Hours before President Obama convened a fifty-nation summit on nuclear weapons last Thursday, he celebrated himself in a Washington Post op-ed. He began the article by reminding us that nuclear proliferation and the use of nuclear weapons are the greatest dangers facing the world, saying that was why he committed us, seven years ago, to stopping the spread of such weapons and seeking a world without them.
Obama went on to praise his nuclear weapons deal with Iran, saying that it closed every single one of Iran’s paths to the bomb. (He omitted to mention those that remain open, such as the agreement’s risible inspections regime which guarantees Iranian cheating by allowing it to self-inspect some of its key nuclear sites. And the one that allows it, after fifteen years, to enrich as much uranium to weapons grade as it likes, ensuring it can produce nuclear weapons then whenever it likes.)
Unsurprisingly, neither is there anything to learn from nor anything accomplished at Obama’s summit. There’s much more to learn and dissect in the actions and pronouncements of Iran and North Korea before the summit.
On March 8 and 9, Iran launched ballistic missiles in tests of weapons that have at least the range to hit Israel. According to the Iranian FARS news agency, the missiles were painted with the slogan, “Israel must be wiped off the Earth” in Hebrew. UN Security Council resolutions are supposed to be stopping Iran from testing such missiles, but those resolutions are having the same effect they usually have, which is exactly none.
On March 30, the day before Obama’s summit, Iran’s “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “Those who say the future is in negotiations, not in missiles, are either ignorant or traitors.”
Because it’s sadly necessary, we have to remind ourselves that there is no reason to develop such missiles unless you intend to arm them with nuclear weapons. It’s also necessary to remember that Iran has been working diligently, for decades, on the technologies necessary to reduce the size of producible nuclear weapons and ensure their durability in order to deploy them on ballistic missiles.
To anyone not willfully ignorant of these facts, it’s clear that the Iranians are not deterred from their nuclear weapons ambitions one bit by Obama’s agreement, no matter how many summits celebrate it.
And neither are the North Koreans. The Norks already have nuclear weapons. (They tested one on January 6). They’ve claimed that their nuclear stockpile now contains hydrogen bombs as well as atomic weapons, which is probably not true. Their missile tests occur as often as Iran’s and sometimes more frequently, though they usually test cheaper, shorter-range missiles than Iran tests.
They’re also leading in the nuclear threat department. Earlier in March, the Norks released a video depicting a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C. and separately threatened a nuclear attack on Manhattan.
To top this off, four days before Obama’s summit convened, North Korea’s foreign minister issued a statement which said, “In response to the U.S. frenzied hysteria for unleashing a nuclear war, we have fully transferred our army from the form of military response to the form of delivering a pre-emptive strike and we state resolutely about the readiness to deliver a pre-emptive nuclear strike.” He added that North Korea “faces the dilemma: a thermonuclear war or peace.”
Even Kim Jong-un and his generals realize that any nuclear attack against the United States would result in a counter-strike that would destroy what little civilization exists in North Korea. The Norks’ statements are bluster, but have to be answered with clear statements to that effect, but Obama — and Hillary and Bernie — will never make them.
The threats emanating from Iran and North Korea are real. But what should be done about them?
First, we need to do whatever is necessary to interfere in the cooperation between the two nations. North Korea has been helping Iran develop its weapons and also its missile technology. President George W. Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative targeted this sort of proliferation. It had some successes. President Obama renewed his commitment to these efforts including some plans to interdict ships going to or coming out of North Korea. That’s a good step if it actually comes to pass. But more needs to be done.
As we saw in the days of the A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation ring operating with the blessing of Pakistan’s government, it is people, not shipments of material and equipment, that are the essential element in nuclear proliferation. We have some ability to identify and track such people and — through the CIA and NSA — interfere with their communications, invade their computer networks, and disrupt their efforts significantly. To the extent we aren’t doing it sufficiently — or are doing it inconsistently — those agencies need to be ordered to maximize their efforts.
We also need to maximize offensive cyber operations against both nations’ nuclear programs and missile tests and operations. Let’s say it again: without the missiles to deliver them, the nuclear weapons represent a much lesser threat.
Second, the threats North Korea poses to South Korea and Japan are more imminent than any threat to launch a nuclear attack against the United States. Donald Trump says he’d rather see South Korea and Japan develop their own nuclear weapons (and presumably the means to deliver them) unless they pay us for the protection we provide.
Both of those nations invest heavily (South Korea much more so for the obvious reason of proximity to the Norks) in their own defense. Trump is both ignorant and wrong in his position. We need strong allies investing in their own defense because those that do will be committing themselves in ways that merely paying us won’t accomplish. But it’s always better to have American control of nuclear weapons rather than to leave that to others. We’ve enabled others to share that power, at least among some NATO nations, but it’s vastly better to retain America’s control whenever possible. We need to do that in Asia, not encourage further spread of nuclear weapons.
It’s too late to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons to Iran. Obama’s nuclear weapons agreement with them institutionalized that fact.
Both Iran and North Korea have launched objects into earth orbit. The Norks have adopted the tactic of launching into a south polar orbit in hopes of evading U.S. anti-missile capabilities. These launches are the preludes to launching nuclear weapons either into orbit to threaten us or to actually attack.
There is every reason for us to act when such launches are detected. We can, with a variety of weapons that will be undetectable until they have the desired effect, destroy those missiles before they are launched. We should do so whenever a planned space launch is detected.
We have been content to rely on economic sanctions to stop these launches, and they have failed utterly. The danger is too great, to ourselves and our allies, to continue to restrain ourselves from confronting it by military means.
We can rest assured that our next president will have to face the question of military action against Iran and North Korea. We should have no faith in Clinton, Sanders, Trump, or Kasich to come up with the right answer. Ted Cruz might. Think about that if your state hasn’t held its primary or caucus yet.