If President Donald Trump is to keep one campaign promise in 2018, it should be this one.
On the campaign trail, Trump blasted his predecessor and fellow Republican, George W. Bush, for the "disastrous" war in Iraq. Trump derided "trillions spent" in Bush's follies in the Middle East. Trump's "America first" agenda, he argued, would insulate the U.S. from playing world police and "bad deals."
Yet, almost a year into Trump's tenure in the White House, one can't help but notice the similarities between the rhetoric surrounding North Korean missile tests and those employed before Bush's unnecessary and costly invasion of Iraq.
Previous multinational approaches failed, the Bush administration argued in 2003. Trump's administration says the same about North Korea. The regime isn't rational, said Bush's advisers prior to invading Iraq. Trump's lieutenants say the same about Kim Jong-un. Continued diplomacy is a threat to the U.S. and its allies, Bush claimed. Trump's State Department is a shell of its former self.
Military and civilian officials have taken notice, too. Earlier this month, Gen. Robert Neller warned hundreds of Marines that "war is coming." U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a Trump critic turned golf buddy, said recently that there's a 30 percent chance with war with North Korea. Those odds leap to 70 percent if North Korea continues its nuclear tests, Graham told The Atlantic. China's totalitarian regime hasn't concealed its dislike of the sudden spike in tensions. Even Russia last week offered to intervene and host negotiations.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe Trump is either very likely or fairly likely to involve the U.S. in a war, according to an Economist-YouGov poll released Wednesday. The president's Twitter account, alone, has inflamed tensions throughout the world, while undercutting long standing foreign relationships. This month, Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the U.N., blasted the international community for not supporting Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capitol. Much of the world sees the U.S. -- not North Korea, Russia or Iran -- as the biggest threat to peace, according to poll released in August by Pew Research Center.
The U.S. is weakened and isolated on the international stage, roles Russia and China are eager to fill. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was forced to walk back statements that he would be open to talks with North Korea, which flew in the face of his boss' tough guy bombast. Trump, along with congressional Republicans, are sinking hundreds of millions into a military buildup. Trump's rhetoric and style are neither subtle nor surgical.
And, with approval ratings floating in the 30s, a war could be just what Trump needs for a short-term bump in the polls. Few things rally Americans around the White House, history shows, like a good war.
Such a war would be bloody and costly. It would kill thousands of North Koreans, victims of politics and despotism. It would result in American deaths, too. It would further complicate relations with China. It would cost hundreds of billions, if not trillions, the exact same kind of senseless spending Trump blasted on the campaign trail.
Yet, less than a year in to Trump's tenure, the saber rattling is palpable. So, too, is the similarities among the posturing and contempt for diplomacy that ultimately placed American boots on Iraqi soil.
The most significant difference this time, though, is America's standing in the world. The epic failure in Iraq means U.S. allies aren't likely to sign on this time to another foray into regime change by force. No, a war with North Korea would be a wholly American endeavor. Like Iraq, it would cost a disproportionate number of American lives and American dollars. Like Iraq, it would destabilize an already complicated region. Like Iraq, it would be a folly that would do significantly more damage to the U.S. than it could ever be worth.
President Trump made a lot of promises on the campaign trail. The tax bill contradicts his economic populism. There's no wall on the border with Mexico.
But if he's going to keep just one of those promises, avoiding another catastrophic, unnecessary war should be it.