Reckless Trump rhetoric on North Korea requires more from Murkowski, Sullivan

When the president of the United States sounds like the leader of North Korea, Alaska's congressional delegation needs to come up with a more intelligent response than the reflex action of calling for spending more money in Alaska on missile defense.

For starters, they could say that the U.S. State Department under President Donald Trump is staffed by a skeleton crew with dozens of empty leadership positions that leave the nation ill-prepared to handle a diplomatic crisis such as this one.

That it falls to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to respond to President Trump's reckless remarks and tell people not to panic is absurd.

"Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days," Tillerson said.

Was Tillerson telling Americans to be unconcerned about the rhetoric of Kim Jong Un or Trump? Probably both.

[Alaska leaders say military is ready to protect the state from North Korean threats]

And this was before Trump said maybe he wasn't tough enough with his comment, "They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before."

The headline on The New York Times story Wednesday was nothing short of idiotic: "War With North Korea Not Imminent, Officials Say, but U.S. Would Still Win."

Seoul is 35 miles from the heavily militarized North Korean border and its nearly 10 million inhabitants would be among the first to die in that "win."

That Trump doesn't have the wisdom to be more temperate in his remarks allows no sane person to sleep well at night. He is escalating the crisis, forcing the world to guess about his meaning and mental state, making off-the-cuff allusions to nuclear war.

For many years, the U.S. government under Republicans and Democratic administrations has failed to get a grip on North Korea. We need an informed approach, not mixed messages in which underlings contradict a boss acting like a TV tough guy.

Our U.S. senators need to be a check on the power of the president and their reluctance to address this issue is disappointing. They were never uncomfortable with attacking the actions and positions of President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

But during the Trump era, the usual reaction to egregious behavior by the commander-in-chief is silence.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski clearly took a big step to asserting independence on the health care debate, but she has not taken Trump to task on this one. Her office has refused to comment.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, asked by CNN's Erin Burnett if Trump's remarks were the "right thing to say," could have said, "Of course not."

But Sullivan did not say that.

He said, "Well look, Erin, effective diplomacy has got to be backed up with credible military options."

In keeping with his practice of refusing to make critical comments about Trump, Sullivan answered a question that had not been asked.

He said Trump would need congressional approval to launch a "pre-emptive war on the Korean Peninsula launched by the U.S." No one disputes that.

The North Korean threats are going to continue, as they seem to be part of the dictator's job description. And they're not going to lead to a U.S. attack, regardless of Trump's loose talk.

"The administration has done a good job up until now, working closely with the Congress on their broader strategy, but we're going to play an important role here," Sullivan said on CNN.

Broader strategy? No. These are belligerent boasts that make a difficult situation worse. Everyone knows this, and the Alaska delegation should speak up.

[Gaming out the North Korea crisis: How the conflict might escalate]

In an interview on KTVA,  reporter Emily Carlson asked Sullivan if the "fire and fury" comments were appropriate. The headline on the KTVA story says that Sullivan told the Trump administration to "tone it down," but he did not go that far.

What he actually said was this:

"Look, what I've been saying is that all of our leaders should particularly now be focused in a way where our rhetoric is calm, focused and credible, not blustery. One of the things that happened just the last couple days, Emily, is that the Trump administration had an important success. That was the UN Security Council resolution, very tough sanctions to isolate North Korea, passed unanimously. China and Russia supported that. So the administration is still very much focused on diplomacy, as it should be. And now they need to focus on implementing that diplomacy."

"The other thing that I think helps with regard to effective diplomacy is having it backed up by credible military options," Sullivan said. If one of those options is a "pre-emptive war," it would need approval by Congress.

A couple of things here. There are no military options that don't leave Seoul a pile of rubble, so they are not credible.

Rather than falsely asserting that the administration is "still very much focused on diplomacy" or staying completely silent, our senators and their colleagues should speak up and try to make that happen.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.