Donald Trump devoted a large section of the end of his State of the Union address on Tuesday night to North Korea.
Anyone who was paying attention during George W. Bush’s State of the Union addresses in 2002 and 2003 would have found Trump’s statements frighteningly familiar: Trump used exactly the same justifications for war with North Korea as Bush had for war with Iraq when standing at the same podium.
To begin with, Trump claimed, the United States simply cannot accept a North Korea with weapons that could “threaten our homeland.” Moreover, the danger from Kim Jong Un is not just to America: His regime constitutes “a menace that threatens our world.”
Similarly, Bush had ruled out living with an Iraq armed with unconventional weapons that could be used against America. “Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein,” said Bush, “is not a strategy, and it is not an option.” And this was not just for our sake: A nation such as Iraq, he had proclaimed, was “the gravest danger facing America and the world.”
But Trump’s assertions raised an obvious question: Why is the situation with North Korea so dire? Why can’t the United States, by far the most powerful country on earth, simply deter a government that seems to value literally nothing more than staying alive and in power?
The answer is obvious, Trump explained. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime,” he said, “to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America.” He then went on to describe the quite real and hideous actions of the Kim Jong-un’s government in loving, emotional detail – in particular what we’ve learned from the testimony of a refugee who was present, Ji Seong-ho.
Bush made exactly the same case: According to Bush, the undeniable fact that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to Iraqis unquestionably meant he was a threat to the U.S. And how did we know about the suffering of Iraqis? “Iraqi refugees,” Bush said, “tell us how forced confessions are obtained, by torturing children while their parents are made to watch,” while Iraq’s torture chambers utilize “electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape.”
Finally, according to Trump, we are simply running out of time with North Korea. The danger will reach its maximum “very soon,” and must be dealt with now, because “past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.”
Or as Bush had put it, “Time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer.”
We know what happened next with Bush and Iraq: a gigantic, catastrophic war based on what turned out to be the shoddiest of lies.
What Tuesday’s State of the Union address demonstrated is that Americans – and the world – need to start taking seriously the possibility that the same thing may happen with Trump and North Korea, except on a much larger and even more terrifying scale.