Over the past several months, U.S. foreign policy has been dominated by a tale of two cities: Washington and Pyongyang. As the doomsday rhetoric intensifies between these two untested and inexperienced leaders, the risk of actual combat is rising to very real levels.

To put this into context, we are now closer to a nuclear exchange than we have been at any time in the world’s history with the single exception of the Cuban missile crisis. I think there is a 70 percent chance that diplomacy and economic sanctions prevent combat; a 20 percent chance that there is a limited exchange of ordnance – like a jet shot down or a limited strike; but a 10 percent chance of full blown war on the Peninsula. I discussed this with NBC Nightly News.

So, as we stride toward the precipice, what do we do?

My first recommendation is to dial down the rhetoric. At the United Nations, President Donald Trump shocked much of the world by threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea. Meanwhile, North Korea has threatened to create a “sea of fire” in both South Korea and the United States. These types of fiery retorts are not helping the ongoing diplomatic attempts to calm the situation.

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, I told the hosts that President Trump is acting like a hurricane – explosive, unpredictable, and delivering chaos to the system. However, the job of a leader is to bring order out of chaos, not to stir the pot further.

In addition to toning down the rhetoric, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff will also have to put military options in front of the president. In Nikkei Asian Review, I outlined seven likely recommendations, from least intrusive to most bombastic – literally. They are as follows:

  1. Dramatically increase missile defense, both in South Korea and on U.S. territories such as Guam.
  2. Look at how to implement a full-blown naval blockade (see my article in Bloomberg from a few weeks ago). This would reduce outgoing exports, helping choke the North Korean economy, prevent incoming shipments of oil and oil products, and stop exports of North Korean weapons, which serve as a source of cash for the regime.
  3. Launch a focused offensive cyber campaign. This would be a non-lethal option, and could be used broadly against North Korean infrastructure (electricity, internet, hydroelectric dams) or specifically against their weapons program.
  4. Use special forces to conduct an attempted leadership “decapitation,” or conduct a mission to destroy a critical portion of the North Korean weapons program.
  5. Launch a tactical airstrike directed against a variety of targets, which could come from tactical jets based on U.S. aircraft carriers; long-range, strategic aircraft based in Guam; or land-based aircraft from South Korea.
  6. Use Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) munitions, more commonly known as the “mother of all bombs.” Used in Afghanistan against cave complexes and targets in the open, this is a weapon that can truly begin to degrade Kim’s deeply buried, highly-hardened targets, including his nuclear forces, special command and control bunkers, and personal “safety locations.”
  7. The final option, of course, would be the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Graduating up this list is problematic as it definitively increases the chances (and eventually the certainty) of a counter-strike by Kim. Once such a pattern of escalation is underway, it will be difficult to dial down. It’s also hard to imagine Kim not responding to such strikes with direct attacks against Seoul and the South Korean leadership.

More immediately lethal options would also have huge political and humanitarian implications, even if used with great caution only against North Korean nuclear weapons facilities, and away from any potential collateral damage to civilians. The negative reaction from the global community would be extreme, and it’s hard to estimate the final political cost the United States would pay for being the first to use nuclear weapons in this conflict.

It’s also worth pointing out that any of the options described above will likely be presented to the president and secretary of defense with caveats. Some of the key options will include the inability of the U.S. military to control escalation once their use begins. All will require careful coordination with Washington’s South Korean allies, and account for the possibility of unpredictable responses from China and Russia. Consideration of the risk to U.S. forces and citizens in South Korea must not be forgotten. As I told The New York Times, I have faith that all three of the generals in the president’s inner circle – Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster – fully realize the carnage that would result from a war on the Korean Peninsula.

Overall, once ordnance begins to fly, it is hard to predict outcomes with certainty.

As always, thanks for reading.

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