North Korea is a unique case, as far as threats to the United States and its allies go. The Hermit Kingdom moniker is truly apt; North Korea is a pariah state, the last of the totalitarian regimes of the post–World War II era and the poorest country in East Asia. Across North Korea’s borders are two economic powerhouses, states that enjoy a level of material wealth that would seem fantastic to the average North Korean citizen if he or she was aware of it. The Kim dynasty has beggared, brutalized and isolated its people to keep them in a state of paranoia and submission while maintaining the comfort of regime leaders. The thinking of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is unclear and intelligence and reporting from within the country is extremely limited. But judging from its words and deeds, North Korea sees itself as capable and willing of attacking South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Menace and small-scale aggression is Kim’s preferred course of action. The idea that North Korea would strike preemptively, however, is not in keeping with historic behavior or the weakness of its position. While North Korea could undoubtedly devastate portions of South Korea or Japan with its current armament of short and intermediate range ballistic missiles and artillery, to do so would be regime suicide. China plays a huge role in preventing North Korean rhetoric and actions from escalating to the point of war. While China has some ideological and historical ties to the Kim dynasty that will prevent it from abandoning the country outright, North Korea is a huge liability. Maintaining good relationships and ongoing trade with the United States, South Korea and Japan is essential to a healthy Chinese economy—North Korea is not. But that does not mean that China will countenance an overthrow of Kim, as it still prefers a buffer between itself and the thirty thousand American troops stationed on the Korean peninsula.
With the country’s ongoing nuclear tests and possible success in miniaturizing nuclear warheads to fit into its inventory of ballistic missiles, North Korea should be treated carefully. Kim strives to retain his grip on power above all else, and his ongoing nuclear weapons program serves as key element in that strategy. His recent moves may have finally depleted the reservoir of patience of both North Korea’s patron and former allies, however, as both Russia and China have condemned the tests and are publicly pressuring Kim to implement the U.N. Security Council resolution banning ballistic missile tests while also calling for a resumption of Six-Party Talks. Whether this current effort will bear fruit is questionable, but the U.S. deterrence strategy has proven to be ineffective at halting further North Korean weapons development and other policies, like increasing sanctions and continuing to conduct maritime training missions, should be explored.
Iran constitutes a top regional threat, particularly from the perspective of Israel and Sunni Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia. Iran’s support of Hezbollah, backing of Assad in Syria and potential inciting of sectarian violence among Shi’a minorities in the Gulf, have kept the country as a military challenge for the United States and its allies. The Iran nuclear deal framework, worked out among members of the U.N. Security Council and the European Union, has made great strides in reducing the chance of nuclear weapons proliferation in the greater Middle East. The deal, however, should be viewed as transactional rather transformational—Iran approved the agreement because sanctions had seriously damaged its economy. The Guardian Council and the Revolutionary Guard Corps—which are the centers of power within Iran—still have far too much invested domestically in maintaining animosity than in truly easing tensions with the United States. It serves their purposes to continue to depict the United States as the nemesis of the Islamic Revolution.
Although Iran has not openly confronted the United States militarily, it has positioned itself to play a key role in the future of two countries in which the United States now has a vested interest: Syria and Iraq. Iran and Russia’s financial and military aid to Syria’s Assad has given his regime new legs and ensured, at great human cost, that he will survive to the end of the civil war. In Iraq, the Shia majority government in Baghdad has come to rely more heavily on Iranian-backed militias and Revolutionary Guard advisors to reinforce its own flagging military capabilities in the fight against ISIS. Both moves have come in reaction to ISIS’s stunning territorial gains in 2014 that have compromised the sovereignty of its two allies and severely destabilized the area. Any losses in Iraq and Syria threaten the Sunni–Shia balance of power in the region and Iran’s own security. Leveraging the weakness of its partners with a competent military financed by oil revenues, Iran has sought to establish itself as an indispensable nation. To an extent, Iran has been successful, but there are indications that it has made the same classic mistake as many major powers: overextension.
As the civil war in Syria grinds on and the Islamic State, or ISIS, is dislodged from its strongholds in Iraq with great difficulty, Iran has found itself simultaneously managing wars in two countries—either directly or by proxy. How long they can maintain that position is unknown. Although the nuclear framework deal lifted certain sanctions and unfroze billions of dollars, the multimonth slump in oil prices has strained Iran’s cash reserves. Like Russia, Iran may have bitten off more than it can chew in directly intervening in Syria, where it must contend not only with the Islamic State but with an array of Sunni proxy forces who are all angling for Assad’s downfall. If the United States wishes to restore peace to the region, then it will be necessary to deal politically with Iran, just as it will be for Russia. How the United States can find a solution between the interests of its Sunni allies, Iran, Russia and Assad will not come from more U.S. military involvement in the region beyond the forces it has already deployed and which will cost at least $20 billion in FY 2017.
Global terrorist networks
Russia, China, Iran and even North Korea are all threats inasmuch as they challenge either U.S. allies, interests or global military dominance—but they still have the limitations of nation-states. Global terrorist networks, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, do not have the same restrictions; they are amorphous, have no need or desire to negotiate and they thrive on military confrontation. As history has shown, just as the United States has seemingly written the epitaph of one group, another rises from its ashes, fueled by widespread discontent and chaos to inflame even more of both. The presence of global terror networks across the globe speaks to the reality of what occurs when weak states—such as Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria—lose control of their territory and forfeit the trust of their population.
During the fifteen years since 9/11, the United States and its allies have spent trillions of dollars and suffered thousands of combat deaths and wounded and contributed to the death of thousands of people and the displacement of millions in a war on terrorist networks. Yet these efforts have offered little in the way illuminating a solution to extremism. Drone strikes and special operations raids have proven effective at killing people, but there never seems to be an end to the list of targets. DOD has stated in clear terms that it intends to move away from stabilization operations to a more conventional footing. The failures over the last decade have made the military shy away from counterinsurgency, if the complete absence of the word in the DOD FY 2017 budget request is any indication.
While there is certainly a place for direct military action against these extremist groups who have killed and displaced millions of people, the root of extremism extends deep into disaffection with the status quo of authoritarian governments and touches upon a variety of ethnic, tribal, religious, social and economic tensions. Hellfire missiles will not resolve any of these issues, but they can address the more pressing or actively threatening aspects, at least temporarily. The problems rightly look insurmountable to an outsider because of their complexity and durability. There cannot be stability without peace, and there cannot be peace without security. But there is no will, in the United States or elsewhere, to once again commit the billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops required to deal with open-ended civil conflicts. The United States is not the only nation affected by these crises and it cannot address these issues alone; however, its potential partners each have their own agenda—which is often counterproductive to creating a workable security situation, for example, the Saudi and Turkish funding of Islamists in Syria. Ultimately, it will take an across-the-board realization among the United States, its allies and other concerned parties that pursuing narrow interests in these failing states rather than dealing with the critical threats from ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliated groups will result in nothing more than setting up the next war or insurgency.