Entry 38: Lost in Translation

February 5, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 38th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

Productive weekend—1,700 or so words. I’m almost done with the first Obama-era chapter. Not sure how much I’ll need to do in the way of revisions, but in terms of productivity I’m killing it. The twitter drama of the weekend was a claim about the Trump administration in Hankyoreh, a left-wing South Korean newspaper that has pretty much always been ignored in the United States.

Hankyoreh published an op-ed with a slightly botched translation asserting that “White House National Security Council Senior Director Matt Pottinger was reported as saying in a recent closed-door meeting with US experts on Korean Peninsula issues that a limited strike on the North ‘might help in the midterm elections.’”

The piece caused a hell of a stir, getting the attention of every major newspaper on social media, some even running their own stories that amplified the piece, even though they prefaced all attention given to the piece by noting that it was something another newspaper claimed. But of course the fact of sharing it inserts it in our brains regardless of ass-covering caveats. And because it fits with prevailing perceptions of the Trump administration, it resonates as plausible and reinforces the larger perception many of us have of the Trump administration as putting politics before national security.

Proof is in the outrage. A lot of national security pundits who shared the piece were quick to rail against the mere possibility that NSC staff directors would be engaged in political calculations with national security. California congressman Ted Lieu even tweeted that “If below quote is accurate…Matthew Pottinger must resign immediately.”

First of all, it’s true that NSC staff should not be engaged in naked political considerations. It’s equally true, however, that national security practice is often inevitably caught up in Washington politics, making all the outrage feel a bit like that scene in Casablanca where Captain Renault declares “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!” People shouldn’t have to die for reasons of politics, but they often do. Anyway, I agree with the principle underlying the outrage, even if it has whiffs of hypocrisy.

Second, Pottinger probably didn’t say what Hankyoreh claimed he said. The White House denied it, but they have no credibility. I mean, who would expect them to take ownership of such a sensational statement? The reality is that Pottinger is a known quantity in the Asia policy community, and from everything I know of him, a cravenly political calculation would be way out of character. It doesn’t fit the profile. Had the quote been attributed to someone else, it would’ve been more believable.

Third, and most important, focusing on the fact that a “bloody nose” strike would be a political calculation misses the larger point—large swathes of the Trump administration support launching an attack on North Korea. You know who won’t care whether the Trump administration attacks North Korea for political reasons or national security reasons? All the people who die in a mushroom cloud.

A preventive strike on North Korea motivated by pathologically flawed thinking about the use of force shouldn’t be more acceptable than a preventive strike motivated by “Wag the Dog” reasoning.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.

Image: Roco Julie/Flickr