John Bolton Is Foolishly Calling For Preemptive War Against North Korea
John Bolton is leading a cry for preemptive war against North Korea.
John Bolton, who served as United States Ambassador to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush, has an Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for pre-emptive war against North Korea:
Pre-emption opponents argue that action is not justified because Pyongyang does not constitute an “imminent threat.” They are wrong. The threat is imminent, and the case against pre-emption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times. Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.
In assessing the timing of pre-emptive attacks, the classic formulation is Daniel Webster’s test of “necessity.” British forces in 1837 invaded U.S. territory to destroy the steamboat Caroline, which Canadian rebels had used to transport weapons into Ontario.
Webster asserted that Britain failed to show that “the necessity of self-defense was instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” Pre-emption opponents would argue that Britain should have waited until the Caroline reached Canada before attacking.
Would an American strike today against North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program violate Webster’s necessity test? Clearly not. Necessity in the nuclear and ballistic-missile age is simply different than in the age of steam. What was once remote is now, as a practical matter, near; what was previously time-consuming to deliver can now arrive in minutes; and the level of destructiveness of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons is infinitely greater than that of the steamship Caroline’s weapons cargo.
Although the Caroline criteria are often cited in pre-emption debates, they are merely customary international law, which is interpreted and modified in light of changing state practice. In contemporary times, Israel has already twice struck nuclear-weapons programs in hostile states: destroying the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981 and a Syrian reactor being built by North Koreans in 2007.
This is how we should think today about the threat of nuclear warheads delivered by ballistic missiles. In 1837 Britain unleashed pre-emptive “fire and fury” against a wooden steamboat. It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.
Bolton goes on to cite historical examples to support his argument, including warnings that President Franklin Roosevelt voiced prior to World War Two that called the then existing three-mile extension of what were considered American “territorial waters” and eventually and rather unilaterally went on to extend America’s “waters of self-defense” to extend as far east as Greenland, Iceland, and parts of western Africa. In a similar vein, in 1988 President Reagan unilaterally expanded the three-mile limit to twelve miles via Executive Order that “cited U.S. national security and other significant interests in this expansion, and administration officials underlined that a major rationale was making it harder for Soviet spy ships to gather information.”
Before proceeding any further, the differences between what Bolton is advocating and what FDR and Reagan actually did should be apparent. Where their actions were arguably principally defensive in nature due to the fact that they sought to limit the ability of Soviet and other naval forces to get close to American shores, the kind of first-strike that Bolton is suggesting would, much like the Iraq War that he also favored, be nothing more than unprovoked and naked aggression against the DPRK that would likely be viewed as a violation of international law even by some of America’s closest allies. Given that difference, it’s entirely unclear why Bolton even bothered to raise this argument. Absent the existence of an imminent threat, the justification for unilateral preemptive war against North Korea simply cannot be made simply by citing these two limited historical examples.
Furthermore, as Daniel Larison notes, there simply isn’t any evidence:
The concepts of preemption and imminent threat have been so thoroughly warped by the Iraq war debate that their proper meanings have been all but lost. Preemption means striking before an impending attack occurs, but there is no such attack being prepared by North Korea. If the U.S. strikes North Korea first under these circumstances, our government would be committing an act of aggression pure and simple. There would be no preemption, because there would be no attack to preempt.
Bolton declares that the threat from North Korea is imminent, but this requires us to redefine imminent to mean something entirely different from what it has always meant. Imminent means something that is about to happen, and that does not describe the threat from North Korea. North Korea is not about to attack the U.S. or its allies. It is not about to do it next month or next year. It is not about to do it at all. It has been deterred from doing so for decades, and continues to be deterred. In order to believe that there is an imminent threat from North Korea, namely one that is going to happen in the very near future, one also has to believe that its government is bent on self-destruction. Bolton writes about North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles as if their mere existence justifies a U.S. attack, but that is simply nonsense.
Larison is completely right in his assessment. While he doesn’t state it directly, Bolton’s entire premise is obviously based on the idea that the Kim regime is suicidal and that once it obtains the ability to put nuclear weapons on a missile capable of reaching the United States the first action it takes is going to be to hit the “launch” button and send the payload to a target in either Hawaii, Alaska, or the continental United States. In order to believe this, though, you have to believe that neither Kim Jong Un nor any of the people around him care at all about their own survival or the idea of holding on to power as long as they can. Kim may come across as a clown on television (then again, so does his adversary in Washington, D.C.), but it seems clear that he’s not foolish enough to do something that would mean that his regime would have, at most, another hour of life left in it from the moment he hit the “launch” button.
As I’ve noted in previous posts, instead of suicide, it seems clear that Kim and his cohorts have learned a lesson from recent world events and concluded, probably correctly, that the only way to ensure the survival of their regime under the current circumstances is with a credible, albeit small, nuclear deterrent force of some kind. The reasoning behind this can be found in the different ways that the United States and the west have treated nations with WMD programs, and those without it. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Libya, where the late leader Muammar Gaddafi voluntarily gave up his program in the wake of the Iraq War and turned over what weapons and research materials they have in echange for econmic aid from the west. Within less than a decade, much of Gaddafi’s family was either in custody, in hiding, or dead, and Gaddafi himself had suffered a particularly gruesome death at the hands of angry Libyans sympathetic to the rebels fighting his regime. As I noted in a previous post, though, the Libyan example iss only one lesson the North Koreans have learned:
The Libya example, of course, is only one of the lessons that the North Koreans have learned over the past eighteen years or so. They have also seen what happened to Saddam Hussein, another autocratic leader who gave up his weapons of mass destruction program only to see his country invaded, him being forced into hiding and eventual capture, after which he faced a trial and ultimately executed. By contrast, the Iranians have shown them that going forward with nuclear weapons research program yields far different results, namely an international agreement that provides significant sanctions relief and, at least to some extent, has led to the Islamic Republic being accepted back into the world community from which North Korea has largely been excluded for the better part of at least the last twenty-five years. Other lessons can be found in examples such as Pakistan and India, both of which pursued nuclear weapons development notwithstanding international pressure and now possess what is arguably a sufficient nuclear deterrent for each nation to adequately assure its own survival. From all of these examples, one can see the leaders of the DPRK, who I have long argued are far more rational actors than they have been given credit for, or which would be suggested by some of their more fiery rhetoric.
To put it simply, as Van Buran states the primary concern for Kim and those around him is survival of their regime. Given this, the fact that they have pursued both a nuclear weapons program and a program aimed at delivery of missiles capable of reaching as far as the Continental United States makes perfect sense.
Viewed in this light, the picture of the suicidal regime that pre-emptive war candidates like Bolton try to paint when it comes to Pyongyang falls apart. Rather than being suicidal, much of what we’ve seen from the DPRK is an entirely rational reaction to what they have learned from the past eighteen years and what it tells them about the likely thinking of the United States and other nations. Because of this, the assumption that Bolton and other advocates for some kind of “first-strike” that North Korea will strike first if we don’t is completely off base. Such a move would, of course, ultimately be suicidal since it would inevitably result in a retaliatory strike from the United States that would mean the end of the Kim regime in a matter of milliseconds. The same is true regarding a land war on the Korean Peninsula. While it’s true that the DPRK could impose significant casualties and losses on South Korea with its conventional forces alone, the ultimate result of a land war would be the destruction of the North Korean regime since its unlikely that China would come to the aid of the Kim regime as it did during the Korean War unless the United States and South Korea would make the same mistake MacArthur did when he pushed American forces all the way to the Yalu River border with China. The Kim regime has survived for more than sixty years now, and it seems clear that Kim Jong Un is as concerned with his own survival in power as his father and grandfather were. To believe that he’d engage in unilateral, unprovoked action that would ultimately lead to his downfall simply doesn’t comport with reality and with sixty years of history.
Much like some of the advice he gave during the Bush Administration, and his constant saber rattling for war against Iran, John Bolton’s ideas here are not only foolish, but they are positively dangerous.