Tyrants need a war. Looking back over the past hundred years one finds that tyrants come to power in conflict and remains in power largely due to conflict. It centers the populace, distracting them from other societal challenges to include their civil liberties.
Politically weak or insecure leaders also need a distraction. I call those distractions boogeymen–nations, a peoples, or culture that the leader perceives to be a threat to the national security. This boogeyman also distracts from the political challenges both real and imagined that leader faces. Hitler had the Jews; Stalin capitalism; the Ayatollah the “Great Satin,” and Assad “terrorists” by way of a few examples.
Dictators and other leaders need a populace that is afraid. Fear is a powerful psychological tool to govern with and leaders use it for various reasons. A populace that is afraid of “something” looks to its leader for security and a solution. This is where the shadow of a boogeyman is useful. Fear can bring a society together in common cause.
Historically these conflicts created by a tyrant, dictator or insecure leader rarely succeed. The immediate result may be a distraction, but in the long term that nation, and its leader, end up weakened and in some cases worse off than they were before the conflict. Various circumstances intervene that were unintended consequences. History shows that these unintended consequences rarely benefit a leader.
Only the citizens of that country suffer those consequences. Simply put some of their loved ones do not come home. Tens of thousands perish their nation weakened politically and economically by the conflict. The nation itself loses stature internationally. Weakened trade through sanctions and other action only bring more unrest and insecurity.
The result is a country in worse shape than before the conflict. It all blows up in the tyrant’s face, with more unrest and division a result. In this information age, conflict is bad for global trade and business, unlike the industrial age where conflict was good for business. The world suffers from this type of threat and conflict as well.
As our President, politically weak, deeply insecure and challenged on all fronts looks for a distraction and a boogeyman, he conveniently has been handed one in the guise of Kim Jong-un and North Korea. From the President’s point of view, he has a “twofer,” a threat worthy of a conflict and a boogeyman. To maintain his political relevancy (and to silence whatever demons whisper to him) a looming crisis with nuclear implications is just what the doctor ordered. Words such as “fire and fury” ring true to him.
Suddenly the Russia scandal is off the front page. No one is talking about collusion, conspiracy, perjury or obstruction of justice. Attention is diverted across the Pacific Ocean to a hermit kingdom led by a crafty leader who uses just this type of tension to maintain his own power.
Kim Jong-un is a dictator, he needs a looming conflict, and he needs that boogeyman, as well, to distract his citizenry away from daily famine towards an impending attack by their boogeyman, the United States. The President has handed him politically a reason to lead his nation and consolidate power on a silver platter.
We have an insecure and an unstable leader in our President now in a possible “dance of death” with a brutal tyrant who is “crazy like a fox.” In my mind, this does not auger well for our national security or international peace and security. To these leaders all this is necessary for political power reasons. Without this tension and possible apocalyptic conflict, their relevancy is threatened. Even if we do not jump into the abyss toward war on the Korean Peninsula, it shows that our President is willing to put our populace in jeopardy for his own political gain.
The actual boogeyman in all this is our own President. Willing to sacrifice it all for personal gain and power. Where are the “the Generals” who actually control the national security apparatus, the White House Chief of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor? Are they going to let this happen? They know the true consequences of war. The President does not. Beware the boogeyman!
David M. Crane is a professor at Syracuse University College of Law. He is the founding Chief Prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal in West Africa called the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is also the founder of the Syrian Accountability Project.
Suggested citation: David M. Crane, Trump and North Korea: Beware the Boogeyman, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 11, 2017, http://jurist.org/forum/2017/08/David-Crane-beware-the-boogeyman.php