American Enterprise Online
June 26, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

“The likely result of such a strike,” the elder statesman concluded after contemplating a preemptive attack against North Korea’s nuclear program, “would be a spasmodic lashing out by North Korea’s antiquated but large and fanatical military across the DMZ.” And the result of that would be almost unthinkable, he warned: thousands of U.S. casualties, tens of thousands of South Korean casualties and millions of refugees.

The measured, sobering words came from former Defense Secretary William Perry in October 2002, after North Korea officially crashed in to the nuclear club. His insights were intended to give a hawkish administration, perhaps overconfident after the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, pause. And they were not to be ignored. After all, Perry had walked to the brink of preemptive war with North Korea in 1994, concluding then and again in 2002 that “there is time to explore a full range of solutions” other than war.

But Perry, who was arguably President Bill Clinton’s best secretary of defense, has made an about-face in the intervening three-plus years. Last Thursday, he and one of his former assistants at the Pentagon argued in The Washington Post that “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.”

Perry and his co-author deserve credit for underscoring the seriousness of the North Korean threat and for offering a bold—even audacious—answer to it. But as Perry himself warned in 2002, the cure should never be worse than the disease itself. Bombing that missile site would, quite simply, trigger another Korean War. This one would not end in stalemate—in fact, it would end the North Korean regime—but it would be anything but bloodless. Given what we know about the 1950-53 war (which is technically only paused), about the capabilities of North Korea’s military and about the disposition of South Korea’s population centers, the loss of life in a second (and final) Korean War would make us long for something as “easy” as Iraq.

Moreover, Perry’s apparent inconsistency on this issue brings back unhappy memories of President Clinton’s zigzagging foreign policy:

-In Somalia, President Clinton expanded the US military’s mission from feeding the hungry to building a nation, sent American forces into a war without the equipment they needed to wage and win it, and then withdrew them at arguably the worst possible moment—as soon as the enemy drew American blood.

-Staggered by the Mogadishu ambush, he then belayed a small invasion force from landing in Haiti. “Rarely,” as historian David Halberstam recalls, “had the United States looked so impotent.” Whether or not installing Aristide in Haiti or capturing Aidid in Mogadishu were worth risking American blood is open to debate; however, the importance of American credibility is not. President Clinton failed to grasp this in the autumn of 1993.

-After pushing for air strikes and arms-shipments to Bosnia as a candidate, he averted his gaze from the Balkan bloodbath for two-and-a-half years as a president. Then, he bombed the Serbs, agreed to a partition of Bosnia and almost allowed the cycle to start again in Kosovo.

-With al Qaeda, he initially treated the terror superpower as if it were a mafia syndicate. But as al-Qaeda’s global guerilla war crescendoed, he ordered missile strikes here and there, none of them effective. And inexplicably, when U.S. intelligence assets had Osama bin Laden in their sites in 1999, they were ordered to hold their fire by the president and his national-security staff. As 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey later concluded, “We had a round in our chamber and we didn’t use it.”

-On Iraq, the president always talked tough and sometimes even acted tough. He often warned about Saddam Hussein’s inscrutable WMD program and ties to terror, signed a law to replace Saddam’s regime with a democracy—but then did little to act on these matters.

Speaking of WMDs, by 1994 the North Koreans made good on their threats to bolt the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. They punctuated their intentions by ringing the Yongbyon nuclear facility with anti-aircraft batteries, lining the DMZ with 11,000 artillery pieces and threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” It was then that Perry ordered the Joint Chiefs to develop plans for a preemptive strike against Yongbyon.

But on the heels of the bloody ambush in Mogadishu, and in light of the casualty estimates for Korean War II, Perry’s boss had no stomach for a preemptive war of uncertain duration or effect. And who could blame him? As the Congressional Research Service concluded in a mid-1994 report, “The tactical success of a counter-proliferation mission could be lost in the consequences of another war on the Korean peninsula.” 

So rather than making war, President Clinton chose to make a deal. It was a deal Pyongyang couldn’t refuse. After all, the North Koreans got everything they wanted, and as we now know (and as many warned in the 1990s), they kept everything they wanted. The nuclear materials stayed put; the construction of a nuclear arsenal went forward, albeit underground; and the drive for missilery continued. In fact, a year after Perry left the Pentagon, the Clinton administration was caught completely by surprise as North Korea test-fired a long-range missile similar to the one it is now brandishing. (Today, at least, America won’t be surprised when Pyongyang squeezes the trigger.)

President Clinton had other choices at his disposal than simply war and appeasement—both of which, in an odd sort of way, reflect an easy way out. “War,” as the Roman historian Sallust once observed, “is easy to begin but difficult to stop.” Appeasement, on the other hand, is easy simply because it delays the hard decisions and defers them to someone else.  

One such choice was taking the lead and the initiative on missile defense. With North Korea rattling nuclear sabers and testing missiles in the 1990s, President Clinton should have concluded that the time was right for the US to accelerate the development of an overlapping web of missile defenses, rather than idling the program until his final year in office. Further up the ladder, he could have taken a page out of President Kennedy’s playbook and quarantined North Korea, daring Kim to fire first and demanding that he end his drive for nuclear weapons and open up his weapons sites.

But President Clinton didn’t choose those paths. As a consequence, his successors are left with few options in dealing with Pyongyang—none of them good, as underscored by Secretary Perry’s proposal.