Archive for the ‘Nuclear Weapons’ Category

Instability in North Korea

February 3, 2010

Efforts by the North Korean government to revaluate the country’s currency and undermine black market trading have led to runaway inflation.  In November of last year, North Koreans were compelled to exchange their old currency for the new one at a rate of 100 to 1.  State-owned stores in one of the few remaining communist nations failed to stock enough goods to compensate for the decrease in purchases from illicit sources, and as a result the price of food has skyrocketed, which in turn has exacerbated levels of malnourishment  and starvation.  There have been reports of protests and turmoil in the isolated communist nation, and government officials are reportedly taking measures to avert an uprising.  The extent of the unrest is difficult to determine because of the limited amount of information that leaks out of the totalitarian state.

Another potential source of instability in North Korea is the upcoming transfer of authority from dictator Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un, which is anticipated to take place in 2012.  Kim Jong-il has reportedly been in ill health for some time; a fact that may explain why he will soon stepdown.  It is unknown how competent Kim Jong-un will be as a leader, nor is it clear if other top officials in the Communist Party or the military will initiate a power struggle while the change in leadership is occurring.

The international community should have a well-developed contingency plan to deal with the collapse of the North Korean government, especially China, South Korea and the US, which are in the best position to handle the issue.  The odds of such a situation developing in the near-to-medium-term may be low (as noted above, the outside world has a dearth of information about the DPRK), but the event would be disastrous if other powers are unprepared because an immense humanitarian crisis would almost certainly erupt.  The problem could entail massive refugee flows, widespread starvation and illness, large-scale violence and unsecured nuclear weapons.

It is inherently difficult to predict when a revolution will occur.  Few anticipated that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would disintegrate in the late 1980s, and history provides many other examples of sudden political upheaval.  North Korea’s neighbors and other regional powers may not have much warning before the North Korean government falls, so they must prepare for that eventuality even if it appears that the ruling elites in the DPRK  have firm control over the country; if other nations are caught unprepared, they, and the North Korean people, will suffer the consequences.

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Missile Defenses in the Middle East

February 1, 2010

Administration and military officials have announced that the US is deploying additional missile defense systems in the Middle East/Persian Gulf.  The deployments include Patriot missile batteries in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain (similar batteries have long been stationed in Israel and Saudi Arabia), as well as Aegis cruisers armed with missile interceptors that are positioned in the Persian Gulf.  The moves are intended to counter the threat posed by Iran’s short -range and medium-range missiles; Western leaders fear that the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear warheads (Iranian leaders deny that they seek to acquire the Bomb) that could be launched by the aforementioned delivery vehicles against other countries in the region or America’s military forces. 

The US wants to prevent Iran, which is viewed as a hostile nation, from joining the nuclear club.  The administration has tried to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and threats of economic sanctions if the Iranian regime does not agree to take steps that would make it difficult for its scientists to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.  In December of last year, Tehran accepted a deal to ship its unprocessed uranium abroad but backed out before it was finalized.

According to administration officials, the US is deploying the missile defense systems for the following reasons:

1. To reassure its Arab allies and dissuade them from building their own nuclear arsenals for deterrence purposes.

2. To deter Iran from developing the Bomb or using it against American interests in the region.

3. To persuade Israel not to launch a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

It is doubtful if the deployments will have much of an effect on the situation.  They might provide a modicum of psychological comfort to Arab leaders, but American security guarantees (i.e., promises to come to the defense of its friends and allies in the event of an Iranian attack) would better achieve that purpose.  The US has already suggested that it would retaliate against Iran if the Islamic Republic launched a nuclear strike, and that threat should be sufficient unless Arab governments do not consider it to be credible.

When it comes to deterring Iran from creating an atomic arsenal, missile defense systems will not likely change the decision calculus of Iranian leaders, who understandably fear that America will invade their nation and almost certainly want nuclear weapons to protect themselves from perceived external threats; such weapons would be a good deterrent because no country would want to invade a nuclear Iran and risk suffering an atomic counterattack even if the invading forces, or its allies, possessed missile defense systems that could lower the chances that a nuclear-armed missile would get through.  As far as dissuading Iran from launching a first strike, the threat of nuclear retaliation alone would be enough to deter the Islamic Republic, so Patriot missiles are superfluous in this regard.

Israel already had Patriot missiles before the US put more in the region, and putting interceptors in Arab countries and the Persian Gulf would not substantially change Israel’s security status because Israel is not very close to the Gulf and Patriots are terminal-phase defense systems (meaning they are designed to destroy incoming warheads shortly before they detonate in the target area), so basing them in Arab states would not protect Israel.  Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, but if the Jewish state still feels like that is not enough to deter Iran from hitting Tel Aviv with atomic weapons the mere presence of more Patriot missiles and Aegis cruisers will not stop Israeli leaders from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Nuclear weapons would not be the greatest threat to American interests emanating from the Islamic Republic if Iran becomes a nuclear power.  The country’s ability to use terrorist groups (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) as proxies, foment instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and close down the Straits of Hormuz, through which a large percentage of the world’s oil supply transits, are much more plausible methods that Iran could employ against the US and its partners in the region. 

However, theater missile defense systems are not without purpose.  They could be useful in knocking down Iranian missiles armed with conventional warheads in the event of a conflict.  Although the odds that Iranian leaders would launch a nuclear first strike are extremely low (unless their country were invaded), there is a significant probability that they would use regular missiles to attack American military bases, large ground formations or the cities of US allies if a war involving the Islamic Republic broke out in the Middle East.

Walter Russell Mead Classifies Obama

January 27, 2010

In a cover article for Foreign Policy magazine, international affairs analyst Walter Russell Mead discusses President Obama’s strategic worldview and warns that the president may suffer the same fate as Jimmy Carter, whose presidency was brought down largely by foreign policy mishaps. 

Mr. Mead says that there are essentially four philosophical archetypes that US presidents can embody when it comes to determining America’s role in international affairs: Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian and Jacksonian.

1. Hamiltonians are foreign policy realists who believe the a strong US government should actively pursue its strategic and economic interests at home and abroad.

2.  Jeffersonians want to limit America’s foreign policy commitments and focus on improving living conditions in the US.

3. Wilsonians are idealists who believe America should actively promote democratic values and human rights at home and abroad even if it means acting against its narrower strategic interests.

4. Jacksonians are conservative populists who distrust political/economic/social elites but tend to strongly support confrontation and the use of force when it comes to security policy.

Mr. Mead argues that the president is a schizophrenic Jeffersonian-Wilsonian.  However, an examination of his polices indicates that he is more of a Hamiltonian.  It is difficult to see how someone who bailed out the banks, enacted a huge economic stimulus package, tripled the US troop commitment in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone airstrike campaign in Pakistan, increased the military budget, downplayed China’s human rights violations and tried to diplomatically engage hostile authoritatian states like Iran and North Korea can be considered a Jeffersonian-Wilsonian.  I am not suggesting that all of the aforementioned policies are misguided (some of them are wise); I am merely disagreeing with Mr. Mead’s categorization.

The State of the US-Japanese Alliance

January 21, 2010

This week, three similar articles about the state of the US-Japanese alliance were published in major newspapers (two in The Economist and one in the New York Times), and in each piece  the authors argue that the relationship between the two nations is on the brink of major deterioration.  They cite the dispute over the relocation of the American airbase on Okinawa and the strengthening ties between Japan and China as key reasons for the supposed breach.  They note the fact that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has thus far sought more independence from Washington than his predecessors; last September, his Democratic Party took power from the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled the country for 53 years.

These analysts exaggerate the threat of a permanent rift between the long time allies.  The US and Japan still have major strategic interests in common, and the benefits that Japan derive from the relationship mitigate against a political divorce.  America remains the primary guarantor of security and stability in East Asia because of its military, economic and diplomatic clout.  The Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security enables Japan to spend less on defense and more on social programs, and it removes the impetus for the country to develop a nuclear deterrent against other regional powers who have the Bomb, including China and North Korea (the US also assists Japan with missile defense systems).  On an economic level, a falling out between the close trading partners would encourage protectionist policies in the US which would further hurt Japan’s relatively stagnant economy.

Although America and Japan disagree on some issues and many Japanese would like to assert more independence from Washington, it is highly unlike that the government in Tokyo would allow the alliance to fall apart because doing so would not serve its interests.  Domestic politics complicate the Futenma airbase problem for Mr. Hatoyama and it is unclear how it will be resolved, but when it comes to the big picture his political fortunes, and those of his party, will be jeopardized if he repeatedly pursues policies that alienate the US and undermine his country’s security and economic position.  American policymakers certainly need to pay attention to Japan’s concerns and keep relations as amicable as possible because the US benefits greatly from the trans-Pacific partnership; but people should not fear the dissolution of one of the strongest alliances in the world anytime soon.

Containing a Nuclear Iran

January 19, 2010

Last Friday, ForeignPolicy.com published an op-ed piece by Michael Singh in which he discusses the implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  Mr. Singh makes the following arguments:

1. There is no possibility of a rapprochement between the US and Iran similar to the one President Richard Nixon achieved when he went to China in the early 1970s.

2. Iranian leaders might use nuclear weapons because their rationality is open to question.

3. There is a significant chance that Iran would give atomic bombs to terrorist allies like Hezbollah or Hamas.

4. Iran becoming a nuclear power would fundamentally change the security situation in the Middle East.

5. Arab states would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by building their own.

6. The US could not contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

It appears that Mr. Singh is correct in asserting that a major diplomatic breakthrough between the US and the Islamic Republic is unlikely at the present time.  Hardliners in Tehran remain vehemently anti-American and they continue to view the US, which has surrounded their country with its military forces and expressed sympathy for Iranian dissidents who are calling for democratic reforms, as a threat to their regime.  Moreover, they face no strategic threat from a third party that would compel them to seek an alliance with the US for counterbalancing purposes.

Mr. Singh’s suggestion that Iran might launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel or other nations is absurd.  He observes that the certainty of massive retaliation would probably dissuade them from doing so, but he says that the possibility should not be discounted because Iranian leaders might be irrational.  Although some political elites in Iran have railed against Israel and leveled threats against it, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.  The West should not react hysterically to their rhetoric; after all, Nikita Khrushchev said his country would “bury” the US, but neither he nor other Soviet leaders intended to attack the US with nuclear weapons unless they were attacked first.

A similar counterargument can be used to discredit his warnings that Iran might give the Bomb to terrorist groups.  If groups like Hezbollah or Hamas detonated a nuclear device in Israel, Israeli policymakers would assume that Iran was behind the assault and they would respond by destroying Tehran and other sites with their atomic arsenal.  Once again, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.

Whether Iran “going nuclear” would fundamentally change the security situation in the region is highly questionable.  Mr. Singh says that Iran would act more aggressively and give more weapons to militant groups, but they are already doing that in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Iraq, and they do not need nuclear weapons to do such things without suffering serious consequences.  Arab states like Egyt and Saudi Arabia would certainly be very concerned about their Persian rivals having the Bomb, but they would not necessarily create their own arsenals if the US extended a nuclear umbrella over them; America promised to protect Japan and Germany from their nuclear-armed adversaries and successfully prevented proliferation in those two countries. 

They idea that Iran could no longer be contained if it joins the nuclear club is unfounded.  The US has the capability to thwart a conventional attack against is allies in the region and prevent Iranian naval forces from closing the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time.   Nuclear deterrence still works for reasons mentioned above, and Iran would not have a greater ability to aid terrorist groups because atomic bombs are not the type of weapons that a state would want to pass on to extremists.  Despite what Mr. Singh claims, America and its partners could still contain a nuclear Iran and protect their interests much like they contained Russia during the Cold War.