Now that the Singapore Summit has concluded, it appears the Trump administration has had the best chance in the past quarter-century to end the North Korean nuclear program.
Why? It has learned the lessons of previous attempts to take down nuclear weapons programs in Syria, Iran and North Korea.
And it has not backed off the implications of what it has learned. Denuclearization can no longer be a promise but must be a series of specific, concrete steps that inventory, verify and dismantle one element after another of the North Korean nuclear program.
Getting to Singapore was not easy. But it was based on a thorough assessment of the past quarter-century of counter-proliferation efforts, not only those involving North Korea, but Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well.
Let me explain. Nearly a decade ago, in December 2009, the New York Times’ writer David Sanger’s published “The Inheritance”, a relatively harsh look at the administration of George W. Bush and his policies in the Middle East, with particular respect to Iran and Iraq, but also the connections to North Korea and China.
The thrust of Sanger’s argument was the Bush 43 administration wasted enormous resources, both human and material, on a wrong-headed war in Iraq, resulting in our country paying relatively little attention to other serious WMD related matters.
Foremost among those issues was the spread of nuclear weapons technology. As Sanger details, North Korea sold its nuclear technology to Syria and Iran while building its own bombs, even as the U.S. looked for a supposed non-existent Iraqi chemical weapons programs. (In reality, our DIA said the chemical weapons in Iraq were shipped to Syria in late 2002, while the 2004 Duelfer report said subsequently Saddam’s scientists were seeking to build chemical weapons for terrorists.)
Nonetheless, Sanger concludes our being bogged down in Iraq allowed China to expand into the South China Sea, and “lock up oil supplies in Africa.”
The irony of the Sanger analysis is his complaint that having erroneously invaded Iraq, the possible new American use of pre-emptive military force became politically impossible because few in Congress would support a president going after, for example, the North Korean-built, Iranian-paid-for, and Syrian-located nuclear facility.
As one favorable review of Sanger’s book explained, being bogged down in Iraq meant “…the U.S. could not pre-emptively use military force to go after the Syrian facility, nor go after the nuclear capability of North Korea or Iran.”
Notice the policy implications of what Sanger was writing in late 2009, just at the beginning of a new American administration taking office.
The threats of a North Korean, Syrian and Iranian nuclear capability was so serious, Sanger wrote, as to warrant credible consideration of pre-emptive military strikes by the U.S. against upwards of three countries, all of whom were closely allied with the one power in the world with considerably more nuclear weapons than the U.S. and that was Russia.
So, it is unclear whether Sanger believed then that the only means to successfully counter the three nuclear threats was direct military action.
As the New Times Helen Cooper wrote at the time, conventional wisdom was America’s best option for dealing with the question of North Korean proliferation. Such conventional wisdom should be diplomatic, certainly without the use of pre-emptive military force. As Philip D. Zelikow, the former counselor at the State Department said when asked whether diplomacy or military force should be contemplated, “What other policy [diplomacy] are we going to pursue that we think would be better?”
According to John R. Bolton, then the former U.S. ambassador to the UN under the Bush administration, the better option was indeed the Israeli chosen one: “Opposing the Israeli strike to protect the six-party talks would be a breathtaking repudiation of the administration’s own national security strategy.”
Now, nearly a decade after his book was published, we now have real-time results from three alternative means of countering WMD.
First, in 2006, Israeli military strikes took out the Syrian nuclear facility, and most everyone in the Middle East breathed a sigh of relief, thanked God for the Israelis and then went back to complaining about the lack of a Palestinian state.
Second, on North Korea, the Obama administration took the “strategic patience” route, and while we all waited around the North got very busy and over the next 8 years, exploded 5 nuclear warheads, launched 26 ballistic missile tests, all the while engaging in numerous military adventures against the Republic of Korea, including sinking ROK Navy vessels and shelling ROK villages.
And the third “answer” involved Iran. There the Obama administration showed extreme “tactical impatience”, quickly granting the Islamic Republic of Iran most of what the mullahs demanded including $150 billion in new cash and as the Iranians presume, a right to enrich uranium (not contained in any previous nuclear agreement to which the U.S. was included).
In addition, U.S. law enforcement pulled its punches with respect to Iran-and-Hezbollah-connected criminal activity in the U.S., and the U.S. agreed to side deals with the Iran nuclear deal that were never disclosed and have not been disclosed to the American Congress or people, while also apparently looking the other way as the Iranian-funded and armed militias used IED’s and other explosive devices in both Iraq and Afghanistan to maim and kill over a thousand American soldiers.
Even worse, Iran’s penetration of Syria, Lebanon and Yemen accelerated as did their production of the region’s largest arsenal of missiles, which are being used to repeatedly to attack American allies in the region such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Now, over two-thirds of Americans support the new engagement with North Korea. The administration’s strategy has been to explain a deal is possible, but folks have to be serious about what is needed. The president has also explained the U.S. has a real deterrent, that U.S. sanctions will remain in force, and that real denuclearization is precisely what is on the table.
Combining diplomacy backed up by real credible force underscores what Henry Kissinger said in 1991: “Diplomacy without the threat of force is without effect.”
The Trump administration understands that insight. It is why the Singapore summit concluded the way it did. North Korea committed to denuclearization in writing. Not sometime in the distant future, time to be determined. But now.
Our secretary of state will soon meet with North Korean officials to lay out a plan to inventory the nuclear program in North Korea, next to verify its dimensions, and then set a real timetable for its dismantlement. As we move down that dismantlement path, negotiations may also begin on a peace treaty on ending the Korean War, and a long-term path to seek normalization of relations among the nations in the region.
Will the North deliver? We do not know.
But if the answer from North Korea is no, and Pyongyang doesn’t take the deal seriously, the American, South Korean and Japanese governments will have secured the elusive answer to the key question no previous American administration has succeeded in receiving, and that is directly from the North Korean chairman: yes or no, will North Korea give up its nuclear weapons?
With that answer, our future choices will be clear.
Peter Huessy has spent the past 38 years consulting with consecutive presidential administrations, the U.S. Air Force and the Nuclear Aerospace industry. He is now the director of strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute of the Air Force Association.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.
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