The former Attorney General and author discusses Trump’s most recent hint of military action against North Korea.
Professor John Yoo
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Pleased to welcome Berkeley law professor and author, John Yoo, back to this program. His latest text is titled “Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots and Space Weapons Changed the Rules for War”. Good to have you back on the program, as I said.
John Yoo: Thanks. Thanks for having me back.
Tavis: Obviously, we don’t always agree politically. There’s some things you did in the Bush years that we disagreed about and talked about before.
Yoo: Yes, mm-hmm.
Tavis: But I wanted to have you on the program tonight in part because I think you do have some salient points to make about how we best engage North Korea. This is starting to frighten all of us and I don’t know what to make of President Trump tweeting over the weekend or suggesting over the weekend that only one thing will work with North Korea.
We know days ago, he told his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “You’re wasting your time with Rocket Man”, the term he used in his U.N. speech. So before I get too deep into it, what do you make of the president basically pulling the rug from underneath his own Secretary of State?
Yoo: Well, first, Tavis, thanks for having me back. I think it’s a terrible idea what President Trump is doing, which is to undercut his own Secretary of State. What we’re doing is we’re negotiating with a regime that has ICBMs and just tested successfully a long-range missile. And they are in their own way rational and they’re trying to reach a deal with us.
They’re kind of like a neighbor who says, “I’m gonna burn both of our houses down unless you give me something”, right? And that’s basically what they’re trying to do. They’re saying, “We have a threat. We could use it to try to destroy the United States. We know you could destroy North Korea. Head that off by giving us something.”
And presidents, ever since President Clinton, have done that. We’ve basically bribed them to dial back their programs, but they’ve gone ahead and developed nuclear weapons anyway. They’ve gone ahead and developed ICBMS anyway.
So what we have to do is, I think, actually try to reach a bargain with them. At the same time, we have to build up our missile defenses, which is what the technology in this book talks about.
Tavis: When you say “in their own way, it’s rational”, unpack that for me.
Yoo: So we think, in the media, we see them as crazy. But, actually, in the sort of world that they’re in, you’ve got basically a million people who oppress the other 20 million people and enslave them, and that one million people want to stay in power.
They need resources, so the rational thing they’re doing is they’re saying, “We can threaten you, the United States. Reach a deal with us.” They don’t want a nuclear exchange, but behind negotiations, you always have the threat of force behind it. Us too.
President Trump’s out there, General Mattis is out there saying, “We could destroy North Korea. We could wipe it out if we wanted to.” That’s all a prelude to negotiations, but always behind negotiations you have to have the threat of force.
So the North Koreans, in their weird way, are acting rationally. They want to reach a bargain where we’re going to give them resources, we’re going to let them hook back into the world economy as they used to be, let them have access to the banking system.
But in order for them to get a good deal, they have to bluster and make threats of attack. And for us to get a good deal, we have to say we’re not willing to be pushed around.
Tavis: Even if we accept that there’s some rationale for negotiation to the things that Trump is saying and doing when he then says to his Secretary of State, “You’re wasting your time to even engage these backdoor channels”, it ain’t a prelude to diplomacy. It sounds like a prelude to war.
Yoo: Now, hopefully, what’s really going on is Trump thinks he’s playing a bad cop to Tillerson’s good cop. But I agree. This is why I wasn’t the big supporter of Trump in the first place. I was very worried that he was so impulsive, would tweet out and say things that it would destabilize rather than calm things. I’m worried that that’s what’s happening with North Korea now.
Tavis: And to folk who see this in our country and beyond as two boneheads, two bozos trading barbs with each other, how do you read that?
Yoo: Well, I think they’re both people who are used to saying whatever they feel like. They’re both people who will not take counseling or advice from people. So the statements, at least on our side, are genuinely coming from the president.
They’re not being filtered by the usual rhetoric of diplomacy, but you could see it spiraling out of control. So you hope that the adults in the White House, the adults at State and the Defense Department are calming things down and they’re opening channels to North Korea.
Similarly, over there, it’s not just Kim Jong-un. There’s a whole regime of people there who, hopefully, are saying, “We’re not really going to go nuclear war with the United States” because they don’t want all to die.
I mean, if there really was a nuclear exchange, you know, millions of people in South Korea will die. There’s hundreds of thousands of Americans in South Korea could die. One missile might make it over here through our defenses, but there’s no doubt all of North Korea would be wiped out. In their rationale, they don’t want that kind of result.
Tavis: You hope that these back channels are at work or at play. Hope was your word. How hopeful are you that that’s actually happening, though, as we sit here tonight?
Yoo: If President Trump wasn’t tweeting out that there’s only one solution, you would expect that there would be. You see some reports that there are back channel discussions going on. Rex Tillerson himself says there’s two or three ways we’re trying to talk to the North Koreans. And I think the North Koreans are trying to rationally reach some kind of deal with us.
At the same time, there are other things we could be doing to make it less threatening for us. We should be, I think, building better missile defense. I think we should, for example, not just be building one here which is aimed to fire at the missiles when they’re heading down on the United States, which is the worst time to shoot at them.
We should be deploying missile defenses of technology over and around North Korea using drones, space, even sea-based anti-missile defenses, and try to shoot the missiles when they launch. That would give us a better bargaining position even though we can’t be sure that we would get all of them.
Tavis: It’s one thing to call for missile defense. It’s another thing, though, to see the Defense Department receiving more in the budget for military buildup more than they’ve even asked for. How do you square those two things?
Yoo: Well, we have been cutting because of the sequestration. We have been cutting not just missile defense, but the entire military budget by a lot, but missile defense…
Tavis: On paper.
Yoo: Yeah, on paper.
Tavis: But I’m not sure in reality that actually happens. You get this conversation about sequestration. This is what’s going to have to happen, but I’m not sure. I don’t think most Americans believe that we’re actually cutting our ability. I mean, how many missiles do you need to blow the world up 25,000 times?
Yoo: It’s more, I think, we have been shifting spending to things like ground combat, things like Afghanistan and Iraq, where I think they should be spent. But missile defense got cut because of that. So I think budget for the missile defense got cut by a quarter in the last 10 years while these threats from North Korea are arising.
And then it’s not just North Korea we should be worried about because everything we’re doing with North Korea is almost like a practice run for the real threat that’s going to come down which will be Iran someday.
Iran is much bigger, more powerful, richer. They have missile technology already and, you know, we’ve bought a delay with their nuclear program. But that delay is going to end at some point and then we’re going to have all these questions again with a much bigger adversary.
Tavis: Here again, it’s not a delay that’s going to end at some point. It’s a delay that, if Donald Trump has his way, given what he said, that’s going to end sooner than later. And the world, once again, is laughing at us because here’s a deal that we’re in where everybody around him, his own military staff and his own apparatus, has suggested to him, no, this is a good deal.
But he has singularly said “We’re getting out of this deal.” So if it’s a prelude to what happens in Iran and the president, once again, is saying, “We’re getting out of this”, I just don’t know that these realities make any of us feel safer.
Yoo: No, I agree. What’s going on in the world of diplomacy should worry a lot of people. I mean, the argument for this book and the reason I wrote it was because at least that might help fill the gap. At least we should be building our defenses even if we can’t rely on traditional diplomacy, attritional allies.
Because I worry and I think many Americans, many Republicans do too, that President Trump was too impulsive to keep a steady hand on foreign policy and national security. Maybe this kind of thing would appeal to him, appeal to our people in the military and the State Department.
Let’s at least start using new technology to make America safe and provide that sense of security. Because I agree with you. I feel like a lot of the American people are becoming extremely worried and they see destabilization all around the world. They see chaos all around the world. I don’t blame them.
Tavis: I just don’t know that, if our future is about using drones here, there and everywhere, that that makes us safer either. Because all you do is just create more enemies when you continue to kill innocent women and children.
Yoo: Well, there’s a lot in there [laugh] you just laid out. One thing I would just say is that a lot of these new technologies, they kill people and there are going to be innocent civilians killed too. It’s inescapable. At least what these weapons do is they reduce the damage and killing from the technologies we used to use.
So at least we have no Americans at risk, but we’re also killing less members of the enemy and there’s less collateral damage or just say less innocent civilians are harmed, less buildings are destroyed. But what the new technology, I think, actually gives us the opportunity to do is the drones are in a way the old style use of robotics.
In the future, for example, if you wanted to pressure Russia or China instead of ever launching any drones, why not just take their stock market offline for a day or, you know, prevent them from interacting with the world trading system. You could put up a cyber blockade. Or using space and robotic weapons, you could just pinpoint strike important parts of their networks or their military without killing people.
I think that’s what we’re — so you’re right. We should be worried about civilians and civilian deaths and we see that in Iraq and Afghanistan, but these technologies are becoming more and more precise.
It’s a big difference from past — if you think about past technologies and war, past technologies war was aimed for killing more and more people, more indiscriminately. And nuclear weapons is like the ultimate expression of that. Hopefully, these new technologies will reverse that trend.
Tavis: It doesn’t make me feel good as an American citizen when I know that the world has no idea who to listen to when American speaks. Are you listening to Rex Tillerson or are you not? Are you listening to Mattis or are you not? Is Trump the final arbiter or is he not?
And, again, the more he continues to undercut the people around him, I don’t think, again, Tillerson is embarrassed just on the North Korea front. It’s just hard to know, to your point, for any other place around the globe who to take seriously when they speak on behalf of America.
Yoo: It’s a very good point, Tavis. I would say one thing that bothered a lot of people, Republican and Democrat, before Trump took office was sort of the chaotic nature of the way he ran things. I mean, it does seem like it’s kind of like a reality show, a lot of chaos and drama. And you can’t run foreign policy that way.
As you say, other countries need to know who’s in charge, what our message is. In foreign policy, in law, we have this idea that there’s a sole voice for the country. And we’ve always tried to get away from states running foreign policies or Congress running a separate foreign policy. The country does best when there’s one message. I take your point.
Hopefully, my view — I’ve written about this many times. I’d say get rid of all the people who worked on the campaign who are in the Trump White House and put adult leadership in charge. Hopefully, the new Chief of Staff, you’re starting to see more sort of traditional Republicans come in and run things and, hopefully, they’ll restore order.
I think that’s what we really need, some kind of internal order in the White House. So you don’t have, I think, good officials like a Mattis or Tillerson going out there and then having their legs cut out from under them.
Tavis: Well, the problem with that is you got people like Bannon who have left the White House who are doing everything they can to wipe out the establishment that you want to run the White House [laugh]. So go figure.
The book is called “Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots and Space Weapons Changed the Rules for War” — indeed they do — cowritten by Berkeley professor, John Yoo. Good to have you on the program.
Yoo: Thanks a lot.
Tavis: Thank you, sir. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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