At Large

Blindly Down the Strategic Valley

We're past the point of deterring Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weaponry. So what now?

By 2.21.13

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There is a tendency in American political and journalistic circles to believe there is some way to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. This is a totally false perception, as the Iranians are already committed to the creation of a nuclear weapon arsenal. For what other reason would they have continued to invest in its extremely expensive and technologically difficult program? They certainly do not need additional energy sources, and couldn’t care less about hydrocarbon pollution. This matter already has been closed.

The only real issue left is to determine how to counter the possible use of a Persian nuclear weapon. Sanctions are irrelevant in a nuclear confrontation. If a country such as Iran decides to use a nuclear weapon, the only deterrent is to create the expectation of an immediate and devastating counterstrike. The Mullahs knows full well that if they allow a first strike on themselves, any further conflict through a retaliatory strike by them would be limited by the damage originally caused by their opponent. Iran must strike first -- and hard -- if at all.

In other words, the strategic situation with Iran is a fait accompli. The only decision left to be made is whether Iran’s nuclear capability should be destroyed in some form of a first strike or a method should be devised to learn to live with the new nuclear-armed Iran. This choice also exists for North Korea, and, in a way, they are related. The nuclear cooperation between the two countries is supposed to be quite close. Certainly they share the same arch-enemy in the United States. The difference, of course, is that if South Korea is effectively North Korea’s “Israel,” there is no question that the Americans will adhere to their defense agreements with the South, though in the last few years a serious debate has arisen over just how solid the U.S. commitment to defend Israel is.

In this regard, there is no way Israel’s defense strategy can count on serious military support from the Obama administration. The question follows as to whether and to what degree South Korea could depend on the U.S. to adhere to the letter and intent of its defense accord with Washington. In fact, it would appear that the reluctance of President Obama to use American military power brings into question any and all American defense agreements.

This possible situation poses a serious question in world affairs. It would appear that American military interference worldwide is now to be limited to covert action (including, at most, lethal drone attack) and intelligence gathering. This relatively benign policy suggests the Obama White House actually believes it can pave the way for other military powers to curb their potential aggression and join Washington in a new -- if unstated -- agreement to forswear traditional military action, thus reducing the dangers to world peace.

While it is relatively easy theoretically for major powers such as Russia and China to pretend to such a “new concept” form of disarmament, this approach will do little to dissuade emerging nuclear weapon nations like Iran and North Korea from using their newly forming military strength to coerce or even attack its chosen enemies. Rather, it is easily arguable that the Obama concept of military preparedness and reaction is an invitation to conflict rather than a deterrent.

The basis of strategic parity through the Cold War and the following years has been the threat of mutually assured destruction. This threat extended beyond the actual potential of the major adversaries to use their massive nuclear arsenals, but collaterally diminished even direct conventional conflict between them. A good example might be the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 where the U.S. became involved only on a covert basis and earlier in Cuba where Washington was restrained from extending conventional attacks after the Bay of Pigs failure. This is to say nothing of various covert contests worldwide in Africa, Central America, etc.

Such a balance of potential destruction is not at all clear in the evolving nuclear military power of either Iran or North Korea. For the concept of mutually assured destruction to act as an impediment to nuclear assault, there must be a parity in the destructive capability of nuclear arsenals. There also has to be no religio-ideological predilection to martyrdom as in the case of Shia Iran or, as is the case of North Korea, an acceptance of economic privation and a commitment to national dominance.

The truth is that the esprit of nuclear powers differs even as their nuclear capabilities to destroy tend to evolve. Will the spirit of the Israelis to survive another Holocaust drive them to a preemptive attack? Will the Iranians wait for Israel -- an easy target -- to make up its mind? Will the North Koreans simply unleash their limited nuclear assets as an initial barrage against a South Korea that must respond as well to a conventional invasion of a massive army from the north?

How does Barack Obama’s defense strategy consider these contingencies? And does he realize “balance of power” means a balance of physical power and the will to use it?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.