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January 26, 2012

Culminating Point

by Mike M

Two important new essays delve more deeply into what may be the most fearsome strategic challenge of the year.  Faced with the culmination of two nuclear aspirations you said you “would not tolerate,” what to do?

Ronen Bergman’s superb piece in the New York Times Magazine catalogues Israel’s obsession with Iran’s nuclear work.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak tells Bergman that Iran is sprinting toward an “immunity zone”—a point at which their program will be so widely dispersed, so far along, and so deeply embedded that it will be immune to treatment with targeted strikes.  Barak estimates that the zone will arrive in nine months for Israel and 15 months for the US.  Another senior Israeli official laid out for Bergman a logical implication:  “[T]he sanctions have to be brought to a culmination now, in order to exhaust that track” to see if progress can be achieved short of a strike before the zone arrives.

And so, the flywheel has been set into motion.

Meantime, picture this:  Kim Jong-un presiding, smug and well-fed, on the dais above one of North Korea’s gargantuan military parades, surrounded by octogenarian generals.  At the centerpiece of the procession trundles a sparkling Nodong or Taepodong missile, its blue-painted tip crowned for the first time with a nuclear device—something Pyongyang either states quite openly (after all, it’s been saying for a while 2012 would be the Year of the Openly Nuclear North) or else lets slip through rumor, innuendo, and gossip.

That’s the hair-raising scenario laid out in a new article by long-time Asia analyst Larry Niksch, who points to a host of factors (support the North got from A. Q. Khan, revelations about its uranium facilities, indications of cooperation with Iran) suggesting that Pyongyang might be close to crowning its missiles with nukes that can reach the South, Japan, US bases on Guam—and someday, maybe (US officials have hinted in their darker moments), the West Coast.

So here’s what 2012 has in the offing:  Iran approaching its “immunity zone”—or crossing it, from Israel’s standpoint, which would force their hand if not ours; and North Korea rapidly moving toward possession of a degree of nuclear capacity that, as Niksch makes clear, would finally and utterly obliterate the tattered remains of US nonproliferation policy in Korea.

In both cases, the conventional wisdom says that preventing these culminating points is essential because Iran and North Korea would behave differently with nukes.  As Barak told Bergman, a nuclear Iran could invoke a nuclear umbrella over Hezbollah.  “And if a nuclear Iran covets and occupies some gulf state,” Barak warned, “who will liberate it?”  Meanwhile Niksch relates, but does not fully endorse, arguments that nukes would make the North more likely to launches waves of intimidation and provocation.

But hang on.  When China moved to become a nuclear power in the early 1960s, the US worried intensely and actively considered preempting Chinese nuclear facilities.  (One proposal was to air-drop 100-man sabotage teams—the product, one has to believe, of either genius or insanity.)  But we didn’t strike; we contained and deterred, and today we count a rising China as an economic boon and a potential partner in resolving many threats to the global commons.

Such an outcome was anything but obvious in the early 1960s, though, when US officials had to stare down the prospect of a nuclear ChiComm, and let it ride.  As it turned out, the “nukes will change behavior” thesis proved false:  China did not become dramatically more belligerent; China’s basic interests, goals, strategic culture and personality did not change.  Meantime, countries on its periphery did not jump up, run in circles, and rush off into a madcap proliferation spree.  The world woke up the next day, make its toast, and went to work.

Why do we believe things will be different with Iran and North Korea?  Both states have histories of provocations within carefully-calibrated bounds, but overall strategic behavior that counts as self-preservationist, pragmatic, and generally restrained.  And in fact there are many reasons to believe that a contained rather than adventurist result is even more foreordained today than it was in the 1960s.

  • The world community is more united—there’s no cold war to divide us.  Nuclear-fueled intimidation would run straight into a global order that demands stability for prosperity’s sake.
  • Iran and North Korea have sympathizers and sponsors of a sort, but no one is trying to use them as proxies to destabilize “the West.”  The advice they will get from Beijing, Moscow, Paris, Delhi, and other capitals in times of crisis will be, Cool it.  Nobody needs a war.
  • We have a Law of Self-Correcting Extreme Misbehavior.  Applying to everything from al Qaeda atrocities in Anbar to potential Iranian threats to Kuwaiti or Saudi territory, the rule says this:  Societies and the “international community” is indeed “weak” in dealing with middling violations; but sufficient norms have arisen that when someone gets really out of hand—e.g. Saddam in 1990—everyone will sigh, admit a need to respond, and sign up to the international consensus.
  • American power is more overwhelming.  US military force is more relatively dominant today than it was in 1965, 1975, or 1985.

Bergman quotes Israeli officials as estimating that strikes could cause a three to five year delay in Iran’s program.  (Remarkably, this is precisely the same estimate that the declassified US memo cited above cted as a possible delay that could be achieved in the Chinese program.)  But Bergman also notes that respected senior retired Israeli officials dispute that estimate and have far less faith in the effects of the strike.  In the Korean case, of course, we have no real military option at all.  Either way, strikes are no “solution,” only a step into an abyss whose depth and outlines remain a complete mystery—and which constitutes a plunge we’d have to take, possibly, again and again.

Contrast the urgency with the situation confronted by Dwight Eisenhower.  Ike surveyed the strategic landscape and saw two broad options:  Preemption, or containment.  In fact his ultimate strategy melded the two in some fashion to include elements designed to accelerate change in communist systems.  But in broad terms his fundamental choice was clear:  He was in no rush to start a war to prevent the other side from getting a given weapons system.  He believed our system was superior, and that time was on our side.  He urged Americans—and sometimes, very pointedly, his generals—to avoid becoming too panicky over momentary surges in strength by the other side.

Writing to a friend in 1950, Ike referred disparagingly to an impulsive politician who committed what was, for Eisenhower, a cardinal blunder:  The belief “that the public likes rapid, even spectacular, decisions.”  Wise leaders knew that prudence and pragmatism, not recklessness, were superior strategic traits.  In an August 1954 press conference, he replied to a question about “increasing suggestions that we should embark on a preventive war with the Communist world” by saying that it was “an impossibility today. … I don’t believe there is such a thing, and, frankly, I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.”

Two years later, writing in a private letter about British and French preemptive action in the Suez crisis, Eisenhower complained that his allies’ fears about Egyptian leader Nasser were probably accurate.  The man was indeed a danger, Ike agreed.  But he nonetheless wrote that, “I have insisted long and earnestly that you cannot resort to force in international relationships because of your fear of what might happen in the future.”

And so the question presses itself:  We know that the systems in Iran and North Korea will change.  What reason do we have to believe that, if patience worked with the Soviet Union and China and all their allies and sympathizers, around the world and within our own nations, ranged against the West—that it cannot work today, against two weatherbeaten, besieged, crumbling, shouting-into-the-wind anachronisms whose ideologies and threats are now ranged against the entire world community?

Count this as one vote for patience—strong, deterrence-backed, vigilant, nuclear-middle-ground-seeking, democracy-promoting patience.  But patience nonetheless.

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