Phillip Matthews: Donald Trump's direct threat signals return of nuclear terror
OPINION: Is this the way the world ends, to mangle TS Eliot, not with a bang but on Twitter? US President Donald Trump's direct threat against North Korea will have been an uncomfortable reminder for readers born before the 1980s of an existential threat most of them had forgotten: the terror of nuclear war.
Trump matched North Korean nuclear threats with dire warnings of his own. He claimed that the regime would "be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before".
For the benefit of his 35 million Twitter followers, he clarified that his "first order as president was to renovate and modernise our nuclear arsenal". And while he hoped that "we will never have to use this power", the world can be certain that the US "is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before".
Administration spokespeople tried to assure the public that Trump's apocalyptic "fire and fury" language was improvised and, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, Americans should not be concerned about the worsening rhetoric from both sides. The political jargon is that Tillerson is walking back his boss' off-script statement.
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But while the words were improvised, the "tone and strength" of Trump's comments were agreed on in response to reports that North Korea had mastered technology that could enable its missiles to hit North America. The United Nations Security Council had already responded with tougher sanctions.
In a show of force, the US sent bombers over the Korean peninsula. In return, North Korea threatened to strike a US base on Guam, its most specific threat so far. China, which has been in the middle of US-North Korea negotiations, urged both sides to keep cool heads and avoid escalating the conflict.
Trump's language and behaviour seem incredibly reckless, especially as the United Nations Security Council sanctions were a genuine breakthrough that will also hit China hard. They came after a rare agreement between the US, Russia and China that will ban the sale of seafood, iron ore, lead and coal to North Korea, possibly hastening the regime collapse that the Barack Obama administration hoped for.
Given this background, Trump's belligerence is like poking a wasp's nest with a stick. But the Twitter statements and aggressive boasting could just as easily be seen as an unpopular president talking directly to the base that put him in office.
The same strongman posturing has also been behind Trump's dismissal of the Obama-era "strategic patience" approach to North Korea as so much politically correct code, even if, as some pundits have observed, the same policy has been mostly maintained behind the scenes.
Politics is performance, after all. The posturing plays well with an evangelical base that would not traditionally have backed a twice-divorced reality show host and property developer from New York City. An evangelical adviser, Texan pastor Robert Jeffress, confirmed that "God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un".
When asked if the president should embody the Christian pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount, the same pastor said "Absolutely not". With pastors like that, who needs warmongers?
Philip Matthews is a senior reporter for Stuff. This opinion piece ran as an editorial in The Press on August 11.