Search This Blog

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Attacking North Korea

There was a pretty striking finding in Thursday's Quinnipiac University poll: Fully 46 percent of Republicans — a plurality — said they would support a preemptive strike against North Korea.
That's nearly half of President Trump's party that is ready for war — today — with Kim Jong Un, his nuclear weapons and all. (Forty-one percent said they opposed a preemptive strike.)
However, a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted a couple of weeks ago also differs markedly from the new Quinnipiac survey. The late-September Post-ABC poll asked whether the United States should launch a military strike “only if North Korea attacks the U.S. or its allies first” or “before it can attack the U.S. or its allies.” In that case, 23 percent overall and 30 percent of Republicans picked the preemptive-strike option, and Republicans were about two to one against it.
Part of the problem is that many writers and pundits conflate preemptive and preventive attacks.  They are not the same thing.  A 2006 RAND report:
Preemptive attacks are based on the belief that the adversary is about to attack, and that striking first will be better than allowing the enemy to do so. Preemption may be attractive because it promises to make the difference between victory and defeat, or merely because it will make the ensuing conflict less damaging than it would be if the
enemy struck first. Preemptive attacks are quite rare, though the possibility of preemption was a central concern of nuclear strategists during the Cold War; the archetypical example is Israel’s attack against Egypt in 1967 that began the Six-Day War.
Preventive attacks are launched in response to less immediate threats. Preventive attack is motivated not by the desire to strike first rather than second, but by the desire to fight sooner rather than later. Usually this is because the balance of military capabilities is expected to shift in the enemy’s favor, due to differential rates of growth or armament, or the prospect that the opponent will acquire or develop a powerful new offensive or defensive capability. Israel’s 1981 raid on the Osirak nuclear facility was a classic preventive attack, as was Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Perhaps many survey respondents had a "preventive"  attack in mind.  If so, we should worry.  But if some were thinking of a true preemptive attack, their position is not crazy.  Suppose that US intelligence knew for sure the North Koreans were about to nuke Honolulu.  In that case, even the most rational and traditional-minded policymaker might favor a preemptive attack.

Be wary of ascribing too much sophistication to survey respondents.  Many cannot even find Korea on a map.

Whatever the case, our survival depends on caution and deliberation.  Nicholas Kristof of the NYT was recently in North Korea. He concludes.
I left North Korea fearing that we are far too complacent about the risk of a cataclysmic war that could kill millions. And that’s why reporting from within North Korea is crucial: There simply is no substitute for being in a place. It’s a lesson we should have learned from the run-up to the Iraq war, when the reporting was too often from the Washington echo chamber rather than the field. When the stakes are millions of lives and official communications channels are nonexistent, then journalism can sometimes serve as a bridge — and as a warning.
Yes, we must carefully weigh the risks — physical risks and the danger of being used by propagandists — and work to mitigate them.
But I have a sinking feeling in my gut, just as I had on the eve of the Iraq war, that our president may be careening blindly toward war. In that case, the job of journalists is to go out and report, however imperfectly, and try to ring alarm bells in the night.