Barbarians at the gate, with nukes

Christian Whiton Christian Whiton was a senior adviser in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest.
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Eight years ago, George W. Bush said that “we will not allow the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.”  Unfortunately, less than a decade later, that scenario is becoming reality.  Nuclear threats have drawn steadily nearer and Washington’s polices to counter them have failed.  North Korea has a nuclear capability and Iran seems close to one.  The current and prior two administrations share blame, but President Obama is making matters worse with his profound weakness and unrealistic talk of nuclear abolition.  Without change, the U.S. will spend the 2010s reeling from these expanding threats.

The risk posed by North Korea or Iran unchecked and armed with nuclear weapons is immense.  The regime of Kim Jong Il has proliferated virtually every advanced weapon system it has possessed.  It was caught red-handed helping Syria build a replica of its Yongbyon plutonium-producing reactor in 2007.  North Korea’s arming of terrorist-sponsoring regimes will likely continue as long as the regime exists.

The Iranian government is more dangerous still.  It has already developed reliable missiles with which to deliver a future nuclear warhead.  At this moment, Iran’s proxies are already fighting wars against the governments of Lebanon, Israel, Yemen and Saudi Arabia—and also against the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq.  These activities and the list of targets will increase once Tehran has a nuclear arsenal.

While this may look like irrational conduct, both regimes have in fact been conditioned to act this way.  The prior two U.S. administrations talked big about these threats, warning of “serious consequences,” but never followed through.

More than 16 years ago, President Clinton said “North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb.  We have to be very firm about it.”  In 2002, President Bush said “I will remind the world that America will not allow North Korea and other dangerous regimes to threaten freedom with weapons of mass destruction.”  Meanwhile, the regime’s nuclear program progressed steadily.  It tested its first nuclear device in 2006 and another in 2009.

Our rhetoric on Iran has been similar.  President Bush had the following exchange with Bill O’Reilly in 2004:

O’Reilly: Is it conceivable that you would allow [Iran] to develop a nuclear weapon?

Bush: No, we’ve made it clear, our position is that they won’t have a nuclear weapon.

O’Reilly: Period?

Bush: Yes.

In private, Mr. Bush was even clearer.  Many felt assured he would not leave office with Iran poised to go nuclear.  But he did.

The ‘sum of all fears’ has been that Iran or North Korea will proliferate nuclear weapons or materials to terrorists.  But an even more alarming scenario is possible: these regimes may conclude they can win a regional nuclear war by firing the only shot.  How is that possible given the specter of U.S. nuclear retaliation?  Because Tehran and Pyongyang may infer from U.S. actions that no serious retaliation would come.

Neither regime has felt sustined pushback despite decades of belligerence.  Furthermore, they have undoubtedly noticed Mr. Obama’s profound weakness in his first year, including his betrayal of Poland and the Czech Republic in a failed attempt to “reset” relations with Russia, his repeated apologies for America’s purported sins, and his cuts to missile defense and other systems.  Then in Prague last April, despite assuring the crowd “I’m not naive,” President Obama announced “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”  His implementation strategy: “We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”

Do we believe this man would have the fortitude to order a nuclear retaliation against an assailant who shot first at a country other than our own?  Would he follow through with a subsequent invasion to depose a belligerent regime?  Our enemies may have concluded this is implausible, which poses high a risk for the U.S. in the 2010s.

Conservatives need to articulate clear alternatives for voters.  We need a defense posture based on strategic deterrence, conventional military counterforce, economic pressure, information warfare and political subversion.  This should include fielding a countervailing nuclear force adjacent to Iran and North Korea, reversing Mr. Obama’s cuts to missile defense, running intelligence operations that are not paralyzed by risk-aversion, and realizing we will need ample conventional forces based in East Asia and the Middle East indefinitely.

One day the Iranian and North Korean people will end the illegitimate regimes that oppress them—the best path to our own long-term security.  The U.S. should get back in the business of aiding and cheering them without hesitation.  But no one knows how quickly they will succeed and we need to secure our own defense in the mean time.  Taking these steps, rather than talking nuclear abolition while undercutting our defenses and alliances, is a better strategy for the dangerous 2010s.

Christian Whiton was a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009.  He is a principal at DC Asia Advisory in Washington, and a fellow at the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles.