The Kind of Thinking that Brought us the Iraq War
A preventative strike against North Korea is a bad idea.
The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched. The United States should use a precise airstrike to render the missile and its mobile launcher inoperable.
The logic here reminds me of pre-Iraq War logic: a bellicose dictator, who is often painted as unstable and unpredictable, appears to be developing weapons that, if deployed, could seriously damage regional stability and vital US national interests. Since an attack said dictator could have devastating results, best to act before such attacks take place. Indeed, a demonstration of power and resolve will help maintain, if not enhance, US security interests. Further: everything will go as planned once the action is undertaken.
A major flaw in Suri’s logic, I would argue: he is starting from the premise that Kim Jung Un’s threats are credible, i.e., that he would attack the South or US interests if allowed to continue. Yet, if the US were to militarily strike the North, then Kim would respond by backing down. Indeed, Suri’s argument is predicated on wishful (if not magical) thinking about how military power works. Just because the North is attacked does not mean that their automatic response will be better behavior. Indeed, provoking an adversary is a good way to get that adversary to overreact. Further, a US attack on the North would just confirm decades-worth of Kim family rhetoric about the outside, and could lead to demands from both leadership and the populace to retaliate. The Kims have been stoking nationalism as a means of controlling the population for decades—so how do we think an attack will play out in the minds of the masses?
At a minimum, I think that Suri’s position underestimates the degree to which Kim’s posturing, like that of his father before him, is aimed far more at a domestic audience than an international one. it is the same reason Saddam did not want to prove he didn’t have WMD: it would have weakened his domestic standing (as well as his international reputation).
One of the lessons that Iraq should have reminded us: military action rarely results in the best case scenario playing out. Moreover, as powerful as the US is, it cannot control outcomes. Or, to go the simplistic route : blowin’ stuff up is easy, controlling the aftermath is hard.
The facts here are relatively simple, even if the overall situation is complex:
1. We have a multi-decade track record of containment vis-a-vis the North in place.
2. Regardless of how “crazy” Kim appears, the leaders in the North are not suicidal. They know that if they spark a war, their regime is gone.
Ergo: if the goal is to avoid a new Korean War, which would have potentially profound implications for the region, perhaps it is best not to engage in activities that could start such a war (especially when history gives us a guide in regards to peninsula, not to mention recent examples of the way preventative military action plays out).
Update: I originally used the word “preemptive” in the description and the text, when the word “preventative” should have been used. A US attack on North Korean weapons would not be in the contexts of preempting a pending attack, but would, rather, be using military force to prevent an attack that might never be coming in the first place.