In the wake of North Korea’s bombing, President Obama finds himself gingerly trying to defuse the threat of escalation with a combination of diplomacy and a peacocking flex of muscle in lieu of an actual strike. Do we have nukes to thank?
Of all President Obama’s campaign promises, perhaps the one I applauded the loudest was disarmament. The world, it seemed, had long evolved past the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the only thing keeping us safe was fear of retaliation. If Kennedy ushered us through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Obama—supposedly our generation’s Kennedy—would usher the world past “Mutually Assured Destruction” as the political philosophy holding the world together. There had to be a better way than a worldwide Mexican standoff.
North Korea’s bombing of South Korea puts us right back in the hot seat in the middle of a classic Mexican standoff. Not only does North Korea have an army of a million, substantial conventional weapons, possible nuclear weapons, and an apparent willingness to use them, they also have a particularly problematic alliance with China. China appears to be rebuking President Obama’s appeal to that country to put pressure on North Korea to stand down.
What results is an albeit tense but probably not massively destructive standoff. There’s no way the US will risk provoking China and endangering South Koreans by striking in North Korea. With the US military sending war ships and conducting exercising off the coast, it’s unlikely that North Korea will risk the wrath of US retaliation by striking in South Korea. And with America and China’s economies in co-dependent lockstep, it’s unlikely that China would risk an all-out war with the US over its North Korean buddy.
The Week quotes Instapundit, who says of North Korea, “If they start anything, I say nuke ‘em.” Aside from being amazingly cold-blooded about the loss of human life, this is just not a tenable political reality. Which is why in the movies, Mexican standoffs always end with all the gangsters in the room slowly lowering their guns and walking away.
Scary as it may be, the reality is that this conflict will likely shake itself out with very little death and destruction. Compare this, on the other hand, to US conflicts with countries who don’t have the ability to really hit us back with large-scale military strikes—Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance. When destruction isn’t mutually assured, we tend to skip the diplomacy, and go right for the attack.
This has defined our approach to the Middle East since the first Gulf War. Which, if you think about it, is even more evidence that George W. Bush could not have been shocked to find that Saddam Hussein didn’t have those weapons of mass destruction, after all. If there had been any possibility he had weapons of mass destruction, and had any hope of using them, we never would invaded. It wouldn’t have been worth the risk.
As it was, nearly 200,000 Iraqis died or have been displaced since we invaded in 2003. As of now 4 people have died in South Korea. With any luck, the number won’t climb any higher. Crazy as it sounds, is John Kyl right to interfere with Obama’s START treaty to draw down nukes with Russia? Maybe it’s time to re-think the role of “Mutually Assured Destruction” after all?