June 1, 2006  

‘Strike and destroy’

The prescription of Clinton-era secretary of defense William Perry and his former assistant, Ashton Carter, if North Korea continues on its apparent plan to test a Taepodong II intercontinental ballistic missile, which is capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear warhead: "Strike and destroy."

After sharply criticizing the Bush Administration for having "ballyhooed" a doctrine of preemption for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, they then proceed to, well?ballyhoo a doctrine of preemption for Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. "We should not conceal our determination to strike the Taepodong if North Korea refuses to drain the fuel out and take it back to the warehouse." Yes, that’s definitely ballyhooing.

This would be an act of war that "undoubtedly carries risk," Perry and Carter allow. But it would be a military?um?cakewalk: the missile test stand could be taken out by "a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. The blast would be similar to the one that killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq. But the effect on the Taepodong would be devastating."

Yes, it would, no question. Perry and Carter make a point of the sitting-duck nature of the target, with a near schoolboy glee: "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." Wow! How cool is that! "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." So neat, so clean, so precise.

Perry and Carter do allow that the strike might be the beginning rather than the end of the story. Even though they discount the prospect of a larger war or retaliatory strike on South Korea as "unlikely," they do think it would be a good idea to "enhance deterrence by introducing U.S. air and naval forces into the region at the same time [the United States] made its threat to strike the Taepodong."

There is indeed a logic to this argument. "A successful Taepodong launch, unopposed by the United States, its intended victim, would only embolden North Korea further," Perry and Carter write. "The result would be more nuclear warheads atop more and more missiles." This was also a good part of George Bush’s logic in going to war against Iraq and in the Long War in the greater Middle East. The alternative is, sooner rather than later, an existential threat to the United States and an immediate threat to its allies and interests.

Also sooner rather than later the failure of the United States to form a coherent, global strategy for the post-Cold-War world is going to have consequences. Freed from the pressure of the two-superpower standoff, the Saddam Husseins and Kim Jong Ils of the world ? joined by the Osama bin Ladens and Abu Musab al Zarqawis ? have been testing the limits of acceptable international behavior. These bad actors are, naturally, interested in weapons of mass destruction and most interested in nuclear weapons which give them great-power clout at a bargain-basement price, which is all they can afford.

In sum, there is a strategic logic to our time, which diplomacy cannot reverse and which transcends George Bush’s presidency. Bill Perry and Ash Carter have smacked into a part of that truth, even if their prescribed solution looks no farther ahead than did the Bush Administration after September 11. To win the multifaceted world war we are in will take more than a sequence of "strike and destroy" actions, more than a bandolier of silver bullets. Facing down North Korea may indeed be another rendezvous with history, as was the final showdown with Saddam, or the contest with al Qaeda. But none of these conflicts will be "rapid, decisive operations."