John Bolton is, as characterized by Asian expert Van Jackson, a man “who never saw a problem that couldn’t be solved with a few bombs or a war”. The former United Nations ambassador recently wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal advocating a “preemptive” strike. The argument might have been the best case for attacking North Korea I have seen but that is a low-bar. The article was riddled with errors, mistake and goal-post moving. Let us take it apart.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in January that Pyongyang was within “a handful of months” of being able to deliver nuclear warheads to the U.S.
This observation would have been useful a year ago but it has since become outdated. As Asian policy expert Mira Rapp-Hooper pointed out in a November 2017 column in the Atlantic, it is a myth that “…there remains any window of opportunity in which the United States can keep him from acquiring a mature nuclear capability deliverable by ICBM.”
Over the summer of 2017, North Korea twice demonstrated the capability to put an ICBM in portions of the United States. The November test proved they could put a nuclear ICBM anywhere in the continental United States. We have known since 2006 that North Korea was a nuclear state. Tests since then have shown they are capable of a nuclear weapon with a yield of up to 280 kilotons.
How long must America wait before it acts to eliminate that threat?
The United States is worried about a rouge Asian state acquiring a nuclear weapon. The United States is considering military options and at least one American agency has recommended action. The rogue nation has a “cavalier rhetoric about nuclear war”. The CIA, other agencies, and allied nations have considered military and covert action. The administration has potential plans to coerce the rogue nation and has gone as so far as to inquire about a potential temporary alliance with Moscow.
The American government chose to wait. Cooler heads prevailed and the worst predictions were shown to be overblown fear mongering. Thankfully the United States did not use military or covert action against Red China in the 1960s.
Wait, “that threat” was not the Chinese nuclear threat in the 1960s? Well, this is awkward.
Pre-emption opponents argue that action is not justified because Pyongyang does not constitute an “imminent threat.” They are wrong. The threat is imminent, and the case against preemption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times.
What is an imminent threat? This is the most important term in the article and it goes undefined. If imminent is such a low-bar that it includes any hostile nation that has the potential to strike us then that includes China, Russia, Pakistan, and arguably India. If that is the principle, why not strike those counties? What is the limiting principle?
The answer to that question is clear; the country has to have the ability AND desire to strike us. While North Korea does have the ability they lack the desire– or at least the desire to act on the desire.
North Korea’s overriding goal is regime survival. While they may have other goals– reunification and the destruction of America– they are all subordinate to the Kim dynasty surviving. Because of this, North Korea would not attack the United States or her allies unless they believed it was the only way for the regime to survive and that situation only occurs if they believe an American attack on the regime is happening or is imminent.
Bolton essentially concedes this point words later. In an Orwellian move, the Ambassador expands the meaning of imminent to include anything, not in the “very last minute”. As the Ambassador admits less than three dozen words later we have time– “we should not wait until the very last minute.”
Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea…
To be clear, the position of Ambassador Bolton is that the US should attack a country, capable of putting a nuclear-tipped ICBM anywhere in the continental US, it has less than full intelligence on? Maybe one of those gaps is that the Kim regime is not sitting around waiting to push the red button at the first opportunity. If our memory is long enough to remember the Iraq debacle, we should know it is possible for US intelligence to make significant mistakes.
…we should not wait until the very last minute.
Wait a second. This entire essay is about the case for preemptive war but Ambassador Bolton is describing a preventive war. Preemptive war, to put it crudely, is about waiting until the very last minute because you want to make sure the attack is unavoidable by other means. Preemptive war does not include strikes to destroy a potential threat.
That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.
Ambassador Bolton has to understand the difference between preventive war and preemptive war? Right? I have to be the one making the mistake?
Wikipedia defines a preventive war as a war that is “initiated to prevent another party from acquiring a capability for attacking.” That is exactly what Ambassador Bolton is arguing while claiming is arguing for a preemptive war.
Sadly, I was not the one making the mistake. As Jackson pointed out, “Bolton has, for several months, been engaged in a process of trying to elide the difference between preemption and prevention when it comes to attacking North Korea. Why? So Trump can attack North Korea!”
In assessing the timing of preemptive attacks the classic formulation is Daniel Webster’s test of “necessity.” British forces in 1837 invaded U.S. territory to destroy the steamboat Caroline, which Canadian rebels had used to transport weapons into Ontario.
But this test is irrelevant because it is not for what Ambassador Bolton is arguing for, but let us tackle it on its merits anyway.
The Carolina test has two standards that must be met. The threat must be unavoidable be peaceful alternatives and the attack must be proportional. Let us assume Ambassador Bolton’s preferred solution is proportional and satisfies the second criteria. We have already established that the threat is not imminent which means the first criteria is not meet. The Ambassadors own test is failed.
Webster asserted that Britain failed to show that “the necessity of self-defense was instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.”
And not one of these conditions is met with North Korea.
“Would an American strike today against North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program violate Webster’s necessity test? Clearly not. Necessity in the nuclear and ballistic-missile age is simply different than in the age of steam. What was once remote is now, as a practical matter, near; what was previously time-consuming to deliver can now arrive in minutes; …”
Americans were on the verge of sending an armed boat into British Canada to support a rebellion. The threat was actually imminent. There is no evidence that North Korea and the Kim regime are looking for the first instance to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon.
Furthermore, the idea that “Necessity in the nuclear and ballistic-missile age is simply different…” is a change designed to destroy the standard of necessity. This blurs the difference between a preemptive and preventive strike.
Over time, many nations extended their territorial claims, but the U.S. adhered to the three-mile limit until World War II. After proclaiming U.S. neutrality in 1939, in large measure to limit the activities of belligerent-power warships and submarines in our waters, President Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly realized the three-mile limit was an invitation for aggression. German submarines were sinking ships off the coast within sight of Boston and New York.
In May 1941, Roosevelt told the Pan-American Union that “if the Axis Powers fail to gain control of the seas, then they are certainly defeated.” He explained that our defenses had “to relate . . . to the lightning speed of modern warfare.” He scoffed at those waiting “until bombs actually drop in the streets” of U.S. cities: “Our Bunker Hill of tomorrow may be several thousand miles from Boston.” Accordingly, over time, Roosevelt vastly extended America’s “waters of self defense” to include Greenland, Iceland and even parts of West Africa.
Ambassador Bolton does realize the difference between actively being attacked and being in an uncomfortable situation? Last time I checked, North Korea is not actively sinking American ships.
Similarly in 1988, President Reagan unilaterally extended U.S. territorial waters from three to 12 miles. Reagan’s executive order cited U.S. national security and other significant interests in this expansion, and administration officials underlined that a major rationale was making it harder for Soviet spy ships to gather information.
Did I miss how Regan started bombing a nuclear power? No? Oh ya, that is because this example is not even close to comparable to striking the North Korean regime.
Israel has already twice struck nuclear-weapons programs in hostile states: destroying the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981 and a Syrian reactor being built by North Koreans in 2007.
And in neither instance was the chance of a war with hundreds of thousands– if not millions– of civilian casualties a likely option. That is not the same with a strike against the Kim regime.
This is how we should think today about the threat of nuclear warheads delivered by ballistic missiles.
Let us not.
It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.
Let us leave aside the question of legitimacy for a moment. Just because something has legitimacy does not mean it is a good idea. This is a genuinely terrible idea which will almost certainly kill hundreds of thousands of innocent Americans, Koreans, Japanese and who knows who else.
John Bolton does not just have wrong ideas but incredibly dangerous ideas. As it is rumored HR McMaster will be making his exit as National Security Adviser soon, it is reported than Chief-of-Staff is making a push for the Ambassador Bolton to be his replacement. While Secretary Mattis opposes the move, Kelly has not lost a personal fight yet. Elevating John Bolton to National Security Adviser would be, as this article shows, dangerous.