Where Is the Debate Over Attacking North Korea?
Dan Drezner warns about the increasing chances of a war with North Korea:
The message I heard was clear. Trump officials working on North Korea have developed the odd consensus that Pyongyang will use its nuclear arsenal to attempt a forcible reunification with South Korea. And if that is the goal, then time is running out for military options that would stop that from happening. In other words, I heard the exact same things as Osnos and Schake. The Trump national security team seems convinced that North Korea cannot be deterred, and war is the inevitable outcome.
What is equally disturbing is the lack of public debate on this question. Say what you will about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the Bush administration took seven months between talking about it and doing it. In that time, administration officials secured congressional authorization and tried to do the same at the United Nations Security Council. There was also a vigorous public debate on the question. With North Korea right now, there is a lot of chatter but no visible debate. Indeed, if the Trump team is leaning toward a preventive attack, a debate is the last thing officials want, for tactical reasons. It is impossible to have a public debate about a surprise military strike.
There has been a noticeable lack of debate over attacking North Korea, but administration officials have been anything but coy about the possibility that they might do this. McMaster has been claiming for months that North Korea can’t be deterred and has repeatedly suggestedpreventive war as an alternative. He just said so again earlier this month. Trump has publicly emphasized the administration’s view that the North Korean regime isn’t rational. During his belligerent U.N. speech, he said, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.” If the U.S. does attack North Korea, it won’t be coming as much of a surprise to anyone at this point.
These very obvious signals from top administration figures have been ignored as much as they have because most people covering Trump have stopped taking Trump’s bluster and threats seriously. Many people opposed to the Trump administration are still wrongly assuming that Trump’s many generals will rein him in and keep him from doing anything truly insane. The sheer insanity of attacking North Korea has also made it seem like something that not even someone as reckless as Trump would do.
McMaster’s consistent advocacy for such a reckless North Korea policy should put an end to all that wishful thinking. Trump isn’t being advised to avoid war with North Korea. He isn’t being reined in. Instead, his National Security Advisor is regularly endorsing the very hard-line view that deterrence can’t work. That makes war much more likely, and it is even harder to stop that war from happening when Congress and the public aren’t taking the danger seriously.
One problem is that Congress doesn’t care to do its job of checking the executive. The U.S. has been waging old wars and starting new ones without public or Congressional debate for so long now that it now seems a bit strange to expect that any administration would bother trying to make a public case for attacking another country. When it comes to matters of war, most members of Congress don’t insist on having their say and prefer letting the president do whatever he wants. The costlier a war is likely to be, the less eager members of Congress are to do their duty by debating and voting on it. A war with North Korea would be far costlier for the U.S. and its allies than anything Americans have seen since at least Vietnam. That makes it vital that we have a debate, and it also reminds us why so many of our representatives want to duck that debate.
If we had a debate over attacking North Korea, it would become clear very quickly that the case for war is extremely thin and shoddy. A preventive war can’t be a defensive war by definition, and it isn’t a response to an imminent threat, so there is no justification for it. Attacking North Korea would be just as wrong and strategically disastrous as invading Iraq was, but the devastation it would unleash would be far worse. Preventive war with North Korea would likely bring about the very nuclear catastrophe that it is supposedly trying to avert, and millions would die in a senseless conflict that could have been easily avoided. Launching a preventive war against North Korea would also be a massive violation of the U.N. Charter and international law, and by doing this the U.S. would be guilty of damaging the foundations of the so-called “rules-based order” in spectacular fashion. Supporters of attacking North Korea have no credible case for what they want to do, and so it is all the more alarming that so few people are challenging them in public.