The buzz about a summit this spring between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un has tamped down talk of war with North Korea. But the bellicosity bubbles just below the surface, and could boil over if the diplomatic gamble fails. Recall how George W. Bush’s press secretary once justified the war in Iraq: “The United States exhausted every legitimate and credible opportunity to resolve this peacefully.”
Fifteen years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, hardliners are applying one of the arguments for attacking Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong Un: that war now, when a rogue leader is on the verge of possessing weapons of mass destruction, is preferable to a much worse war later, when that leader or his vicious allies would be in a position to use those weapons. Conflict is characterized as a calling on behalf of future generations, rather than a choice by the present ones. “As we learned the hard way with Iraq, if a rogue regime is deemed undeterrable, and diplomatic compromise is seen as untenable, the allure of preventive war can quickly become irresistible,” the former Obama administration official Colin Kahl, who opposes military strikes against North Korea, has written.
Consider a recent appearance on Fox News by John Bolton, one of the rumored candidates to be Trump’s next national-security adviser. Bolton counseled the president to meet with Kim as soon as possible and get straight to the point: Is North Korea serious about giving up its entire nuclear program in one stroke the way Libya did in 2003? Or is it hoping to deceive America yet again, by buying time through drawn-out negotiations to perfect long-range nuclear weapons that can reach the U.S.? If the North Koreans drag their heels, “then it’s a short meeting” and the Trump administration has “cut through the fog of the endless palavering, the endless discussions.”
What awaits on the other side of the fog is military intervention, something Bolton also advocated in the lead-up to Saddam’s overthrow, when as a Bush administration official he emphasized the costs of “10 more years of [Iraqi] obstructionism” regarding its chemical- and biological-weapons programs. Today, he says, it is “perfectly legitimate” for the United States to defend itself from the “imminent threat” of Kim Jong Un’s nearly functional nuclear-tipped missiles with a “pre-emptive” first strike on North Korea.
But “time is running out” to do so, he declared this month in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. A nuclear-armed North Korea can’t necessarily be deterred the way the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, because the “bizarre” Kim regime isn’t likely to “conform to our expectations of responsible behavior by a nuclear power,” Bolton wrote. “Even worse, the number of countries that might quickly become nuclear-weapon states is limitless if North Korea is prepared to sell nuclear-weapon and ballistic-missile technology for hard currency,” as it has demonstrated a willingness to in the past.
In contrast to Bolton, even the most hawkish Trump administration officials have been careful to characterize military action against North Korea as a last resort—to be deployed if sanctions and other forms of pressure don’t succeed in preventing the North from developing a long-range nuclear capability. But figures like Mike Pompeo, the president’s pick to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, and H.R. McMaster, the national-security adviser for the time being, have made some of the very points Bolton has.
“We can’t tolerate [the] risk” of a nuclear North Korea, McMaster said in December, as he insisted that the window for eliminating that risk was rapidly closing. “If North Korea has a nuclear weapon, who are you going to try to prevent getting one? Look at the behavior of this regime, the hostility of this regime to the whole world.”
Prominent Trump administration allies in Congress have sounded similar notes. Given their “recklessness” and “maliciousness,” North Korean leaders are “entirely different than the civilized people we’re dealing with who are nuclear powers,” such as Russia and China, the Republican Senator James Risch told me earlier this month. His colleague Lindsey Graham is more concerned about North Korea, an “unstable regime, cash-starved, controlled by a crazy man,” shopping weapons of mass destruction on the black market, where they could be snatched up by U.S. adversaries like Iran or terrorist groups that wouldn’t hesitate to use such weapons.
“It always seems in the times in which you live that avoiding conflict is a good thing,” Graham told me in December. “I’m sure they really believed that [Britain’s appeasement-era agreement with Nazi Germany in] Munich was ‘peace in our time.’ When you look through history and you see where democracies blink in the eyes of naked aggression, you think, ‘[British Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain was a fool.’ … World War II was preventable about 10 different times.”
“I am literally willing to put hundreds of thousands of people at risk, knowing that millions and millions of people will be at risk if we don’t,” Graham said.
A decade and a half ago, the Bush administration built a much more public and concerted case for war with Iraq than the Trump administration so far has for war with North Korea. But it marshaled some of the same arguments. U.S. officials claimed (largely without basis, it turned out) that Saddam was amassing chemical and biological weapons and seeking nuclear weapons—and that his exceptionally reckless and hostile regime could either use those weapons, provide them to terrorists, or exploit them as “blackmail.” Iraq’s arms buildup was presented as a gathering storm that years of diplomacy hadn’t managed to clear up; the Bush administration cautioned that as the skies grew darker, America’s options for defending itself and the world had to as well.
“We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater,” Bush asserted 48 hours before invading Iraq. “In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over. … In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological, and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth. Terrorists and terrorist states do not reveal these threats with fair notice in formal declarations. And responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense. It is suicide.”
There are numerous differences between the grounds for war with Iraq then and North Korea now; North Korea, for instance, actually has a robust stockpile of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. But the common theme is a concept that was forged in the trauma of the September 11 attacks and clearly retains some appeal: that there are circumstances in which the United States must take military action not to respond to an attack or pre-empt an imminent one, but to prevent a threat from materializing in the future. For decades after World War II, U.S. policymakers shunned this sort of “preventive” war because of its associations with the aggression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, as my colleague Peter Beinart has written. But that shifted with the end of the Cold War, as America grew more confident in its military strength, and especially after 9/11.
Following those attacks, Bush was determined to prevent anything like it from happening in the future. “On 11 September, 2001, America felt its vulnerability,” Bush observed months before ordering the assault on Iraq. “We resolved then, and we are resolved today, to confront every threat, from any source, that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America. … Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” This was the intellectual framework for a war unlike any the United States had fought in the past. The mere prospect of its enemies striking first was now sufficient justification for America to take the opening shot instead.
Among the problems with not waiting for the smoking gun, however, is that any conflict initiated to avert it relies on conjecture and the fallibility of human reasoning. Even as the Bush administration warned of mushroom clouds stemming from Iraq, which had no nuclear-weapons program, it downplayed the threat from North Korea, which had just disclosed a secret nuclear-weapons program. The Kim regime could be contained and deterred through diplomacy and economic pressure, officials argued.
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has since grown far more sophisticated, to the point where the United States is now in its crosshairs, and it now has a brash new leader. But it’s still worth keeping in mind that if the Trump administration were to launch a preventive war against the Kim regime, it would be based on an assessment of its adversary that is fundamentally at odds with the conclusion the Bush administration reached 15 years ago. Bush, too, confronted the specter of a North Korea armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. And in that case, he did not choose war.