Will Americans' Fear of Casualties Stop Trump Going to War?

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

North Korea's Kim Jong Un is doing everything in his power to ensure that he remains atop the United States' enemies list.

For months, his government has been test-launching missiles and issuing threats.

This week the rhetoric got even hotter. President Trump pledged to rain "fire and fury like the world has never seen" on North Korea. The North Koreans responded with a promise to attack the U.S. base at Guam.

Notwithstanding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's statements last week and in April that the United States does not seek regime change in Pyongyang, other tin-pot dictators have heard similar assurances before. If KJU doesn't want to go the way of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, he'll hold onto his nukes.

Unsurprisingly, hawks in Washington – who don't like being so deterred – are urging President Trump to launch a preventive war and denude the latest Crazy Kim of his dangerous toys.

For example, John Bolton explained last week that, since diplomacy is unlikely to be successful, Trump has only three options: "Pre-emptively strike at Pyongyang's known nuclear facilities, ballistic-missile factories and launch sites, and submarine bases"; "Wait until a missile is poised for launch toward America, and then destroy it"; or launch "airstrikes or [deploy] special forces to decapitate North Korea's national command authority, sowing chaos, and then sweep in on the ground from South Korea to seize Pyongyang, nuclear assets, key military sites and other territory."

A U.S. Army honor guard escorts the caisson carrying a casket with the remains of eight airmen who were listed as missing in action during a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery March 18, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. The remains of the airmen were recently located and recovered in Madang province, New Guinea. The airmen were aboard an B-24 Liberator on April 10, 1944 when their aircraft was shot down on a mission to attack an anti-aircraft site at Hansa Bay. The missing airmen who were buried today with full military honors are Army Air Forces 1st Lt. William D. Bernier of Augusta, Montana.; 1st Lt. Bryant E. Poulsen of Salt Lake City, Utah; 1st Lt. Herbert V. Young Jr. of Clarkdale, Arizona; Tech Sgt. Charles L. Johnston of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Tech Sgt. Hugh F. Moore of Elkton, Maryland; Staff Sgt. John E. Copeland of Dearing, Kansas; Staff Sgt. Charles J. Jones of Athens, Georgia; and Staff Sgt. Charles A. Gardner of San Francisco, California. Win McNamee/Getty

To summarize: small war now, small war later, or big war now. And, of the middle option, Bolton warns that a preemptive strike would "provide more time but at the cost of increased risk" and that "Intelligence is never perfect" – so that leaves war now (or soon).

Bolton grudgingly admitted, "All these scenarios pose dangers for South Korea, especially civilians in Seoul," and that "The U.S. should obviously seek South Korea's agreement (and Japan's) before using force, but no foreign government, even a close ally, can veto an action to protect Americans from Kim Jong Un's nuclear weapons."

Along similar lines, Lindsey Graham explained "Japan, South Korea, China would all be in the crosshairs of a war if we started one with North Korea. But if [North Korea gets] a missile they can hit California, maybe other parts of America."

"If there's going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un]," Graham continued, "it will be over there. If thousands die, they're going to die over there. They're not going to die here."

This leaves aside the rather obvious fact that the American troops carrying out a war with North Korea would be risking death. That factor should also weigh heavily on the president's mind.

The American people, bitten by other wars that Bolton and Graham championed, are highly averse to new ones–especially those that are likely to result in large numbers of Americans getting killed.

As I point out in an article at The Skeptics:

A recent paper finds that in the 2016 election, Donald Trump performed well in those communities that paid the heaviest price during America's post–9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Voters in these communities may even have provided the margin he needed to win the presidency.

"Trump's ability to connect with voters in communities exhausted by more than fifteen years of war," write Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen, "may have been critically important to his narrow election victory."

"If Trump wants to win again in 2020, his electoral fate may well rest on the administration's approach to the human costs of war. Trump should remain highly sensitive to American combat casualties."

Could public sentiment really constrain a president convinced that military action is the last best course of action?

Maybe, argue Kriner and Shen. "The significant inroads," they write, "that Trump made among constituencies exhausted by fifteen years of war—coupled with his razor thin electoral margin (which approached negative three million votes in the national popular vote tally)—should make Trump even more cautious in pursuing ground wars."

I'm skeptical.

"Trump" and "cautious" are two words that rarely go together. And not all U.S. wars are ground wars.

The human cost of war should factor into any president's decision to start one. But Donald Trump's limited understanding of modern warfare and international politics might convince him that he can pick a few cheap and easy fights to boost his popularity and secure a few quick wins.

Though he might be disinclined to initiate a major conflict, that doesn't mean that Trump is reluctant to use force. And those superficially limited military engagements have a nasty tendency to morph into honest-to-goodness full-blown wars.

You can read the whole thing here.

Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He is the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (Cornell University Press, 2009) and John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap (Northern Illinois University Press, 2004). He co-edited, with John Mueller, A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security (Cato Institute, 2014); and, with Jim Harper and Benjamin Friedman, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It (Cato Institute, 2010).