People walk in front of a monitor showing news of North Korea's fresh threat in Tokyo, Japan, August 10, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

North Korean nukes: Has President Trump reached his “Leit Breirah” moment?


Previous U.S. Presidents have kicked the proverbial North Korea nuclear can down the road. Now it appears that President Trump may soon have to choose between continued “deterrence and containment” or some form of military action to stop Kim Jong Un from having an arsenal of nuclear-tipped ICBM’s targeting America’s heartland.

During the Cold War, MAD (mutually assured destruction) worked to straitjacket nuke-laden adversaries. But who’s to say if mad Kim Jong Un can be deterred? Every president from Bill Clinton on thought they could make a deal with the Kim dynasty and in the end got played. That hasn’t stopped Republicans and Democrats alike weighing in with advice and warnings to President Trump.

Perhaps a good place to for Trump to look for perspective is the 1981 decision by the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Against prevailing world opinion and Middle East expertise, he ordered the Israeli Air Force’s incredibly daring raid to take out Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor. 

That damaged facility wasn’t totally destroyed until the U.S Air Force did it during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Ironic, since earlier the Reagan Administration joined the rest of the UN Security Council in condemning Israel and even delayed delivery of new F-16s. Yet what Israel did in 1981 was a game changer. You don’t have to be a general to understand how different the world would have been in 1990 if a nuclearized Saddam invaded Kuwait.

Still, a recent front-page New York Times article evaluating Trump’s options quotes experts who, incredibly, criticize Begin’s bold move for two reasons: Jerusalem violated a UN Security Council resolution and the Israeli PM could have delayed any action until there was a verifiable “imminent threat.”

The President of the United States, cognizant of his oath of office to defend and protect the American people cannot take cover behind “experts” or sanctimonious UN resolutions in face of a looming existential threat.

Setting up “imminent threat” as the standard or litmus test for taking action sounds reasonable—but not when you are confronted by perpetrators of unimaginable evil. Back in the 1930s, experts and elites in England lined up behind Neville Chamberlain as he pursued just such an approach with “Herr Hitler.” Some of the appeasers were fascists, some on the left. Rationale people, remembering WWI carnage, even had every reason to avoid another war. The problem was, instead of taking early and painful action against the Nazis, Chamberlain and Company allowed the cunning Hitler to constantly move the goal posts until it was too late. Chamberlain’s unwitting “delay of game” strategy would lead to 55 million dead in the catastrophic WWII.

Let’s be honest. For years, the U.S. allowed the Kims to move the goalposts, constantly re-defining what is an “imminent threat.”

It’s now left to the Trump team, which includes seasoned military leaders to draw a real red line on Pyongyang to ensure that Americans wake up tomorrow to embrace the future, not confront a nuclear holocaust.

President Trump may also want to read up on Israeli Prime Minister Gold Meir who had to consider launching a nuclear weapon strike when the Jewish state—the victim of sneak attack by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, 1973, was in danger of being overrun in the early stages of that bitter war. Meir later admitted that her “heart was very much drawn” to a preemptive strike—like Israel’s in 1967 against Egypt’s Nasser— but was scared: “1973 is not 1967, and this time we will not be forgiven, and we will not receive [American] assistance when we have the need for it,” Golda later testified.

Thankfully, Israel was able to prevail sans nuclear weapons—but at a very high cost of dead and wounded. Golda Meir made mistakes in the lead-in to the Yom Kippur War. Unclear after all these years is exactly what those “mistakes” were. Was she right—or wrong—to refrain from a preemptive strike? One thing is clear that Israel has always been willing to deploy “a secret weapon”—in Golda’s words— Leit Breirah”: “we have no choice but to act” when our survival is at stake.

Today, President Trump does have choices about the NK nuke threat—none easy. Has he arrived at a Leit Breira moment that could trigger preemptive action? Or can he afford—and for how long—to give diplomacy one more a chance?

And will more words and more sanctions convince Kim to back down or prove to him that the US lacks the guts to act.

The answers to these questions will have grave consequences not only for Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and Americans, but also for the Gulf States, Egypt, and Israel who are being menaced by an aggressive Iran emboldened by sweetheart nuclear deal with the P5+1 led by President Obama.

Think and say what you may about Donald Trump’s presidential style or choice of words. At this moment, we should all pray that he and his team take the right path…

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center

Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center