By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, Ret.
On Tuesday, North Korea test fired what experts believe is its most advanced long range, nuclear-capable missile yet. In response, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) bluntly told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Trump will not allow North Korea to even possess a nuclear missile capable of hitting the U.S. “If we have to go to war to stop this we will,” and with casual detachment added, “We’re headed towards a war if things don’t change.” If Sen. Graham’s binary choice accurately reflects the president’s thinking, then war will come, and millions could die, including thousands of Americans—such a war is too costly to seriously consider absent an imminent attack.
It is difficult to overstate the negative consequences that would result should President Trump order any type of “preventive” military strike—that is, an attack to deprive them of a capability rather than to stop an actual, imminent launch—against North Korea. Choe Kang-il, Deputy Director General for North American affairs at North Korea's foreign ministry told the New York Times, “If the United States even hints at a strike on North Korea, we will proceed with a preemptive attack on the U.S.”
In case some are tempted to think these threats are merely bluster by the Kim regime, they were echoed almost precisely last month in congressional testimony by the highest ranking North Korean official ever to defect. Former diplomat Thae Yong-ho told members of Congress North Korean officers are trained to fire their weapons “without any further instructions from the general command if anything happens on their side.” Their response would be immediate and devastating.
Marc Thiessen argued that in response to Tuesday’s test, the Administration should attack the launch site used and shoot down any future missile tests. Should Pyongyang retaliate—as Mr. Choe and Mr. Thae both say they will—Thiessen argued the “United States reserves the right to, as Trump put it to the UN General Assembly, go to war and ‘totally destroy North Korea.’”
Consider the most dangerous course of action: this latest test, reportedly fired from a mobile launcher, indicates North Korea has the ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles. If the United States tries to take out launch points, or even a massive and sustained bombing campaign in an attempt to destroy their ability to retaliate, we will inflict extraordinary damage—but it is unlikely our attacks would successfully penetrate all their mountain bunkers.
That leaves the possibility that Kim Jong-un would order a mobile launcher to emerge from its protective bunker, and in retaliation, send a nuclear missile crashing into Guam, Hawaii, or Seattle.
Such an act would not be a fringe possibility were the U.S. to launch any type of “preventive” armed attack; it would be a likely outcome.
The window of opportunity to strike North Korea without risk of a nuclear retaliation closed many years ago. For more than a decade, it has been impossible to take out North Korea’s ability to launch conventional and nuclear retaliatory strikes against our allies—the only recent development is that our homeland may now also be at risk of a counterstrike. This further increases the cost of preventive war, making it an even worse policy option rather than a serious policy recommendation.
It is the most sacred duty of the Commander-in-Chief to safeguard the security of the American people. That duty can best be accomplished by a firm and authoritative deterrent. Two of the 20th Century’s most ruthless tyrants—China’s dictator Mao Tse-Tung and the USSR’s tyrant Joseph Stalin—were effectively deterred.
Deterrence will hold against Kim Jong-un’s far weaker regime and will safeguard American lives. A preventive attack will unnecessarily sacrifice them.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1
This piece was originally published by CNBC.com on November 30, 2017. Read more HERE.