Gordon Campbell on the latest US threats to bomb North Korea

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Just before Christmas, the US political scientist and government consultant Edward Luttwak published an article in Foreign Policy magazine called “Its Time To Bomb North Korea.”

You know, just like Israel did to Iraq in 1981, and to Syria in 2007. As Luttwak argued : “Namely, use well-aimed conventional weapons to deny nuclear weapons to regimes that shouldn’t have firearms, let alone weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, there is still time for Washington to launch such an attack to destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.”

Oh, Luttwak did consider there is a risk of retaliation. A limited risk in his view, and one confined largely to South Korea, which – in his view – had only itself to blame for not being serious about building bomb shelters and investing in installing an “Iron Dome” self-protection capacity. As he put it :

It’s true that North Korea could retaliate for any attack by using its conventional rocket artillery against the South Korean capital of Seoul and its surroundings, where almost 20 million inhabitants live within 35 miles of the armistice line. U.S. military officers have cited the fear of a “sea of fire” to justify inaction. But this vulnerability should not paralyze U.S. policy for one simple reason: It is very largely self-inflicted…..Even now, casualties could still be drastically reduced by a crash resilience program. This should involve clearing out and hardening with jacks, props, and steel beams the basements of buildings of all sizes; promptly stocking necessities in the 3,257 official shelters and sign-posting them more visibly; and, of course, evacuating as many as possible beforehand (most of the 20 million or so at risk would be quite safe even just 20 miles further to the south). The United States, for its part, should consider adding vigorous counter-battery attacks to any airstrike on North Korea.

Nonetheless, given South Korea’s deliberate inaction over many years, any damage ultimately done to Seoul cannot be allowed to paralyze the United States in the face of immense danger to its own national interests….

So far, so crazy. To Luttwak, there is a fast closing window whereby the US could attack North Korea (now!) without (much) risk to American lives. The timing of this article’s appearance came just as Washington was abuzz with rumours that a salutary bombing raid on North Korea – the term being used was “giving them a bloody nose” – was exactly what the Trump administration is currently considering.

Just before Christmas, Jim Mattis, defence secretary, warned that “storm clouds are gathering”. General HR McMaster, the adviser who has been the most bellicose of the Trump national security team, says it would be “intolerable” for North Korea to be able to attack the US with a nuclear weapon. After Pyongyang in November tested a rocket with the range to reach anywhere in the continental US, he said the odds of war were “increasing every day”…. Gen McMaster has talked about the possibility of a “preventive war” aimed at eliminating the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons programmes. In a private briefing for former national security advisers over the summer, Gen McMaster outlined the options, which led some — but not all — of the participants to conclude that the US was more serious about military action than they had thought…

The form this “bloody nose” take would be along these lines :

Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA analyst, says there are many options that could be interpreted as a kick in the shin or a bloody nose. They include striking an air base or naval facility not associated with the ICBM programme, destroying one of Mr Kim’s homes, hitting a key part of the missile programme or targeting a missile during a test launch. “Presumably, such a strike would be a one-off attack that is immediately followed-up by a presidential announcement that this is a warning shot and nothing more,” says Mr Wilder.

As other, saner commentators have pointed out. this policy would be like knowing that there’s a guy down the block who, although smaller, is considerably more aggressive and unstable. So to deter him, you decide to go down the road to his house, and punch him in the face.

This recent round of escalatingly aggressive rhetoric may only of course, be aimed at scaring Pyongyang into agreeing to a diplomatic solution. (McMaster is directly painting a military action as being a practical response open to the US. ) Problem being of course that the Kim regime – given that it feels its very survival is at stake, and that its nuclear programme provides its only effective means of defence – is highly unlikely to be scared into disarming itself. So far, the bombing scenarios being mooted in the US have envisaged the use of conventional weapons, but this may be only a transitional phase. In December, the Trump administration moved (a) to remove the regulatory constraints on the use of nuclear weapons per se and (b) develop a new ‘low yield’ nuclear warhead for its submarine fleet.

The Trump administration plans to loosen constraints on the use of nuclear weapons and develop a new low-yield nuclear warhead for US Trident missiles, according to a former official who has seen the most recent draft of a policy review.

Jon Wolfsthal, who was special assistant to Barack Obama on arms control and nonproliferation, said the new nuclear posture review prepared by the Pentagon, envisages a modified version of the Trident D5 submarine-launched missiles with only part of its normal warhead, with the intention of deterring Russia from using tactical warheads in a conflict in Eastern Europe.

Oh, and yes, this does comprise a turn for the worse :

The new nuclear policy is significantly more hawkish that the posture adopted by the Obama administration, which sought to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US defence.

Reagan revisited

The willingness to consider a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, and to entertain the theoretical possibility that the US (at least) could survive its own tactical first use of nuclear weapons marks a radical change, and is something no other US President has been willing to consider since the early days of the Reagan presidency.

In fact, the logic of the Luttwak Foreign Policy article has some distinct similarities to a notorious 1980 article published in the same magazine called “Victory Is Possible” and written by two young RAND analysts, Keith Payne and Colin Gray.

In it, the pair argued that the option of the US waging a tactical nuclear war against the Soviet Union should not be ruled out of contention entirely – because with luck and if waged “rationally” such a war might well result in “ only” 20 million US casualties. In the authors’ view, a nuclear war waged between the superpowers was therefore entirely survivable, for the US, anyway.

Payne went on to play a major policy role on nuclear deterrence within the George W. Bush administration. With good reason in 2003, Fred Kaplan (in Slate) called him Dubya’s ‘Dr Strangelove’.

That’s quite a valid comparison. Put side by side, it was hard to tell the difference between the original Payne/Gray article and the arguments put forward by General Buck Turgidsen in the Kubrick movie. Even the possible US death toll involved was almost identical. Here’s General Turgidsen arguing most forcefully for a pre-emptive attack (bomb them now!) on the Russkies:

Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth…Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments. One, where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed…Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks.

These days, Payne is still at it. In his view, security is objective – if they were the right type, fewer warheads could still do the job – but since deterrence is subjective, you need more of them and bigger, to convince the other guy you’re serious and loaded for bear. It’s a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ argument weighted in favour of nuclear expansion.

The Nuclear Wake Up Calls

Apparently, two basic scenarios are involved when it comes to the nuclear option. They comprise (a) when the military wakes up the President and (b) when the President wakes up the military. Here’s why we should be worried when Trump is up alone late at night, with the nuclear football:

It is commonplace to hear that no one can stop the President from ordering the use of nuclear weapons, that he alone can make the decision and needs no one else to second it, and that he could do so in only minutes. This concern gives the impression that the president could take the country from peaceful stability to a nuclear war with about the same effort and carelessness with which he can fire off a tweet.

Yes, that is exactly what the world is worried about with Trump as the Commander in Chief. But rest easy, because there’s someone – surely there would be someone, right? – who would step in to stop him. Or so this article would have it:

…. The steps the President would have to take in order to pass a nuclear order to someone who could physically launch the missiles would simultaneously alert the rest of his national security team. Efforts to bypass the senior leadership would themselves further alarm subordinates, increasing the likelihood that they would draw in the rest of the national security team, even if ordered not to. The military is trained to reject illegal orders and the president trying to order the military to go from peacetime to nuclear war without consulting with his national security advisors would set off alarms up and down the system about whether the orders were legal. The president does not need anyone else to help him fire off a tweet, but he does need many others to help him fire off a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile. If he were trying to do so it would take an enormous effort of persuasion that would involve many more people than are involved in the streamlined, launch-under-attack scenario.

Really? Given the current White House climate and personnel, would it really take an “enormous amount of persuasion” to convince Trump’s advisers to accede to his order to fire a missile at North Korea? In the Trump White House, it isn’t at all re-assuring that a disproportionate number of the alleged ‘adults in the room’ (James Mattis, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster) have recent military backgrounds, and it has been McMaster who has been doing most of the recent sabre-rattling at Pyongyang. No wonder the South Koreans and North Koreans are starting to talk to each other. To the US, Seoul is starting to look like it is being regarded as mere collateral damage.

Footnote: Ironically, Luttwak ends his “bomb them now” article on a note that all but sabotages his own case. As he concedes, Pakistan has nuclear weapons and no one in the White House seems much concerned about that fact. (Pakistan is also politically unstable, and notoriously lax about security. Any terrorist seriously seeking nuclear material would be likely to get it from Pakistan.) Yet here’s how weakly Luttwak deals with this flaw in his argument:

It’s true that India, Israel, and Pakistan all have those weapons, with no catastrophic consequences so far. But each has proven its reliability in ways that North Korea has not. Their embassies, for instance, don’t sell hard drugs or traffic in forged banknotes. More pertinently, those other countries have gone through severe crises, and even fought wars, without ever mentioning nuclear weapons, let alone threatening their use as Kim Jong Un already has. North Korea is different….

Yeah right. In reality, North Korea is different (in very large part) simply because the US has chosen to elevate a fourth rate military power to the status of global threat. Arguably, Pyongyang should simply be left alone. Like Pakistan (and India and Israel) North Korea now has nuclear weapons – and like those other countries, it appears to regard such weapons as being a deterrent against attack, and not as a first-use option.

The alternative, in song
Peace in the world or the world in pieces.. That was the message 70 years ago, from the Sons of the Pioneers :