As a bareknuckle businessman and presidential candidate, Donald Trump is comfortable with the most extreme of hyperbole. It has often gotten him what he wanted, no doubt.
But as president of the United States, exaggeration, embellishment and bluster can unsettle an already shaky world.
Such was the case with his promise Tuesday – shocking from a U.S. president – that continued threats from North Korea would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Later in the week he reiterated his threat.
There are still some in this country and in the Pacific Rim who were alive during the world’s only wartime use of nuclear weapons. But you don’t have to have lived through it to be utterly haunted by it.
Mr. Trump didn’t specifically pledge to use nuclear weapons, certainly, but their specter surely follows such overheated rhetoric in the midst of the world’s confrontation of nuclear proliferation and apocalyptic threats in North Korea.
“What the president is doing,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later explained, “is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language.”
Perhaps. But there are other, less reckless ways to deliver such an audacious communiqué to a foreign leader, even such a cloistered one as Kim Jong-un. China could have quietly delivered the dispatch back-channel. In the process, perhaps the threat would’ve been given even more credibility; it might’ve been viewed as more candid, and less bluff, being delivered in private and away from cameras.
As it is, the president’s rhetoric shook even the home crowd – and may have roiled financial markets, which dipped markedly in the remark’s aftermath.
Moreover, the full faith and credit of American military might need not be compromised by idle threats from our commander in chief. His credibility, and ours, will take a hit if his rhetoric is viewed, even in the least, in the same light as Saddam Hussein’s “mother of all battles” or Kim’s daily bombast broadcast.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick” is the stuff of legend now, and for good reason. It’s wise, and more effective than brash intimidation.