Is Trump Softening Us Up for War With North Korea and Iran?

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

Center for a New American Security Senior Fellow Mira Rapp-Hooper has authored a first-rate take-down of the illogic of supposedly limited strikes (aka the “ bloody nose ” option) against North Korea at The Atlantic.

Here are a few choice passages:

it makes little sense for American war planners to assume a “limited” strike like this would stay limited. A U.S. operation may not achieve its objectives, and even if it does, it would still leave the decision of whether or not to retaliate up to Kim.

The North Korean leader would make that decision based on his own beliefs about the strike once it took place, not based on American wishes for his response. If he did decide to hit back, the result could be the most calamitous U.S. conflict since World War II.

[…]

If Kim is irrational on matters concerning his nuclear weapons and missiles, it’s reasonable to assume he’d be similarly irrational across the board. If he cannot be stopped from trying to reunify the two Koreas, further U.S. or UN sanctions are also unlikely to alter his cost calculations.

Why would a first strike by America restrain him? Irrational actors are irrational in all domains—Washington does not have the luxury of picking and choosing where deterrence prevails.

The belief that Kim can’t be deterred from conquest but can be deterred once the United States has brought force against him demonstrates a highly selective strategic understanding. What form retaliation would take, again, is up to Kim.

Yet [Trump national security advisor H.R.] McMaster seems to hold an erratic view of strategic dynamics that conveniently supports a use of force by the United States against North Korea, and privileges this path over all other options.

Under normal circumstances, these sorts of arguments against preventive war should rule the day. The case against the United States initiating force against any country, especially a nuclear-armed North Korea, is strong. Indeed, Korea expert Victor Cha made a similar case last week.

GettyImages-831561054 North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspecting the Command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) at an undisclosed location, August 15 2017. STR/AFP/Getty

Cha, no dove, concluded:

the United States must continue to prepare military options. Force will be necessary to deal with North Korea if it attacks first, but not through a preventive strike that could start a nuclear war.

And, while we’re on the subject of preventive war (i.e. premeditated aggression), former Colin Powell advisor Lawrence Wilkerson weighed in on the 15th anniversary of Powell’s speech to the United Nations regarding Iraq’s supposed WMD program. Wilkerson, a retired army colonel, noted the similarities between the Bush administration’s shoddy case for that war, and the Trump administration’s attempts to create a casus belli against Iran.

These steps include, Wilkerson writes :

the president’s decertification ultimatum in January that Congress must “fix” the Iran nuclear deal, despite the reality of Iran’s compliance; the White House’s pressure on the intelligence community to cook up evidence of Iran’s noncompliance; and the administration’s choosing to view the recent protests in Iran as the beginning of regime change.

Like the Bush administration before, these seemingly disconnected events serve to create a narrative in which war with Iran is the only viable policy.

These claims are false, these policies are flawed, and the implications are dangerous. The case for the JCPOA is strong, and the case against war with Iran is even stronger.

Most Americans have learned from our unhappy post-9/11 wars. They are skeptical about starting new ones (and cool to expanding the existing ones ). Once bitten, twice shy.

Alas, in the case of senior U.S. national security officials, it seems they are many times bitten, still not shy.

Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He is the author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (Cornell University Press, 2009) and John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap (Northern Illinois University Press, 2004). He coedited, with John Mueller, A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security (Cato Institute, 2014); and, with Jim Harper and Benjamin Friedman, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It (Cato Institute, 2010).

Preble teaches the U.S. foreign policy elective at the University of California, Washington Center. Before joining Cato in February 2003, he taught history at St. Cloud State University and Temple University. Preble was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, and served aboard the USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) from 1990 to 1993.

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