Tensions are escalating by the day on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has declared that it is in a state of war with its neighbor to the south, and its untested young despot, Kim Jong-un, has been photographed meeting with his generals flanked by charts showing the trajectory of missiles aimed at U.S. targets.
Thus far, the Obama administration has responded tactically to these provocations. Stealthy B-2 bombers, the nation’s most formidable long-range aircraft, have dropped dummy bombs in South Korea as part of ongoing military exercises. Fifth-generation F-22 fighters are being deployed to the peninsula for the first time.
The United States has agreed to support its ally in the south in the event it responds forcefully to renewed attacks from the north. Should that happen, North Korea’s patrons in China and Russia may be drawn into whatever eventuates.
In short, we may be at the cusp of a nuclear conflict starting on the Korean Peninsula — but not limited to it. Americans are entitled to know not only what can and should be done to avert such a disaster, but how we got to this point.
One indicator can be found buried deep in an article that appeared on the front page of the April 1 editions of The Wall Street Journal. It quoted unnamed “U.S. officials” as saying, “The South Korean government has asked for demonstrations of America’s nuclear deterrence.”
Critics will be quick to question whether such a demonstration, in the form of deploying nuclear-capable warplanes to South Korea, is advisable in the midst of such a crisis. It is at least as important, though, to address an even more fundamental issue: Would such assurances to South Korea — and perhaps to other allies around the world — about the continued effectiveness and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent been necessary at all had the Obama administration not recklessly pursued policies that predictably devalue and undermine that deterrent?
Those policies were challenged in an op-ed in Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post, co-authored by Marine Corps Command and Staff College former Central Intelligence Agency chief R. James Woolsey; former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith; Adm. James Lyons, the former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet; and me. We enumerated seven worrisome facets of the administration’s denuclearization agenda: “(1) opposition to developing a reliable, new nuclear warhead; (2) opposition to ever testing our warheads again; (3) support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; (4) support for deep, new cuts in nuclear force levels; (5) eagerness for a new treaty with Russia to make such cuts a legal requirement; (6) hints of funding cuts for U.S. nuclear infrastructure (in violation of earlier promises to increase such funding, which were pledged in 2010 to win Senate votes for the ‘New START’ nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia); and (7) endorsement of ‘nuclear zero.’”
In fact, it should be obvious that President Obama’s decades-long fixation on creating a “world without nuclear weapons” has contributed greatly to the current impasse. North Korea is but one of the actual or potentially hostile powers that must be emboldened by his willingness in this instance to lead from in front in seeking to denuclearize the world, starting with our arsenal.
Under these circumstances, Pyongyang has seen no reason to abandon its decades-long effort to obtain weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them over ever-longer ranges. Indeed, it has grown cocky about threatening with impunity not only our allies, but the United States itself.
The evolving Korean crisis illuminates three things seriously wrong with such policies:
First, there is no way to rid the world of nuclear weapons. With the relevant technology in the hands of nations such as North Korea and its partner, Iran — to say nothing of Nukes-R-Us entrepreneurs like Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan — the proverbial nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle. And there is no reason to think — especially given the past conduct of such actors — that an international accord claiming to prohibit nuclear weapons could be verified and enduringly effective. If anything, our denuclearization puts a premium on others getting and retaining the bomb.
Second, even if nuclear weapons could somehow be permanently abolished, absent a wholesale transformation of geopolitics — and, for that matter, human nature — the effect would simply be to make the world safe for conventional war. Think about the horrific, global carnage wrought twice in the pre-atomic era of the last century, and not repeated since then. North Korea’s behavior at the moment supports the proposition that, without the deterrence to aggression historically provided by robust U.S. nuclear forces, the world will be a far more dangerous one.Finally, the unraveling situation on the Korean Peninsula also underscores that there are real risks associated with the United States even trying to de-emphasize nuclear deterrence. It will be the cruelest of ironies if the Obama administration’s pursuit of the “global zero” agenda actually contributes to the first nuclear war.
A national debate on the wisdom of “global zero” and further dismantling of the U.S. deterrent — via negotiations or unilaterally — is long overdue. Let it begin now.