Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are continuing to rise. On May 21, North Korea conducted yet another medium-range ballistic missile test, the second since the inauguration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Conversely, the U.S. Navy’s second nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is expected to arrive in waters off the Korean Peninsula in the coming days, joining the carrier USS Carl Vinson.
With the recent ballistic missile tests, Kim Jong Un has unequivocally rejected U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ambiguous offer of direct talks, although Pyongyang has so far refrained from conducting a sixth nuclear weapons detonation or an intercontinental ballistic missile launch, indicating that the Korean dictator is careful not to overtly provoke U.S. military action.
However, despite Kim Jong Un’s apparent calculated restraint, President Donald Trump could still embrace a military solution.
Given the political turmoil the president is facing at home, a short military conflict might be considered a viable option to restore the credibility of the Trump White House. Indeed, one of the few instances (the other being his first big speech to Congress in February) where Trump was (relatively) widely praised by commentators and pundits across the political spectrum was when he ordered missile strikes in Syria.
And despite the massive disadvantages of initiating military action against North Korea (See: “What Would the Second Korean War Look Like?”), an impulsive decision by the U.S. commander-in-chief — for example, authorizing limited air strikes and a covert Special Operations Forces campaign — cannot be entirely dismissed. Indeed, as I pointed out last week, the danger of U.S. military action in the region might be more acute prior to North Korea successfully testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The idea of war as a panacea to domestic political troubles is as old as political history itself. The best modern blueprint, however, for a short, sharp military campaign that delivered what a politician wanted to do is the Falklands War in 1982. The ten-week military conflict in the South Atlantic between Argentina and Great Britain turned out to be the largest air-naval combat operation between conventional military forces since the end of the Second World War.
The result of the British victory in the war was not only the overthrowing of the brutal Argentinian dictatorship, but also the securing of then-Prime Minister’s Margaret Thatcher’s political future by delivering to the British people something that they had not enjoyed since 1945: a clear military success. The British military triumph came at the cost of 258 British dead. (Argentine losses were 649 killed.) Over 2,000 men were wounded on both sides.
The quick conclusion of the conflict overshadowed that it was a desperate military gamble and British victory as much a result of Argentinian incompetence and sheer luck than British military prowess. The Argentinians, for example, neglected to deploy crucial military assets (e.g., attack helicopters) and the majority of conscripted Argentine troops had dug into static defense positions, giving the initiative to the British.
While the Argentine Navy and Air Force broke through British defenses on numerous occasions, their bombs and torpedoes failed to detonate repeatedly. British landings were conducted without British forces first establishing air superiority, which resulted in the sinking of several British ships and the loss of all but one of the invasion force’s transport helicopters. (The British lacked airborne early warning aircraft to detect incoming Argentinian fighter jets.)
The war was short, but bloody with individual acts of bravery on both sides, next to the more horrible aspects (human nature being what it is) that any conflict produces.
The military victory was a turning point for Margaret Thatcher’s image and political fortunes. Prior to the war, opinion polls showed her to be the most unpopular prime minister in British history. Yet, her new image as a wartime leader ensured a landslide victory for her and the Conservative Party in the general elections of 1983. The war pathed the way for what is now known as Thatcherism and it forever cemented Margaret Thatcher’s image as the ‘Iron Lady’ in the eyes of the British public.
Comparing the Falklands War with a possible Second Korean War and the political fortunes of Margaret Thatcher with those of Donald Trump seems preposterous.
Thatcher would not have gone to war had there been any possibility that it might escalate to the nuclear level. She also would have reconsidered sending a naval task force had there been a high risk of causing tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties. The prospect that the war might turn into a regional conflict involving several states would also have likely changed her risk calculus. (She refused to bomb military installations on the Argentinian mainland.)
Nevertheless, there are some superficial similarities between Trump and Thatcher’s political situations that could influence the former’s decisions at a crucial time. Trump, like Thatcher at the beginning of her premiership, remains deeply unpopular. Trump, similar to Thatcher, has a feeling that he somehow has yet to prove himself in his new leadership position. And, Trump, like the former British prime minister, believes his nation to be in decline and robbed of military success.
Of course, all of this does not mean that Trump automatically will embrace military options in dealing with North Korea and there is no causal relationship between the domestic political problems of a head of government and war. The larger point of the conflict in 1982, however, is that it confirmed that few things boost the popularity of a democratically elected politicians more than a short, sharp military conflict against a dictatorship.
As such the Falklands War model remains deeply attractive for elected leaders.
While the Korean Peninsula is decidedly unsuited for a short and successful U.S. military campaign based on the Falklands model, the danger remains that the incumbent U.S. president might nevertheless embark upon a course of action that could lead to military conflict under misguided notions. Once that occurs, he may hope for an outcome similar to that of the conflict of 1982.
Yet, while he can certainly expect a boost in domestic political support, fueled by cable news coverage of the conflict (particularly if North Korea is perceived to be the aggressor), the military reality will almost certainly be bloodier and more tragic than anything he could imagine.