Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Magic Lines and Escalation Ladders

A colleague asked me if there will be war between the US and North Korea.  I said maybe, which is pretty damned scary, given the likely consequences.  Why am I worried?  Basically for two reasons that intersect in bad ways, besides the Trumpiness and KJU-ness factors:
  1. the US seems awfully confident that they knew where the line is between what North Korea will perceive as an exercise and what NK will perceive as the start of an attack
  2. Escalation Ladders are finite.
This weekend, the US sent some bombers and fighters to fly near North Korea but not over it.  How do they know the North Koreans would not see this as the opening move of an attack?  Given that North Korea does not have MAD with the US--that a US first strike could possibly destroy NK's ability to hit the US, they are in a "use them or lose them" situation.  Not a great place to be in and why nuclear proliferation is so scary.  Mutual assured destruction is not great, but it is a least bad alternative and a stable one, mostly.  If it ain't mutual, it ain't stable, so Trump's threat to destroy NK is problematic, more so than I suggested last week.  So, my question is: how does the US now what will and will not trigger North Korean fears of preemption?  My guess is that we don't really know, and we need to remember that even under MAD, fears of attack and launch on warning were just a wee bit probelmatic (see the pieces about the death of the Lt. Colonel who prevented WWIII).

The second problem is that the flights are part of an escalation--the US is sending stronger and strong signals that it is not happy.  Likewise, the North Koreans have been escalating--more missile tests, missile tests flying over Japan, an H-bomb test.  What's next?  Maybe sending a nuclear-armed missile into the Pacific?  The US did that once a long time ago--not a great idea since much can go very wrong.  If North Korea does that, what does the US do?  If North Korea tries to or does shoot down a US plane over or near North Korea, what does the US do?  There are not infinite rungs (I originally typed infinite wrongs--Freud at work) on the escalation ladder--we are running out of steps between where we are and war.  And some of those rungs on the ladder are very war-ish and pretty slippery (can one slip up a ladder?).

So, combine those two--we are escalating and we may have more confidence than we should what will and will not trigger North Korea's first strike.  Yeah, I am deeply worried.  And then we get to considering that Trump's ego is involved.  I see folks are hoping for the US military to disobey Trump's orders if he goes too far.  So much for civilian control of the military.  Again, we are left potentially hoping for folks to make decisions that might avert disaster but undermine American democracy.

I think I need to find something to stress eat or stress drink.

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