The latest orchestrated frenzy over Iran’s nuclear program is reaching a crescendo. If the Obama administration were genuinely interested in increasing the prospects for a diplomatic resolution, it would be trying to lessen Iran’s perception of insecurity. Instead, every new policy initiative on Iran heightens that insecurity. Unless Iran responds to all of this in a way that few predict it will, each day brings us closer to another war in the Middle East.
Iran likely wants a nuclear option, if not a nuclear weapon, for a variety of reasons. The most important is security. The different treatment meted out to Iraq and Libya, on the one hand, and North Korea and Pakistan on the other taught Iran that the only sure way to avoid being attacked by the United States is to acquire a nuclear arsenal. Iran also probably seeks the international prestige of being at least an incipient nuclear state.
When Iran hears the constant threats emanating from Washington — the almost daily repetitions that a preventive war is “on the table,” attempts to strangle the Iranian economy, and legislation taking containment off the table — Tehran’s belief that the United States has aggressive intentions is confirmed. Iran knows that a nuclear capability wouldn’t provide it with power projection capability or allow it to dominate the Middle East. Rather, Iran would move from being a weak state with no deterrent to a weak state with a small deterrent. Tragically, the main reason America and Israel are so frantic about the Iranian nuclear program is that neither country wishes to allow itself to be deterred by Iran. In an election year, all of the political pressure on the administration is going to push the administration to make the problem worse, not better.
The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong‐il put relations with the rest of the world on hold. But Pyongyang has stirred, reprising its role as international beggar.
The new regime, at least nominally headed by Kim’s 28‐year‐old son, Kim Jong‐un, issued its first statement regarding relations with Washington. The United States should send more than 300,000 tons of previously promised food aid and end economic sanctions to “build confidence” with the North. In return, the so‐called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might be willing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The United States, Japan and South Korea stated yesterday that a “path is open” to restarting the six‐party talks to address the concern over the North’s nuclear program.
Pyongyang seemed particularly aggrieved that the Obama administration would link humanitarian assistance to security issues. Shocking!
As Yogi Berra famously said, it is déjà vu all over again. North Korea makes agreement. North Korea gets aid. North Korea breaks agreement. North Korea blames West. North Korea offers to negotiate agreement. And the cycle starts again.
No one knows what to do with the DPRK. So far regime elites have preferred even impoverished stability over anything more than pro forma reform. The death of Kim Jong‐il creates an opportunity for change, but there is no obvious constituency for revolution among the party apparatchiks and military officers who dominate the system.
That almost certainly means that Pyongyang is not prepared to negotiate away its existing nuclear capability. Only two men have ruled the North in the past 63 years; Kim Jong‐un has none of their authority, and there are several plausible claimants for the throne. None is likely to be so foolish to alienate the military by campaigning to give away its ultimate weapon.
It still is worth talking with North Korea. Despite good reason for skepticism, lesser objectives might be achievable — limits on missile development, withdrawal of advanced conventional units, even caps on nuclear capabilities. Moreover, the DPRK appears to moderate its behavior while engaged in negotiations.
However, Washington should not pay for more promises. And the U.S. should not provide inducements just to get Pyongyang to talk. America has much to offer — diplomatic relations, end of sanctions, access to international aid, military withdrawal from the South. If confidence is to be rebuilt, it must be rebuilt on both sides.
Washington should make no exception for food aid. The suffering of the North Korean people is tragic, but it remains the result of conscious policies adopted by the North Korean regime. In fact, that is what “Juche,” the oft‐proclaimed policy of self‐reliance, is all about.
Moreover, the DPRK would view any government assistance as political affirmation. And any assistance would bolster a system under siege, aiding the government as it attempts to demonstrate its power and wealth this year during its centenary celebrations of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth. If the North needs more help, let it go to China, which already is keeping this desolate land afloat economically.
Refusing to engage other nations rarely makes sense, even in the case of North Korea, despite the monstrous nature of the regime. However engagement does not mean appeasement. In the future, Washington should restrict its rewards to the North for acting, not promising.
Cross‐posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.
Like many Americans, a growing number of post‑9/11 veterans care more about protecting and defending the United States and less about transforming failed states, democratizing the Middle East, protecting wealthy allies, and sacrificing more American lives in the name of global hegemony.
Last Friday, ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary, Gwen Ifill of the PBS Newshour interviewed five Granite State Republicans and independents about their views on the Republican presidential field. In alluding to the divergence between keeping America safe and fighting wars indefinitely in the war on terror, New Hampshire voter and Iraq war veteran Joshua Holmes told Ifill:
HOLMES: …We haven’t defined what it is that is going to satisfy basically victory in the global war on terror. And until we define victory, until we develop a plan to achieve that victory and then to end the war, soldiers are going to continue to die.
IFILL: And who [of the candidates] do you think has got a plan?
HOLMES: I think that Dr. Paul is the first person, the only person now that Gary Johnson is out of the race. All of the other candidates are planning on continuing the global war on terror without any objectives.
(Presidential contender Jon Huntsman also favors more limited and concrete counterterrorism objectives as well as reducing the active‐duty Army and closing 50 overseas bases.) Moments later in her interview, Ifill circled back to Holmes and asked him why he thought Paul was doing better this year compared to four years ago, in terms of more attention, more support, and more money. He replied:
Well, simply, the things that he was talking about four years ago have — they’ve manifested. I mean, he predicted the financial meltdown back in 2001 and warned about it for almost a decade before it happened.
He warned about the consequences of the Iraq war, especially the long‐term consequences. And now we’re actually seeing those consequences. And that opens people’s minds to the idea that this guy, who did warn us, might have the solutions.
Mr. Holmes is not alone, particularly on the subject of war. One in three veterans of the post‑9/11 military believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting. A majority, according to the Pew Research Center, think America should be focusing less on foreign affairs and more on its own problems.
Most of the Republican presidential candidates, however, seem all too willing to surrender more American treasure and possibly more American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen for preemptive strikes against Iran. Republicans would do best to appreciate the critics of intervention, a growing number of whom now reside within the post‑9/11 military.
Iran this week punctuated 10 days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of the Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts, and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.
The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined its ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms.
Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:
Iran … lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi'a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi'a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.
Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treat it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash President Obama for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to “contain” it, as if that required great effort.
Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping, and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.
North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong‐il is dead. There is now no prospect of negotiating and implementing a new nuclear agreement with the North in the near future. The so‐called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is likely to be consumed with a power struggle which could turn violent. Washington’s best policy option is to step back and observe.
After his stroke three years ago, Kim anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong‐un, as his successor. However, the latter Kim has had little time to establish himself. The previous familial power transfer to Kim Jong‐il took roughly two decades. There are several potential claimants to supreme authority in the North, and the military may play kingmaker.
Some observers hope for a “Korean Spring,” but the DPRK’s largely rural population is an unlikely vehicle for change. Urban elites may want reform, but not revolution. If a North Korean Mikhail Gorbachev is lurking in the background, he will have to move slowly to survive.
During this time of political uncertainty no official is likely to have the desire or ability to make a deal yielding up North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The leadership will be focused inward and no one is likely to challenge the military, which itself may fracture politically.
Nor is China likely to play a helpful role. Beijing views the status quo as being in its interest. Above all else, China is likely to emphasize stability, though it may very well attempt to influence the succession process outside of public view. But China does not want what America wants, preferring the DPRK’s survival, just with more responsible and pliable leadership.
Washington can do little during this process. The United States should maintain its willingness to talk with the North. American officials also should engage Beijing over the future of the peninsula, exploring Chinese concerns and searching for areas of compromise. For instance, Washington should pledge that there would be no American bases or troops in a reunited Korea, which might ease Beijing’s fears about the impact of a North Korean collapse.
Most important, the Obama administration should not rush to “strengthen” the alliance with South Korea in response to uncertainty in the North. The Republic of Korea is well able to defend itself. It should take the steps necessary to deter North Korean adventurism and develop its own strategies for dealing with Pyongyang. America should be withdrawing from an expensive security commitment which no longer serves U.S. interests.
Kim Jong‐il imposed unimaginable hardship on the North Korean people. However, what follows him could be even worse if an uncertain power struggle breaks down into armed conflict. Other than encourage Beijing to use its influence to bring the Kim dynasty to a merciful end, the United States can — and should — do little more than watch developments in the North.
This week, experts at the (neo)conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report on how to deal with a nuclear‐armed Iran.
The authors argue that because of the “rising consensus” that a preemptive attack is unappealing, and that sanctions likely will fail, they recommend “a coherent Iran containment policy.” That approach entails, among other things, that America “work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.” Leaving aside the fact that Washington has already once “physically transformed the Tehran regime” — when alongside the British it overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and restored the Shah — there is a broader problem that comes with listening to proponents of the calamitous decision to invade Iraq.
Take, for instance, report co‐author Danielle Pletka, who years ago decreed “Saddam’s entire Ba’athist government must be replaced.” Little surprise that someone who promoted a war based on a web of misleading information is now peddling the notion that Iran is less than a year from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
More credible voices suggest otherwise. The nonprofit Arms Control Association (ACA) observed that the most‐recent IAEA report suggests “[I]t remains apparent that a nuclear‐armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable.” Iran was engaged in nuclear weapons development activities until it stopped in 2003, and as Cato’s Justin Logan observes, the IAEA’s own report shows there is no definitive evidence of Iran’s diversion of fissile material.
When Pletka was called out for her “less than a year” prediction, she turned up her nose and snapped:
Quibblers will suggest that there are important “ifs” in both these assessments. And yes, the key “if” is “if” Iran decides to build a bomb. So, I suppose when I said “less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon,” I should have added, “if they want one.” But… isn’t that the point? Do we want to leave this decision up to Khamenei?
Confronted with ambiguous information, and forced to infer intentions, hawks evince the very same arrogance and overconfidence that helped open the door for Iranian influence in the region in the first place by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime (Pletka advocated repeatedly for this leading up to the 2003 invasion). Pletka and others who years ago had the gall to argue that Iraq “will end when it ends” are today worthy of being ignored on Iran.
Cross‐posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.
Nuclear weapons have played a major role in U.S. force planning for many decades. But we have never had a thorough accounting of the total cost of these weapons, and we still don’t. (The best to date is probably this study by Stephen I. Schwartz and Deepti Choubey, but they don’t claim to capture every nickel spent on nuclear weapons.)
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler published a fact checker article earlier this week that challenged the claim that we would spend $700 billion on nuclear weapons over the next decade. Since then, other organizations have come forth to decry the lack of transparency within the nuclear weapons budget, and call for the government to do a much better job of documenting all of the costs associated with our many nuclear weapons programs. This would include an understanding of the full life‐cycle costs for fissile material, warheads, and delivery vehicles, from design and development, to production, to retirement and waste removal and abatement. As with the rest of the Pentagon’s budget, which has never been subject to a complete audit of its assets and liabilities, the nuclear weapons portion (much of which resides in the Department of Energy) remains shrouded in secrecy.
I hope that the latest dust‐up over what we are actually spending creates additional pressure on the bureaucracy to open up its books.
This an excerpted version of a longer post from “The Skeptics” at the National Interest.