Kristol's Losing Gambit

It is not news when Bill Kristol recommends starting a war. It is his default foreign policy option. On Sunday, his answer to North Korea was to launch air strikes, as he was “certain” that North Korea is determined to become a nuclear power and there was no other way to stop them.

He was also “certain” in 2003 that invading Iraq was necessary to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and war would show Iran and North Korea that they should stop their programs or face similar attacks.

When the war proved a disaster, and when Iran and North Korea both accelerated their programs (making more progress in the past 6 years than they had in the previous 12), Kristol stayed consistent, arguing for strikes on North Korea in 2006 and for war with Iran in 2007.

Kristol does have a point. If we thought that North Korea was about to launch a long-range missile with a nuclear warhead, the president should and could destroy the missile on the launch pad. The North’s missiles are liquid-fueled, still relatively basic and take several days to transport to the launch pad, assemble and fuel. They are large, stationary, relatively easy targets for U.S. forces.

This “pre-boost phase” intercept has always been my favorite form of missile defense. A commander would be a fool to wait until after an enemy had launched a missile to see if one of the anti-missile systems we deploy could intercept it. Tests indicated that the Aegis system deployed on Navy ships could not hit a Taepodong missile in its boost-phase, rising from North Korea. Nor could the Ground-Based Missile Defense System deployed in Alaska hit the missile in its mid-course phase if the North deployed even the simplest of counter-measures such as decoys, chaff or jammers.

The missile now crawling to the pad in North Korea does not pose a serious threat to the United States, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted this weekend (and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley concluded following a similar July 2006 test). There is no evidence that North Korea has or is close to having a nuclear warhead that could fit on a long-range missile. That would take more tests and more years to perfect. Nor do they yet have a working long-range missile. If the North tests again it will be only the fourth test of a long-range missile in 11 years. None have worked so far.

Finally, there is a very good reason why the Joint Chiefs have rejected military strikes on North Korea—and why Vice-President Dick Cheney did also back in 2006. “I think, obviously, if you’re going to launch strikes at another nations, you’d better be prepared to not just fire one shot,” he said. This is still true. A strike on North Korea would be the beginning of a war, not the end of a crisis. There is a high probability that the North would launch counter-strikes. A barrage of some of the 10,000 artillery and rocket tubes the North has trained on Seoul, South Korea could kill tens of thousands in the first few hours of a war.

Kristol’s gambit is a loser’s game, with no calculation of the next move. Particularly at this time of high tension over the successor to ailing leader Kim Jong-Il, does Kristol really think that the regime could afford to lose massive amounts of face and still maintain their grip on the country? Kristol may sound authoritative on the Fox News set, but following his advice would be a disaster on the battlefield.

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