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Failure to Launch By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The screwball comedy in theaters this year, Failure to Launch, was about a laid-back, 35-year-old man who still lives with his parents because it is so comfortable to stay at home. The title came to mind as some officials in Washington counsel against launching a pre-emptive strike or an intercept if North Korea fires the Taepodong ICBM test vehicle sitting fueled and ready on its pad. Former State Department official Charles "Jack" Pritchard and the top two Republican Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, have all gone public with their opposition to military action. They have called instead for the Bush administration to accept Pyongyang’s demands for direct negotiations. Like Matthew McConaughey’s film character, they have grown too comfortable with the status quo of endless diplomatic soirees to want a change in direction.

Pritchard claimed in a Washington Post op-ed June 23 that the suggestion by two former Clinton Defense Department officials, Secretary William Perry and Assistant Secretary Ashton Carter, that the North Korean missile be destroyed before it could be fired had made “smart people into foolish ones.” But the real definition of foolishness is to do the same thing over and over again, expecting each new attempt will yield a different outcome – when it never does. The U.S. has been engaged in diplomatic wrangling with North Korea for over a decade regarding its nuclear and missile programs. Sen. Hagel’s said, "We need to talk directly with North Korea. The sooner we do that, the sooner we're going to get this resolved." His optimism is totally without foundation.


The 1994 Agreed Framework, reached while Perry was heading the Pentagon, offered North Korea two light-water nuclear reactors, valued at $4 billion, plus a free supply of fuel oil in exchange for the closing of its Soviet-supplied nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and the freezing of its nuclear weapons program. But Pyongyang did not allow inspections, and in 2002 admitted it had continued its nuclear program all along. In 1998, North Korea fired a long-range missile over Japan, but then promised not to fire any more in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Yet, it has continued to develop missiles and is now threatening to launch one in violation of past diplomatic understandings.


The first round of Six-Party Talks was held in 2003 – adding China and Russia to the nations of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea that had negotiated the 1994 Framework. The fifth round of talks concluded last November last year with no progress having been made and no new rounds of talks scheduled. China’s role as “host” of the talks has resulted in Beijing giving protection to its long time ally Pyongyang, insisting only on the use of diplomacy to “safeguard peace and stability in Northeast Asia.” This is to keep the status quo and prevent the countries North Korea is threatening from taking any counter action. Beijing knows that as long as only Pyongyang is acting and everyone else is just talking, North Korea will keep moving forward.


The same pattern has held in regard to negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program, which is continuing despite several years of negotiations headed by England, France, and Germany. These talks have stressed “incentives” to Tehran to halt its program, and the latest offer, which includes providing Iran with a light-water reactor, looks similar to the 1994 Framework with North Korea. Can anyone really think Tehran will not simply take what is offered and continue its weapons programs in secret as Pyongyang did?  Neither Iran's theocratic leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor militant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are primarily motivated by trade deals. They have a larger, more compelling vision of Shi’ite Persian dominance of the region; a model in stark contrast to that presented by a decadent West too weak to do anything more than offer bribes and pay tribute to Tehran.


The U.S. effort to have the UN Security Council to declare Iran's enrichment of uranium a threat to international peace and security under Article VII has been dropped. Such a resolution would have opened the door for economic sanctions and possible military action, but was opposed by China and Russia. These two states are not opposed to giving “incentives” to Iran (or North Korea) because they know it will help, not harm, these rogue regimes.


There is, however, a counter record of events that support taking strong, direct action to impress upon our adversaries that America still means business. In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. -led invasion of Iraq, there was diplomatic movement in both Tehran and Pyongyang, with both  regimes more eager to talk seriously. On a third front in Libya, the regime of Mu'ammar Qhadaffi dismantled its Weapons of Mass Destruction under the watchful eyes of the United States and England.


But today the world’s rogue regimes believe the United States is bogged down in a political quagmire at home about Iraq, without the military strength or domestic support to confront other aggressors. The “shock and awe” of the American drive on Baghdad has dissipated, giving Iran and North Korea confidence that they can seize the initiative and make demands.


The larger threat is Iran, which is not only pursuing a nuclear program, but is conducting clandestine interventions in Iraq and directing combat against American forces.


Behind both Tehran and Pyongyang is Beijing, watching to see how far the U.S. will retreat in the face of the comparably weak provocations of these rogue states, in order to test how much further China can push. Washington must demonstrate its resolve and strength, that it can still inflict massive damage on those who would challenge its core strategic interests.


When President Bush first articulated his policy of “preemptive action” in his address to the 2002 graduates of West Point, he was moving beyond mere “non-proliferation” policy to “counter-proliferation” – and made it his priority. He declared, “the gravest danger to freedom lies at the perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology....the spread of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missile technology.” Nothing has changed since then. By contrast, Pritchard claim that a “missile test is not a violation of anything more than our pride,” seems like the comment from someone who has been sheltered in his parent’s basement too long.


The least provocative response to a North Korean launch would be to shoot it down with the newly activated national missile defense system. But as Ashton and Perry argued in their Washington Post op-ed:


[W]aiting until North Korea's ICBM is launched to interdict it is risky. First, by the time the payload was intercepted, North Korean engineers would already have obtained much of the precious flight test data they are seeking, which they could use to make a whole arsenal of missiles...Second, the U.S. defensive interceptor could reach the target only if it was flying on a test trajectory that took it into the range of the U.S. defense....[and] a failed attempt at interception could undermine whatever deterrent value our missile defense may have.


Most of North Korea’s nuclear program and other military projects are protected in a labyrinth of underground bunkers. But the launch site is open and vulnerable to a cruise missile strike launched from sea, as Ashton and Perry suggested.

Recent events have shown dramatically that the world is much as it has always been, an arena where passions and ambitions breed conflict for very high stakes. In this global arena, foreign governments must be dissuaded and deterred; and that can only be accomplished if there is a credible threat of destruction backing American diplomacy. The United States must not show fear in the face of regimes that are markedly inferior in both moral standing and material strength. The dynamics of the U.S. confrontation with North Korea (and its confederate in this nuclear brinksmanship, Iran) must be changed. A pre-emptive strike on such an obvious threat as the ICBM test vehicle would accomplish that change.

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William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.

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