President Trump's biblical-sounding warning Tuesday that North Korea would risk "fire and fury" if it continued to threaten the United States inspired a chain-reaction of apprehension, alarm and gallows humor online. (New York Times oped columnist Ross Douthat tweeted: "Nuclear war Twitter will be the best Twitter.")
The apocalyptic tone was dramatic, and the policy implications are alarming if you subject Trump's comments to ordinary analysis.
Trump spoke after a North Korean statement threatening "physical action" in response to new United Nations sanctions. The New York Times summarized his comments as predicting fire and fury in the event that North Korea "endangers the United States," but that's not quite what Trump said at a brief session with reporters at his golf club in new Jersey.
Here's the quote:
"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before."
If you parse this statement precisely, you might conclude that Trump was threatening a U.S. attack (perhaps even a nuclear attack?) if Kim did no more than continue to make threats.
That indeed would be an ominous interpretation, but Trump is not known for the precision of his language. It seems more natural to regard his admittedly apocalyptic language as a response not to verbal threats from North Korea but to the possibility that those threats might be carried out.
You have to view Trump's comments in context. Earlier in the day, he tweeted his satisfaction about the new U.N. sanctions against North Korea and seemed inclined to give the sanctions and diplomacy more time. (On Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the U.S. would negotiate with North Korea if it stopped testing missiles.) "After many years of failure, countries are coming together to finally address the dangers posed by North Korea," Trump said in his tweet. "We must be tough & decisive!"
It seems unlikely that a few hours later he would signal that he was about to order a military strike in response to a verbal threat, however unhinged. The "fire and fury" fusillade looks more like a decision to meet bluster with bluster than a promise of military action the next time Kim lets loose with a tirade against America.
Not for the first time, it would have been better if Trump had chosen his words more carefully. But this is not apocalypse now – or even apocalypse soon. We can hope.