The Skeptics

Could North Korea be America's Next Forever War?

The estimable Mira Rapp-Hooper, CNAS Senior Fellow, and also a Senior Fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, recently published a thorough take-down of the illogic of the so-called “bloody nose” option against North Korea. Here are a few choice passages:

It makes little sense for American war planners to assume a “limited” strike like this would stay limited.... If [Kim Jong Un decided] to hit back, the result could be the most calamitous U.S. conflict since World War II.

Much of the speculation about the supposed benefits of the bloody nose revolves around the presumption that Kim would not retaliate. But, as Rapp-Hooper notes:

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.... Irrational actors are irrational in all domains—Washington does not have the luxury of picking and choosing where deterrence prevails.

The case against the United States initiating force against any country, especially a nuclear-armed North Korea, is strong. Indeed, Korea expert Victor Cha raised all the right questions last week.

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If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind? And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?

He concludes:

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.

Under normal circumstances, these sorts of arguments should rule the day. Americans would have learned something from our other still-open-ended conflicts—mostly wars that we started—and be anxious to avoid future ones. Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination by railing against the Iraq war, started by a Republican, claimed (falsely) that he had always opposed that war, and hinted that he was intent upon avoiding similar misadventures, including the war in Afghanistan (that he subsequently expanded). A careful reading of Trump’s campaign statements would have revealed his hawkish instincts, but a number of voters were focused on Trump’s opponent, who they were convinced was an even bigger hawk.

Still, given public sentiment—and Trump’s occasional skepticism—it would be reasonable to expect that new wars were unlikely. Or, at least, that he was unlikely to start them.

As I said, under “normal” times. Alas, these are not normal times. Neither Rapp-Hooper nor Cha are likely to appear on “Fox and Friends,” which seems to be the best way to reach President Trump. So expect the drums of war to keep beating.

I would offer just one caveat to Rapp-Hooper’s excellent article. She notes how National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster has focused on North Korea’s ICBM capability “as opposed to any of Kim’s other weapons systems or behavior” as the Trump administration’s red line.