James Jeffrey’s new post in The Atlantic on the North Korea nuclear crisis has so much to commend it. (Yes, there’s a “but” coming, and it’s enormous, but let’s give him his due.)
The former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq valuably reminds readers of the dangers of assuming – as per the latest conventional wisdom – that North Korea’s motives for developing nuclear forces potent enough to threaten the American homeland are purely defensive. This confidence, he notes, may be convenient for justifying a call for the United States to clear the way for a negotiated solution to the crisis by backing off its longstanding insistence on Pyongyang’s denuclearization. But no one aside from Kim Jong-un himself can have any confidence in assessing what’s inside his head.
As a result, Jeffrey also recognizes that the nuclear deterrence strategy that helped prevent Soviet and Chinese aggression during the Cold War (and so far seems to be helping curb Russian and Chinese expansionism nowadays) is far from guaranteed to work against a leader with a history of erratic and even violent behavior, and who is heir to a regime with a similar history – including absorbing enormous sacrifices to “reunify” the Korean peninsula under its rule. (At the same time, Jeffrey seems to undercut these arguments at the end by calling the denuclearization goal unreasonable, and signaling his support for a compromise that would leave the North with “some nuclear capability” in exchange for “a ‘temporary’ diplomatic solution that stops North Korean development of systems that can strike the U.S.”
In addition, Jeffrey forthrightly explains that both the Cold War deterrence strategies and their latter-day Korean counterpart depended on a gamble that involved putting the U.S. homeland at risk of nuclear attack, and denying an American president any real choice but to push the nuclear button that would surely bring this about.
Finally, the author understands that U.S. security interests could be powerfully served – and deterrence on the Korean peninsula strengthened – by encouraging South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons (although he never addresses the objection that neither country would likely go to these lengths as long as they can free-ride on the American defense guarantee).
So Jeffrey deserves great credit for going beyond conventional foreign policy thinking in many important respects. But in the most important respect by far, he’s solidly inside the consensus – which astonishingly, and let’s face it – derangedly – believes that there is any objective that the United States could achieve that’s worth any significant risk of nuclear attack on one or more major American cities.
Specifically, the author believes that North Korea may indeed have aggressive aims, and that the nuclear forces it will soon possess will be powerful enough to keep the United States on the sidelines if he attacks the South for fear that he will strike at the American territory. As a result, he believes that “the possibility of military action against North Korea could be understood not as a ‘good thing,’ but as the ‘least bad.’”
And although he does not call on the Trump administration to launch a “preventive war” to take out the North Korean nukes, he insists that steps that could result in such an attack on the United States, namely “a preemptive strike (or generating a credible threat of one to frighten China to act against Pyongyang), however awful, could be the least risky” way to a avoid several even worse alternatives.
And what are these alternatives? On top of the conquest of the South, and “abandoning 80 years of global collective security,” or watching “China intervene to ‘check’ Pyongyang, thereby pulling South Korea (and Japan) into China’s security orbit and ending the security regime the U.S. has maintained in the Pacific since 1945.”
I agree that these would be important setbacks for American interests. But would they be worse than watching several major U.S. metropolitan areas become burning, glowing wastelands? This is where I get off the boat – and I believe anyone with a lick of sanity should follow.
Do you and the rest of the American people agree? I strongly suspect the answer to both questions is “Yes,” but re the latter, here’s what’s most outrageous, and indeed unacceptable: We have no way of knowing, because all wings of the nation’s foreign policy establishment have pursued a strategy of hiding these risks from the public.
That’s why I keep contending that, given North Korea’s impending ability to hit the United States with nuclear weapons, the only policy capable of eliminating this threat (to the extent possible) is pulling the American forces out, thereby removing any reason for North Korea to launch a nuclear strike on American territory, and allowing the powerful, wealthy countries of the region handle Kim anyway they wish. Alternatively, let’s at least put this question – literally one of life and death – directly to the Americans who have been hoodwinked for so long and who would pay the price of hewing to the status quo, and see what they think.