On June 7, 1981, the Israeli air force attacked and destroyed a nuclear plant facility in Iraq. Israel called it a preemptive attack. Its justification, they said, was that Iraq was on the verge of making nuclear weapons. Operation Babylon, as it was called, was roundly condemned by the international community, including the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin responded with what became known as the Begin Doctrine: “On no account shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel. We shall defend the citizens of Israel in good time and with all the means at our disposal.”
Today, the United States faces a similar situation with North Korea. The North Koreans have rattled their tiny saber in our direction and have promised to launch nuclear weapons our way if provoked – and by provoked they mean if Donald Trump doesn’t quit rattling his saber. Should the United States invoke the Begin Doctrine and preemptively strike North Korea? Or are there diplomatic ways of handling this rising tension?
North Korea is led by a pathological narcissist. So, too, is the United States. It is not a stretch to imagine Kim Jong-un referring to the size of Trump’s hands. Nor is it beyond reasonable doubt that Trump sees North Korea as the perfect place to reveal his manhood. Many people think Kim Jong-un is nuts, much the way American liberals used to portray Hitler and Stalin. In fact, many people think Donald Trump is nuts too. But that would be a mistake in both cases. What if both men, narcissists as they are, just want respect? What if the North Koreans just want to be seen as equals on the world stage? If so, perhaps a preemptive strike against North Korea is the wrong move.
Let’s understand the mechanics of a North Korean nuclear threat to the United States. True, North Korea has launched an ICBM that could reach the United States. Its test launch was straight in the air but had a distance and force to predict it could reach us. And it is true that North Korea has a nuclear warhead capability. But what is unknown, at this point, is whether or not a North Korean ICBM could actually survive its flight path into space and reentry without burning up.
We do know that North Korea could wipe out 20 million South Koreans in a matter of minutes, along with U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea. We don’t have to guess about that. In return, the U.S. would launch a nuclear strike on North Korea killing millions more. There are two big questions we face. First, would Kim Jong-un launch a nuclear attack on the United States or its Pacific territories (such as Guam)? And, second, would Donald Trump launch a preemptive nuclear strike on North Korea? Let’s remember that Trump does not need the approval of Congress to launch such an attack. He has 60 days under the War Powers Act to do what he wants before Congress can intervene. Sixty days is a long time when all he needs is sixty seconds to wipe out tens of millions of people.
But maybe there is a military action we could take that would not set off mass destruction. We know the location of North Korea’s nuclear facility. Perhaps we could take it out tactically? But this notion only works if we are sure that Kim Jong-un would not immediately escalate the conflict. There have been hundreds of DMZ conflicts between North and South Korea since the signing of the 1953 Armistice and none of those skirmishes escalated. But that was before North Korea had the bomb, so to speak. That game has now changed.
For humanity’s sake, Trump and Kim Jong-un need to zip up their pants and talk rather than taunt. While it is hard for me to imagine, what if Trump went to North Korea as Nixon went to China? Responsible world leaders, especially American leaders, will try everything before war. Many Americans believe that a preemptive war is an immoral war. Many others simply do not care about people half way around the world. But the world is small today and getting much smaller. If America is to lead, America must do everything possible before attacking North Korea – an attack sure to lead to the use of nuclear weapons.