Perhaps Ashton Carter is a little more independent a voice in policy matters than we’ve credited. Eight years ago, Carter teamed up with his fellow Clinton administration colleague, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, to urge George W. Bush to take more aggressive action against North Korea. In a Washington Post op-ed discovered by the Free Beacon, Carter and Perry advised Bush to unilaterally strike Kim Jong-il’s nuclear-weapons sites to show the regime who’s boss. No, really:
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.
Gee, wouldn’t that prompt a resumption of war on the Korean peninsula? Carter and Perry scoffed at the thought:
The United States should emphasize that the strike, if mounted, would not be an attack on the entire country, or even its military, but only on the missile that North Korea pledged not to launch — one designed to carry nuclear weapons. We should sharply warn North Korea against further escalation.
North Korea could respond to U.S. resolve by taking the drastic step of threatening all-out war on the Korean Peninsula. But it is unlikely to act on that threat. Why attack South Korea, which has been working to improve North-South relations (sometimes at odds with the United States) and which was openly opposing the U.S. action? An invasion of South Korea would bring about the certain end of Kim Jong Il’s regime within a few bloody weeks of war, as surely he knows.
Yeah, well, maybe. This advice was prompted by a series of provocations by Kim over 2005 and 2006 in which the now-deceased Dear Leader threatened all-out war on a number of occasions, and not just against Seoul, either. Perry and Carter tried to deal with that in the essay by arguing that the Bush administration could make clear that South Korea (and Japan, presumably, which is within easy reach of North Korean missiles) had nothing to do with the strike. And that would … do what, exactly? Convince Kim? That is a singularly naive suggestion, as is the idea that one can bomb a nuclear dictatorship unilaterally and expect that they won’t respond militarily — especially when the regime relies on an image of omnipotence to keep its subjects from rising up and slitting the throats of their oppressors in the night. Sitting back and taking an attack isn’t an option under those circumstances.
Bush didn’t take their advice, despite the caricature the Left paints of him as some sort of unhinged cowboy in relation to foreign affairs. One has to wonder whether President Barack Obama would have followed Carter’s advice then, and whether Carter feels the same now about nascent nuclear states threatening the US. This should make for lively conversation during a Senate confirmation hearing next month if Carter gets the SecDef nod as expected. Maybe John McCain can sing backing vocals of “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” while Carter provides a tenor overlay of “Oh Teh-ra-a-an, let’s make it gone.”
At the very least, a Carter nomination will send a rather confusing signal while John Kerry keeps wooing the mullahs. Confusion appears to be the constant state of affairs in this White House when it comes to national security policy.