The recent U.S. missile strike on Syria has, of course, renewed the possibility of a major U.S.-led war in the Middle East, so soon after the last one — the invasion of Iraq launched in 2003 — ended so bitterly.
That conflict was a disaster and is now widely recognized as such, even by those who originally supported it (myself included). Whole books have been written about the political and intelligence failures behind that fatally flawed assumption. But it occurred to me recently that, 14 years after the U.S. began its “shock and awe” campaign over Baghdad, a distressingly familiar situation is playing out. I’m not sure we’re any wiser for the agony of the last war.
As I write this, huge quantities of troops and military materiel are on the move in the Pacific. A U.S. carrier battle group is heading for the Korean Peninsula, joined now by Japanese warships. South Korean forces are on their usual high state of alert along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the South from North Korea.
China is said to have begun moving troops and equipment to its border with the North, in case a war between the U.S. and North Korea sends millions of refugees streaming for the safety of China.
It’s a very, very unnerving situation — and so familiar. The concerns the U.S. have today closely mirror those they had in Iraq 14 years ago: an unpredictable, anti-Western leader atop a corrupt regime, a weapons of mass destruction program, sworn antipathy to the U.S., openly hostile relations with key U.S. allies in the region.
But there’s a key difference: we know North Korea has weapons of mass destruction. The country has detonated atomic bombs, appears to be working on the technical steps required to field much more powerful hydrogen bombs and is working, slowly but with increasing success, to develop the long-range missiles required to threaten the U.S. and its allies with direct nuclear attack.
WATCH: North Korea ‘ready for war’ with United States
North Korea’s nuclear program is incredibly dangerous — for all the same reasons that Saddam’s would have been, and Iran’s might still be.
It hardly needs to be pointed out that North Korea is an enemy of the United States. It virtually defines itself in those terms.
It’s also well understood that the country is politically unstable — better now, perhaps, than it was when wracked by brutal famines, but only marginally. Kim Jong-un might be a madman, he might be a shrewd operator, he might be a puppet of the military. No one really knows. That mystery is dangerous.
U.S. President Donald Trump seems keen to do something to break the decades-long impasse. Not only has he moved his naval forces closer to North Korea, he’s also deployed U.S. missile defence systems to South Korea, in response to earlier North Korean missile launches — tests, officially, but clearly also shots across America’s bow.
WATCH: Rex Tillerson says China agrees North Korea poses certain level of threat
The U.S. is reportedly leaning hard on China to help deal with North Korea, in some fashion, and its diplomacy has taken a decided turn to the hawkish. Earlier this month, after yet another missile launch, the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put out perhaps the tersest statement in American diplomatic history: “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
The president, for his part, tweeted on Tuesday:
“North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
WATCH: White House ‘continues to be concerned’ by North Korea missile tests
The entire thing has the feel of a slow-motion slide into some kind of confrontation, possibly even a war. We don’t know for sure that North Korea would effectively be able to use its nuclear weapons in battle — both their missiles and warheads seem to have a lot of unresolved technical issues. But they’d only need to get lucky once to do incredible damage, and their conventional military is more than powerful enough to bring ruin and destruction to much of South Korea. War with the North, unless ended quickly by a sudden collapse (or decapitation) of the regime, could be devastating.
Even so, I can’t help but feel that the time, in a grim way, has come. Better to deal with North Korea now, when the U.S. is strong and President Trump committed than let the regime continue to fester in its own backwardness while perfecting its missiles and bombs.
North Korea is probably the most intractable diplomatic conundrum in the world today. The notion that the U.S. — alone, with allies or with China’s support — can simply stroll in and “fix” this mess is naive.
The epically bungled Iraq war was easy compared to what North Korea would be. And yet, how long can this endure? Does delay make conflict less likely, or simply make the ultimate showdown worse? Twenty or 50 years from now, after a war that sees Tokyo and San Francisco flattened by a dying North Korean regime’s last futile act of madness, will the survivors look back at us in 2017 and wonder what the hell we were waiting for?
WATCH: China urges US to remain ‘coolheaded’ with North Korea
My instincts tell me yes — that it’s better to act today than wait for a miracle tomorrow. But in the back of my mind, there’s another voice. It reminds me that that’s what all the hawks said about Iraq, and that that war has gone down as one of the worst mistakes ever made. It reminds me especially that Iraq, in the end, was a country with almost no ability to defend itself when the U.S. invasion began, and little ability to threaten its neighbours. That is not the case with North Korea.
Is this voice of caution, in fact, the voice of reason? Or is it just self-doubt, the voice that has led to decades of officials in more than one country to allow the North Korean situation to fester to where it is today?
I don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s not my view that will decide, but President Donald Trump’s. Perhaps he’s simply negotiating hard, hoping that either North Korea or China will blink and break the impasse. Perhaps he’s decided that the status quo isn’t working, and that he’s the guy to break the logjam.
If so, I would support him. The time to do something seems right — if only because the options get bleaker from here. But I learned in the years after 2003 that the case for intervention often seems hollow in the midst of the aftermath. We may be about to rediscover that again.