Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea is about to conduct a test of its long-range Taepodong 2 missile, which would be capable of reaching targets in the United States. The prospect of Pyongyang having not only a small nuclear arsenal but the means eventually to deliver such weapons at great distances has understandably generated agitated commentary in the United States and East Asia.
The latest entry is a Washington Post op-ed by former Clinton administration defense department officials Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry. Carter and Perry suggest that if the North Koreans do not heed U.S. warnings to refrain from conducting the missile test, the Bush administration should launch preemptive air strikes to take out the missile while it is still on the launch pad. Surprisingly, Vice President Dick Cheney rejected their idea.
It is clear that extremist and reckless proposals have come to dominate a policy debate when Dick Cheney is the resident dove. The Carter-Perry article provides more evidence (as if we needed it) that foreign policy irresponsibility is not confined to neoconservatives in the Republican Party.
Those who propose attacking North Korea need to sit down and take a deep breath. First of all, the rumors about a missile test may or may not be true. On at least two occasions since Pyongyang announced a moratorium on testing in 1999, there have been reports that the test of a long-range missile was imminent. Those reports proved unfounded. This one may as well.
Even if North Korea does conduct a test of the Taepodong 2, it is not the end of the world. Granted, every sensible person would wish that the weird hermit kingdom did not have either nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. But the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them with pinpoint accuracy. We've deterred other weird regimes in the past, most notably Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. We should be able to deter the likes of Kim Jong-il. The North Korean regime, while bizarre and brutally repressive, has never shown signs of suicidal behavior. And attacking a nation that possesses thousands of nukes would definitely be suicidal.
The decision to launch preemptive air strikes would certainly be more dangerous than relying on deterrence. If the Bush administration follows the advice of Carter and Perry and attacks North Korea, it could easily trigger a general war on the Korean Peninsula. The last Korean war cost the lives of millions of Koreans and more than 50,000 Americans. We should spurn any proposal that risks a repetition.
Dick Cheney is right to be a dove on this issue. One only wishes that the viewpoint becomes habit forming.