‘If They Play Trump, We’re Going to Have a War’

Ahead of President Trump’s June 12 meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham offered a stark warning to the North Koreans: “If they play Trump, we’re going to have a war, and they’re going to lose it.”

Graham has gone from a 2016 Trump adversary to an ally, and the two speak regularly. The hawkish senator says that in his first conversation with Trump following the 2016 election, they discussed the president’s two options for North Korea: containment or denuclearization. “Do you give them a nuclear capability to hit the homeland and contain it, threaten to wipe them out if they ever use it? That’s the containment theory. Or do you deny them the capability—say, ‘I will never allow you to have the capability to threaten America with a nuclear-tipped missile’?” Graham says he’s convinced that Trump has drawn a “red line” to keep North Korea from obtaining an arsenal of nuclear missiles that could strike the United States.

“They think that a big nuclear program that can hit America ensures their survivability. I think the president has to convince them it ensures their demise,” Graham told THE WEEKLY STANDARD earlier this week. “I don’t think we’d be at the table if it were not for the belief by North Korea and China that Trump is different, he’s put on the table credible use of military force.”

But just how credible is the threat of military force? War with a nuclear-armed country would seem to many to be unthinkable, even if North Korea currently lacks the ability to strike the United States. “Forget it,” President Trump’s then-advisor Steve Bannon said in an August 2017 interview. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”

Graham did not disagree that millions of people could die in a war with North Korea. “If [President Trump] has to pick between millions of people dying in America, and millions of people dying over there, he’s going to pick millions of people dying over there if he has to,” Graham said. “Nobody wants that choice. It’s not in North Korea’s interest to get wiped out. It’s not in our interest to start a war where millions of people could get hurt or killed. It is in our interest to stop what I think is the most likely way a terrorist gets a nuclear weapon or some exotic missile.”

“A bad combination is an unstable regime that is cash-starved with a bunch of nukes,” Graham warned. “To me a war if it is fought must be fought in their backyard, not ours. A war is the last resort, but it may be necessary to stop what I think is a long-term threat to the world.”

“It’s not lost upon me how devastating a war would be, but the loser would be North Korea, not us,” he said. “A lot of people would die. But we live in a world—what’s the other side of the story? That a very reckless, rogue, crazy regime gets armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. The only reason that 3,000 of us died on 9/11 and not three million is that the terrorists couldn’t find a way to kill three million of us. North Korea provides them that way over time. We’ve got to end this program.”

Asked if he thought North Korea would regionally deploy its nuclear weapons if attacked, Graham said: “I have no idea of what they might do. You’ve got to assume they’re going to do the worst.” Asked how confident he is that North Korea doesn’t already have the capability to strike the United States, he said: “I don’t think they have it now, but given their efforts it’s just a matter of time.” Asked if the United States would need a commander-in-chief with a steadier hand to fight a war with North Korea, Graham said: “I think the steady-hand approach has gotten us a bunch of missiles and bombs. What you need is a determined approach. Ronald Reagan had a determination to end the Cold War on our terms. We win, they lose.”

“Denuclearization is non-negotiable, but how you do it is very negotiable,” said Graham. “My hope and belief is that he brings this to a conclusion in his first term. Time has always been on North Korea’s side. The goal of this negotiation is is to put time on our side. Give them a deadline.”

“It’s not about regime change,” Graham said. “We’re not trying to spread democracy, and it’s not about reunifying the two Koreas. It’s about ending this threat to the region and the world.”

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