While soon-to-be ex-UN ambassador Nikki Haley might be the talk of the town at the moment—from chatter she should run in 2020 against Donald Trump to replacing Mike Pence on the GOP ticket all the way to running against Pence in 2024—her many faults are being glossed over. That’s a big problem for someone being floated as the next leader of the free world—as recent history has taught us all too tragically.
Thankfully, reality always has a way of casting doubt on such picture-perfect narratives before they are ever fully formed. Case in point, buried in a recent article from Harper’s Magazine was the fact that Haley tried out her own amateur hour version of what can only be described as nuclear poker: telling China’s ambassador to the UN that Trump might invade North Korea.
I had to read the article over and over to make sure I didn’t miss something. But alas it was real—and terrifying. Such a threat, if relayed to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, combined with several other U.S. actions at the time—and one that almost occurred that we know of thanks to Bob Woodward’s recent book—could have set in motion a preemptive strike by Pyongyang that almost certainly would have involved the use of nuclear weapons. And that means millions of people would have died.
Now ask yourself: is this person really ready to be president? Is this what passes as the stuff of presidential timber?
Here are the details. Journalist Max Blumenthal recorded Haley’s remarks—her last major address before she handed in her resignation—as the only journalist present at a late September event at the Council for National Policy. In a Q&A session that Blumenthal described as “an extended series of candid, and at times disturbing, recollections of Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure against North Korea,” Haley broke down her opposition to the president’s tough talk at the UN. But the real money shot from Blumenthal’s piece is here:
It was September 2, 2017, and North Korea had just embarked on its sixth nuclear test launch. Haley’s mission was to ram a resolution through the UN Security Council to sanction the isolated state. This meant that she had to secure abstentions from Russia and China, the two permanent members that maintained relations with Pyongyang. It was a tall task, but as she boasted to the rapt audience at the CNP, she had a few tricks up her sleeve.
“I said to the Russians, ‘Either you’re with North Korea, or you’re with the United States of America,’” Haley recalled. She said she went to the Chinese ambassador and raised the prospect of an American military invasion of North Korea. “My boss is kind of unpredictable, and I don’t know what he’ll do,” she said she warned her Chinese counterpart.
Sadly, besides some mentions on social media and a few articles, her threat received very little mainstream media coverage. Maybe that’s a blessing in disguise. But one can easily construct a scenario where Haley’s comment sets off a chain of events that starts a Second Korean War. For example, we don’t know what the Chinese ambassador did after Haley made the threat, but most likely he promptly reported it back to Beijing. What the Chinese government did with that information is vital. Did they warn the North Koreans? Did they react in some other way?
We will never really know. However, if Pyongyang was tipped off by Beijing, seeing three U.S. Navy aircraft carriers drilling with South Korean and Japanese warships in November of last year surely must have terrified them. Such a concentration of firepower would have been a prerequisite for any type of invasion or attack. In fact, could these have been the reasons the north decided to test another ICBM in November?
Again, we will never know. However, Trump’s very real proposal, as reported in Bob Woodward’s book Fear, of “sending a tweet declaring that he was ordering all U.S. military dependents—thousands of the family members of 28,500 troops—out of South Korea” definitely would have provoked a response from the Kim regime.
While Woodward does not give specific dates as to when this nearly occurred—the full text before this section suggests an early 2018 timeframe—he still reveals that we did dodge a potential war. Just two paragraphs down, Woodward notes that on December 4, 2017, “[M]cMaster had received a warning at the White House. Ri Su-yong, the vice chairman of the [North Korean] Politburo, had told intermediaries ‘that the North would take the evacuation of U.S. civilians as a sign of imminent attack.’”
If you put it all together—not to mention the now famous call to give Kim a “bloody nose” in early January 2018—it is easy to see how close to war we came from roughly September 2017 to early January of this year. If events had occurred just a little differently—if North Korea had perceived things in a direr way thanks to a Chinese warning of a possible invasion, if Trump had acted on his impulses a little further—our world would be a very different place. Pyongyang, thinking an invasion was coming, might have decided that its only chance to survive was to use its vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction before they were destroyed. That would have meant launching atomic weapons at military bases and potential ports of entry for U.S. forces in South Korea, Japan, Guam, Hawaii—or even attacking the American homeland itself with nuclear weapons. From simulations I have run over the years, I can tell you that millions of people would have died in such an event.
Thankfully, history broke a little different and it never happened—and thank God for that. But let’s not heap praise on public figures who think they can bluff their way through the great game of global politics. That’s not what great presidents are made of.
Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by President Richard Nixon. The views expressed in this piece are his own.