Emile Simpson writes: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis delivered a pithy response on Sunday to North Korea’s nuclear test earlier that day. This was the core of the statement: “Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.”
Global markets barely moved upon opening on Monday, which was consistent with the broader treatment of these words as just more of the same from Washington. But that is to misinterpret Mattis, whose words represent a significant escalation in U.S. policy: The probability of a U.S. strike on North Korea has clearly risen.
Compare Mattis’ statement with the key part of Donald Trump’s remarks on August 8, in which the president said, “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.”
First, context. On August 8, Trump spoke off the cuff from a golf club during a discussion on opioids, which left ambiguous how far his words represented the administration’s position. Mattis spoke outside the White House, flanked by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, in a scripted statement, in which each word had clearly been carefully chosen.
Second, speaker. We have become accustomed to Trump’s remarks being contradicted by members of his administration, or by his own subsequent statements. But not so with Mattis, who is one of the most highly respected military officers of his generation. When Mattis speaks, you listen to each word. And the two key words in Mattis’ statement were “will be”: Not “might be”, but will be. That tells us that if North Korea makes a threat that meets the administration’s definition, the next step is a U.S. strike, rather than more diplomacy. [Continue reading…]