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US senator on North Korea: “Most Americans don’t realize how close we are to this war”

If Sen. Tammy Duckworth is worried, you should be too.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) Holds Town Hall Meeting In Palantine, Illinois Scott Olson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a decorated veteran of the Iraq War, is scared — scared that the Trump administration may be getting the US into a devastating war with North Korea without much of the public noticing or seeming to care.

“Most Americans,” she says, “don’t realize how close we are to this war.”

Duckworth, who lost both of her legs after her helicopter was shot down by insurgents, has closely followed both aggressive rhetoric from the White House and the way the US military has been approaching the Korean Peninsula. She believes the events of the past six months indicate that President Trump might be willing to actually launch a preventive strike on North Korea, despite the real chance that it could trigger a nuclear exchange.

This line of reasoning would be worrying if it were coming from an outside analyst or expert. But coming from a US senator and veteran, someone who knows war and has top-level security clearances, it’s truly disturbing — an indication that we need to be having a much bigger debate over Trump’s North Korea policy than we are.

What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Duckworth, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp

How worried are you about the rhetoric coming from the White House about war with North Korea?

Tammy Duckworth

I’m extremely worried — not just based on what I’m hearing out of the White House but also what I’m hearing out of the defense community. We are far closer to actual conflict over North Korea than the American people realize.

In August, we had a meeting between Defense Secretary [James] Mattis and his counterparts in South Korea to discuss the use of US nuclear first strike. In the same time frame, we permanently moored a nuclear submarine in South Korea. Everything we’re doing shows a military that, in my personal opinion, has turned the corner from “we need to try to prevent this from happening” to a military that’s saying the president is likely to make this decision [to attack] and we need to be ready.

I don’t think they want a conflict. I don’t think they think we’re going to have one tomorrow. But with what the president and the White House has been saying, they are now preparing for one.

Zack Beauchamp

The fear here is that President Trump launches an intentional, preventive strike on North Korea, not some kind of miscalculation or accidental war. Right?

Tammy Duckworth

Right. But a preventive first strike from us will result in a massive response from the North Koreans. We know this because a high-ranking defector from North Korea testified in front of Congress last month; one of the things that would happen is a preemptive first strike from the United States or South Korea would result in an automatic massive response.

Our military has war-gamed this out. My concern is that our president is either ignoring this information or not getting this information, because he’s out there saying “the time for negotiations is over” and frankly seems eager, in my opinion, to launch a first strike.

Zack Beauchamp

That’s what I find baffling, even terrifying. It seems like he wants to, and that the aides who are supposed to be reining him in, most notably National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, aren’t actually doing it.

If anything, McMaster’s talk about irrationality indicates that he supports a first strike on North Korea. If they’re irrational, it means they can’t be allowed to have nukes.

Tammy Duckworth

I think that the president is playing to a segment of the population and, I think, relying on the fact that most Americans don’t realize how close we are to this war.

Look: I’m not someone who’s going to avoid war at all costs. That’s not me. But I want the American people to know what this will cost.

We went through this with Iraq. When Gen. [Eric] Shinseki, with absolute courage, said in testimony that it’s going to take 300,000 troops to invade Iraq, he was fired for it — because the Bush administration and Vice President Cheney were selling the lie that it would be over in two weeks and the Iraqi population would greet us with flowers and chocolates. I remember that.

And here we are again. We don’t have the troops in the region, on the ground, to do what would need to be done to fully contain [North Korea’s] nuclear capabilities. Just ramping up — prepositioning troops, stocks, and logistics in a place where we could do it — could prompt the North Koreans to do something.

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