Friday, June 23, 2006

"At the Doorstep": Should the U.S. Launch a Preventive Strike on Pyongyang's Missiles?

Ashton Carter and William Perry, two former Clinton administration defense officials, called for a preventive strike against North Korea's Taepodong missiles in an essay from yesterday's Washington Post. Here's what they say:

North Korean technicians are reportedly in the final stages of fueling a long-range ballistic missile that some experts estimate can deliver a deadly payload to the United States. The last time North Korea tested such a missile, in 1998, it sent a shock wave around the world, but especially to the United States and Japan, both of which North Korea regards as archenemies. They recognized immediately that a missile of this type makes no sense as a weapon unless it is intended for delivery of a nuclear warhead.

A year later North Korea agreed to a moratorium on further launches, which it upheld -- until now. But there is a critical difference between now and 1998. Today North Korea openly boasts of its nuclear deterrent, has obtained six to eight bombs' worth of plutonium since 2003 and is plunging ahead to make more in its Yongbyon reactor. The six-party talks aimed at containing North Korea's weapons of mass destruction have collapsed.

Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not. The Bush administration has unwisely ballyhooed the doctrine of "preemption," which all previous presidents have sustained as an option rather than a dogma. It has applied the doctrine to Iraq, where the intelligence pointed to a threat from weapons of mass destruction that was much smaller than the risk North Korea poses. (The actual threat from Saddam Hussein was, we now know, even smaller than believed at the time of the invasion.) But intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy.

Therefore, if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. The blast would be similar to the one that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. But the effect on the Taepodong would be devastating. The multi-story, thin-skinned missile filled with high-energy fuel is itself explosive -- the U.S. airstrike would puncture the missile and probably cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Korea's nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.
According to Bruce Russett, in his popular textbook, World Politics: The Menu for Choice, preventive action in international relations is often called for when an adversary is "at the doorstep" in the development of new military capability. The classic case of preventive action is Israel's airstrike against Iraq's Osiraq nuclear facility in 1981. Russett notes, of course, that preventive military action is controversial, and perhaps made much more so by the Bush administration's adoption of a full-blown foreign policy doctrine of "preemption" (which in fact advocates preventive actions against imminent threats to U.S. national security). As for the recommendations of Carter and Perry, Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior editor at Commentary Magazine, points out the new "hawkisness" of the former government officials. He suggests in today's Los Angeles Times that had the two called for strikes against North Korean facilities back in 1994, we might not be facing this threat today.


Jon said...

If they launch it we should definitely attempt to knock it down, because if we don't North Korea's neghbors might just over react and attack them due to it being considered an act of aggression. I believe this is just another case of Sabre Rattling by North KOrea trying to get the USA to talk directly with them. We will not sit down face to face with them because we have nothing to gain. Once they realize that they aren't dealing with the same sissy president (Clinton) which they dealt with back in 1994 and he caved iin and gave them what they wanted and that is why we are here again dealing with them.

Donald Douglas said...

Hi Jon:

You raise a couple of points: First, we could knock down a North Korean test launch with our anti-missile systems, which would give the U.S. a live opportunity to assess reliability of American missile defense. Second, we could launch a preventive strike against Pyongyang's facilities. I think Carter and Perry raise a pretty good argument to that effect.

Thanks for the visit.

Jon said...

No problem, I will stop by more often. Thanks for taking a look at my NASCAR blog.

Anonymous said...

My Gut Feeling on the whole North Korean Missile launch issue is that they see the US/EU offering incentives to Iran to stop their enrichment process, and they want a piece of the action.

Taking the missile out prior to launch carries with it a level of risk that must be considered before we decide to go forward with it. It is highly unlikely that this particular missile is armed since for them to use it as part of a first strike, their other forces would be at a higher state of readiness. Nothing I have read has led me to believe that that is the case.

Taking it down after it is launched is another option we have. I think our Sea based systems would likely be more successful in that regard than the land based, but since I used to be somewhat involved in that personally, my opinion there could be a bit biased.


P.S. I also would like to thank you for your comments on my blog.

Donald Douglas said...

Hi Darrell:

Thank you for visiting and commenting.

Take it easy.