I'm convinced that, barring an accident, the US is not going to war with North Korea.
The reason is simple: the US is not powerful enough to attack North Korea without the support of both South Korea and Japan. And because North Korea can cause mass civilian casualties in either, neither can accept the risk of war. When push comes to shove, they won't allow the US to use them as bases for a war of choice, just like Turkey and Saudi Arabia denied the US bases to attack Iraq in 2003.
The North Korea crisis is all about administration's desire to win a foreign policy “victory” ahead of the midterm elections. It doesn't even matter if the victory is “real”. This is foreign policy as reality tv: only the producers know the whole truth of where the plot is supposed to go. And while things can go weird, the stage management usually works out in the end.
The real target is Iran. It always has been. For the conservative movement, Iran has been national enemy number 1 since 1979. First, because it dared to humiliate the US by seizing the embassy in Tehran and holding the staff hostage, leading to a botched rescue attempt that reminded way too many people of the failures during the Vietnam War. Few commentators realize how deeply this episode challenges the self-narrative of American conservative elites. Second, Iran is one of the two countries (the other being Saudi Arabia, which remains a close ally) capable of challenging American access to the Persian Gulf, where the cheapest and highest quality oil in the world is harvested, and since the Carter Doctrine laid out in the 1970s America's foreign policy has been structured to prevent any major power (other than the US) from dominating the Middle East. Now that Iran has effective control over the government of Iraq (thanks to the US invasion), has sent soldiers to help rescue the Assad regime in Syria, is closely allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and is increasingly friendly to Putin's Russia, the administration's foreign policy hawks view great-power competition in the Middle East to be a priority concern.
If you look at the personnel changes in the administration over the past two years, one natural conclusion you might draw is that chaos rules. With respect to the actual functioning of the US government, this is probably true. The State Department is largely unstaffed, Pentagon and CIA types are setting foreign policy. Congress is mired in the games played by democratic and republican party elites, and the Courts are slowly being packed with conservative ideologues. But the American media is extrapolating too much from this apparent chaos, and presuming too much about how this apparent chaos will impact their electoral success in the future. The administration, in rhetoric and action, is entirely focused on maintaining power. By holding on to their Senate majority, and by making sure the electoral college goes for Trump again in 2020. It is perfectly happy with the media (which it denigrates as biased anyway) staying fixated on the insane Tweet of the day, and avoiding the necessary deeper public discussions about how to repair and reform the United States. It wants to stay in power, and we should all expect it to pull any trick it can to ensure that it does.
The simplest way is to launch a war. Step back from the filters the US media applies to create a sense of narrative (thus driving readership, and advertising revenues), and virtually every action of the administration is steadily pushing the United States in this direction. The hell of Trumpism is that it is actually rather weak, riding a nationalist/populist wave that won't last forever. Its seizure of the Republican party has generated a strategic commitment to a set of ideological positions that, as the Silent Generation dies and the Boomer Generation reaches terminal decline, will leave the Republicans without a meaningful constituency outside of Dixie and the Plains.
The Trumpists have been flying by the seat of their pants since day 1, and their current success is really a statement about the complete incompetence of the Democratic party's leadership (which is actually happy with Trumpism, thinking it will be easy to defeat in 2020. Deep down the democrats are the party of linear responses to non-linear threats, hence their lack of competence), and not a testament to their own capabilities with respect to political strategy and organization. They won in 2016 because they sold themselves well to just enough people in just the right states, while the Democrats refused to accept the tribal nature of politics or the poll numbers that should have told them their assumptions about voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were incorrect. White Christians in these states accepted the Trumpist lie that immigrants, minorities, and trade were responsible for the terminal economic decline of the Rust Belt. The fact that census numbers show their numbers and political power declining permanently in coming years provided the necessary point of irritation that the Trumpists exploited to win the Electoral College.
It is precisely because of this coming demographic cliff that the Republicans have sold out to the Trumpists, and it is the sense of impending doom that ultimately drives Trumpism onward. White America has an expiration date dancing before their eyes, and it seems fair to say that in their view, an America that isn't white isn't America at all. This is a very old story. One would think, knowing all we do about how a very similar set of dynamics played out in Europe in the 1930s, our society would be able to generate an effective counter-response. But there too, economic uncertainty is being pirated by racist opportunists who want to pretend that it is brown people, and not their own political and economic elites, that are the cause of the problem.
So the Trumpists remain in the driver's seat, creating chaos and uncertainty and seeking any effective means of retaining power in the face of the challenges ahead. The logic of their struggle for power, bound to America's peculiar sense of being special, will drive pressure for a major international conflict before the next election. Prediction of the details is always fraught, but here's the nutshell timeline I think is basically correct:
2018: Democrats narrowly take back the House of Representatives in the Mid-term elections, but fail to win a majority in the Senate. The Mueller investigation alleges improper ties between the Trump campaign in 2016 and Russian agents, and recommends charges to Congress.
Early 2019: Seeing no chance of winning a successful impeachment conviction due to continued Republican control over the Senate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi takes impeachment off the agenda, and focuses the party on the 2020 elections.
Late 2019: With both the US and Iran withdrawing from negotiations over Iran's alleged nuclear program in late 2018, a steady drumbeat of media reports that Iran is bolstering its arsenal of ballistic missiles and re-starting development of nuclear weapons re-invigorates the simmering crisis.
Winter 2020: During the State of the Union, the administration states that all options will be pursued to rein in Iran's weapons programs, and announces the deployment of major military assets to the Middle East in preparation for combat operations.
Spring 2020: Amidst aggressive rhetoric on both sides and a dramatic US military buildup, the largest anti-war protests since 2003 are held across the world. The US Administration vows not to be swayed by the actions of “peace-mongers and illegals”.
Late Spring 2020: Several incidents between US Navy vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and boats operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps result in a series of punitive American strikes on IRGC targets. The IRGC responds by firing several ballistic missiles at US forces in Kuwait.
Spring-Summer 2020: Tit-for-tat strikes escalate into a massive American air campaign against Iran, targeting government and military assets. Russia, concerned that a major ally is being targeted for regime change, deploys anti-aircraft missiles and several squadrons of fighter aircraft to bases in Northern Iran...
Like incompetent governments often do, the US will underestimate both Iran's ability to resist and the speed at which a conflict can escalate. International relations are rapidly sliding towards something very nasty. Without international efforts to reduce tensions, the world of 2020 may well stumble into a new round of violent conflict, much as it did in 1914 and the late 1930s. But this isn't on the radar: blinded by their 'America is the best!' rhetoric, bound to an ideology that sees white christian America as favored by God, the Trumpists simply aren't able to realize that their actions, their assumptions of the international community being driven solely by competition, can in fact make it so.
Eventually, they will decide that they have to “win” the 2020 election, whatever the cost. And history shows that Americans will support the administration in charge if there's a war on. Combine the two, and you have a recipe for a pretty miserable 2020.
And what happens after? Anyone's guess. Global tensions are primed to snap, with unpredictable consequences. Unless Americans can collectively get their act together and start forcing reforms on the federal government in D.C., things 'gonna get interesting here, real soon.
Will we live out the nightmare that Muslim Americans (And probably DACA beneficiaries, who the Democrats this year totally betrayed) fear is coming? Or does the Trumpist infection burn itself out by provoking a nuclear exchange with Russia? Sometime in 2020, as the Presidential campaign kicks into high gear, will foolish actions lead to the US and Russia blowing up one another's ICBM silos?
Guess we'll find out. I'm definitely starting to think that the Universe has a wicked sense of humor, though. Of all the possible ways humanity could have evolved, who'd have thought that one day our entire civilization would be at the mercy of a reality tv star with probable mental illness who literally has the ability to launch thousands of nuclear weapons whenever he chooses?
Oh wait, science fiction writers have seen this coming for decades. We were warned. There really isn't any excuse. So now, we all get to find out exactly how special America really is.
But as the old Slipknot lyric goes: America – what if God doesn't care?