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June 21, 2006

What To Do About North Korea

Take out the missile launch site.  Here’s why that’s the right thing to do in a post-Iraq world.

A lesson of Iraq is that occupation is brutal and ultimately brutalizing work.  I was in favor of the invasion; I believed there were WMD in Iraq (I think the administration did, too); and  I have no regrets over Saddam’s fall other than his being granted a show trial.  And, on the whole, I think our troops have been incredibly effective and humane in the face of a barbaric enemy. But we have to learn from experience.

After World War II our occupation of Germany was as ruthless as an occupation needs to be to succeed.  “Resistance” leaders were simply hung from light poles as an example.  There was mass punishment of towns and neighborhoods which supported the resistance even when they did so at the point of a gun.  It’s very ugly that occupation effects ordinary citizens as a balance of terror – is it more dangerous for them to support the demands of the resistance or the occupiers? This isn’t politics; it’s simply survival.

The Iraqi insurgents (both native-grown and invasive) understand the classic tactics of resistance: terrorize the population; provoke occupier “atrocities” as a response; count on the occupier losing the will to sustain this battle.  These tactics work particularly well when the occupier values human life and human dignity more than the resistance.  Even better when the occupier is a democracy whose people both tire of the price of occupation and are genuinely appalled by the harm done to the civilian population who are caught in the middle.

So what do we do about North Korea which certainly has weapons of mass destruction, is improving its means of delivering them, and is led by a megalomaniac who doesn’t hesitate to starve his own people and can’t be expected to have much concern for anyone else?  We certainly don’t want to occupy the place.

I think we ought to do what we do best: deliver a very clear warning and take effective action by destroying the site from which North Korea plans to test its next missile.  Should we give a warning first so people can get out of the way?  Only if this doesn’t unduly jeopardize either the success of the mission or the safety of our pilots and only if we are prepared to carry on regardless of demonstrations in every capital of the world.

Is this high-handed?  Yes but no more so than the premise of the world’s negotiations with North Korea and Iran which is that we have the right to tell them that they are too much of a threat to us to be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

Is this bullying? Yes.  We have a harder time threatening those who are stronger.  We didn’t tell the USSR or China that they “couldn’t” have nuclear weapons.  We had to fall back to mutually assured destruction.  But mutually assured destruction won’t work as a deterrent when religious fanatics and nutcases are armed with weapons of mass-destruction; it is quite possible that bringing on Armageddon will appeal to them.

Wasn’t our intelligence wrong in Iraq? Apparently.  But the burden of proof is on those who claim to have WMD (North Korea) or don’t comply with inspections they’ve agreed to (Iran and Iraq).  Clean inspections would be and should be a protection from American attack.

What’s the likely effect on Iran?  Some will say it will harden their resistance.  Don’t think so but no loss since they are giving nothing anyhow.  I think they are much more likely to reconsider their need for nuclear enrichment if they face the threat of something more serious than a flood of ever-sweeter proposals each time they turn one down.

What about world opinion?  Ouch.  Of course much of the world will be secretly relieved.  And we will have made it even easier to criticize the US while taking advantage of a pax Americana.  Also can’t discount the fact that it is normal to resent a country which is able to act so strongly and unilaterally.  It would be nice to have support from some countries besides Israel and possibly the UK.  But not worth waiting for while North Korea and Iran build their capabilities.

The opinions that matter are in North Korea and Iran and somewhere in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It is our enemies we want to influence.

We have an awesome ability to break things.  The lesson of Iraq is that we have a very limited ability to put them back together again.  With hindsight (and this is only hindsight) I think we should have applied the doctrine I’m suggesting for North Korea to Iraq.

Way back before the Iraqi war Saddam had given us good reason to think he still had WMD (there’s no question he’d had them before Iraq One and tried to get more).  He did not give the UN inspectors the access he’d promised and which they needed to determine whether or not the WMD existed. We should have identified the most important places to be inspected and made it clear that, if immediate unfettered access was not allowed to them, they would be destroyed.  Probably would have had to do that once or twice; then there would have been real inspections.

Of course this would not have brought democracy to Iraq nor will an attack on a North Korean facility free its miserable citizens from their atrocious government.  I don’t think we can justify the price in American lives to accomplish these worthy goals.  I don’t think we are able to sustain these worthy goals at the price of being an occupier.

But we are both entitled and able to act in our own defense.  We cannot afford to let ambitious dictators think we will be paralyzed by our horrible experience in trying to put Iraq together again.  We must make clear that we are willing to break things that threaten us  – with the minimum possible harm to civilians – even if we can’t put them back together again.

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