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Petraeus says Trump’s ‘madman’ approach to North Korea could be effective — until it becomes disastrous

September 18, 2017

  • Trump is employing the “madman” strategy to dealing with a nuclear North Korea
  • It’s an approach straight from his own heart — and the “Art of the Deal”
  • And while it’s a legitimate strategy, it may end up proving disastrous

Retired general David Petraeus cautioned that President Donald Trump’s “madman” approach to dealing with a nuclear North Korea may actually be a legitimate strategy — though it could ultimately prove disastrous.

Speaking at the Intelligence Squared US debate at New York University with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot, Petraeus — who commanded US and NATO troops in Afghanistan and served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under former President Barack Obama — discussed how there may actually be some “merit” to Trump’s madman stance, though it can easily “go too far” in a crisis.

The “madman” theory boils down to a negotiation strategy that keeps the opposing side “off-balance” through a lack of consistency, Petraeus said.

For example, Petraeus described how former President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, would tell his Soviet counterparts during the height of the Cold War, “You know, Nixon’s under a lot of pressure right now and, you know, he drinks at night sometimes, so you guys ought to be real careful.”

“Don’t push — don’t push this into a crisis,” Petraeus said, paraphrasing Kissinger’s negotiation tactic. Boot noted that Nixon had tried to scare North Vietnam into making peace with this strategy, which, as we all know, didn’t work.

And Petraeus cautioned while “madman” posturing may be useful, it can prove disastrous in a crisis if the other side views you as “irrational.”

“You do not want the other side thinking that you might be sufficiently irrational to conduct a first strike or to do something, you know, so-called unthinkable,” Petraeus said.

That notwithstanding, it’s a theory that’s close to Trump’s own heart.

In his book, the “Art of the Deal,” Trump advocates an approach to negotiation where he “plays to people’s fantasies,” and will always “fight back,” if the deal doesn’t seem to be going his way, Business Insider’s Rich Feloni previously reported.

“That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts,” Trump said.

Trump’s madman approach to North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and its increasingly frequent missile launches was on full display when he said he’d respond to Kim Jong Un’s aggression with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen before.” And while that may be hyperbole, the North Koreans may not see it that way — and may take it as a signal to launch a pre-emptive strike on Guam or South Korea.

Trump’s threat hasn’t cowed North Korea, either. On Friday morning local time, the Hermit Kingdom fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan — that experts said is easily capable of reaching US military bases in Guam — less than two weeks after the regime tested what it said was a hydrogen bomb.

Kim Jong Un himself seems to be employing the madman strategy to great effect as well, to keep the US, its allies, and the larger international community guessing as to what his next move may be.  Reuters reported that North Korea’s state news agency on Thursday threatened to use nuclear weapons to “sink” Japan and reduce the US to “ashes and darkness” a day prior to the missile test.

While the madman theory may have its use in international relations, when it comes to nuclear conflict, it’s a strategy with risks that vastly outweigh the reward.

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