and the Fallout washing into the Yellow Sea would mean the end of a fishery upon which China and South Korea both depend. Not that there would likely be much left of South Korea either.

    The saber-rattling is at the behest of Russia who helped them start the North Korean versus South Korean War and who to this day seeks to undermine democracy and freedom anywhere it can.

    We have been hunkered down for the Long Haul for decades.

    • There is no such thing as “tactical nuclear weapons.”

      What you are actually talking about is slightly smaller nuclear weapons that are just as deadly for everyone on earth as the slightly bigger ones.

      How would you feel if someone set off “tactical nuclear weapons” a few hundred miles from your home? Now you have an idea about how China and Japan would react to having the USA nuke NK. Basically south Korea would be uninhabitable and even if Japan might be marginally habitable, all its food sources would be contaminated.

      As a bonus, do you realize that after a week or so, all the radioactive junk that would be blown into the air would be contaminating YOUR FOOD SOURCES in California and the Midwest? Enjoy the crunchy radium isotopes.

  10. There is a good summary of how we got here in a post at TPM (Josh Marshall – click on Juan’s link!) “Why President Bush’s North Korea Failure Is Important To Remember” – it was published this morning.

    I’m not optimistic about getting through this without catastrophe. Recall we are only six months plus into this presidency. There has been no pivot, there have been no “controls” put on this Caligula on Crack (Caligula with, oh joy, NUKES!) Even if Dems successfully impeach and remove him from office, that will still take time.

    And time is the greatest of destroyers.

    Now is the hour to buy some guns and as many cases of whiskey as you can afford to prep for the post-anthropocene world. At least we won’t have electricity for the Twitter in Chief to harass us any longer (those of us who are left).

  11. Trump’s bluff got called – he’s now going to either start a war that the US would lose once China came in, or back down and be humiliated. True, it pulled some news reports away from the FBI’s raid on Manafort’s house, but Trump’s painted himself into a corner from which he cannot escape without losing face with his base.

  12. Kim Jong un will perfect his weapons, forcing Japan And S. Korea to consider having them as well.
    Looking past Yosemite Sam for their security, they can set and peruse independent policy and relations with N. Korea, China, etc.. Would a nuclear armed S. Korea and Japan Be in US interest?

  13. In other news, the only concern about a state which has never signed the Non Proliferation Treaty and has secretively developed nuclear weapons and now has submarines packing 200 kiloton nuclear warhead cruise missiles is that members of the Israeli Defense Force may have been taking bribes when buying the submarines from Germany.

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