There's some comfort with respect to the North Korean crisis in knowing a mercurial president is surrounded by more temperate men on his foreign-policy team. Especially after Donald Trump threatened to turn North Korea into lava.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was quick to try to defuse tensions. Had Rudy Giuliani become secretary of state, had Michael Flynn stayed on as national security adviser, nerves would be more frayed today.
That's not to say calmer heads shall prevail. Donald Trump is besieged, crisis-ridden. As presidential history heapingly demonstrates, nothing helps a White House occupant in trouble at home better than engagement in muscle-flexing abroad. There are few faster ways to political recovery than banging the war drums. It shifts the public focus to matters of more consequence. It takes the stakes to the stratosphere. From domestic turmoil, it's the great diversion.
Presidents far more honourable than Mr. Trump, who is no stranger to reckless behaviour and is bent on restoring American supremacy, have played war games to feather their political nests. It will be not in the least surprising if he ominously does the same.
Ronald Reagan came to power promising to restore American pre-eminence. He had sent marines to the civil war in Lebanon. In 1983, while the Gipper was golfing at Augusta National in Georgia, a suicide bomb attack killed 241 Amercian servicemen. Two days later, Mr. Reagan ordered an invasion of tiny Grenada to remove leftists from power. It was an easy victory. It helped Americans forget the Lebanon tragedy. It vaulted Mr. Reagan in the polls.
Of course cynical political calculation isn't the sole motivator for war or war games. But it can be a central part of the mix. Mr. Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, chafed from being labelled a wimp. He erased the reputation by sending in 25,000 troops to Panama in 1989 to remove drug runner and dictator Manuel Noriega from power. He later shot up to 90 per cent in the polls with his invasion of Iraq after Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait.
Margaret Thatcher had urged him to move against Saddam Hussein. She had used war – her successful prosecution of the Falklands War against Argentina – to revive her sinking leadership.
To prove leadership mettle, presidents need dire threats. With his missile-launching brinksmanship, Kim Jong-un has given Mr. Trump a dire threat and an opportunity for political resurrection. He has no easy invasion option like Mr. Reagan in Grenada or Mr. Bush in Panama, but will be tempted to keep tensions with North Korea high to deflect attention from upheavals at home, such as the Russian election meddling controversy. Keeping tensions high means higher risk of conflict.
One of the better examples of military muscle-flexing for the purposes of deflecting attention from domestic woes involved president Bill Clinton. Embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he launched an attack on suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. Republicans scoffed at the raids as being a transparent wag-the-dog ploy.
Standing up to an enemy even in a losing cause can profit presidents, there being no better example than John F. Kennedy's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion which saw him increase his standing in public opinion polls. It soared higher with his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, which took the world to the brink. America suffered one of its most devastating hits with the 9/11 attacks, but as opposed to paying a price, George W. Bush's stock rose dramatically on account of it.
President Trump's reaction to Mr. Kim brings to mind a tactic employed by another president, Richard Nixon, during the Vietnam war. He wanted to appear as unstable, unpredictable, capable of doing anything, including employing nuclear weapons.
While walking along a beach one day with top adviser Bob Haldeman, he stopped and said, "I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war."
Back then, it turned out only to be a theory.