But that power has been challenged by the threat that burst upon us on September 11, 2001. Rising anti-American nihilism, such as that exemplified by the militant Islamist movement, combined with ever-spreading technological capabilities, has made it possible for small numbers of modestly funded, dedicated terrorists to launch devastating attacks on civilian targets. And 9/11 merely opened Pandora's box: it may be only a matter of time until some evil genius finds a way to acquire chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons for a clandestine attack on the West. The very nature of our open society, organized around the largely uncontrolled movement of goods and people, provides the terrorist with infinite opportunities. Our military power cannot do much to the terrorist networks directly: bombs, aircraft carriers, and tanks cannot easily confront or retaliate against a foe who lacks standing armies, public policies, or even a known address. However, the military can remove the large-scale infrastructure terrorists use for training bases and for funding their operations.
Using the military for this purpose has translated the "war on terror" into real warfare on the ground. In 2001, America overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for hosting Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. Now the United States is engaged in a much-anticipated war to depose the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Meanwhile, escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula appear to pose the United States with an unpleasant alternative: accept a nuclear-armed North Korea or launch military strikes that could lead to another, possibly catastrophic war.
Are wars in Iraq and Korea in the interests of America? A philosophic examination of the issues can help us better understand not only whether war is needed in these cases, but, more fundamentally, what kind of attitude toward war is appropriate to a free country.
Free World versus Despotism
The Objectivist view of foreign policy derives from its view of morality. Just as each person should pursue his rational self-interest in his personal matters, so should a proper government uphold the interests of its citizens in its conduct toward other nations. But whereas national self-interest has often been the rallying cry of cynical, Kissingerian realpolitik, Objectivism has a principled, idealistic vision of what practical goals a self-interested policy should aim for. In effect, it unites the best aspects of the conservative emphasis on national interests with the best liberal human rights internationalism.
A government exists to protect and serve the rights of its own citizens. Its most obvious function is essentially negative: defending their security from violent threats. We need security in order to enjoy liberty. But our individual interests are also served by the positive goal of creating and supporting a society of traders, made up of people who deal with one another by offering value for value, respecting each other's rights to life, liberty, and property. In such a society, the interests of all who live by reason are in harmony, and everyone ultimately benefits from each other's exercise of freedom. This applies to the international arena as well. An international society based on trade requires countries that respect fundamental freedoms and deal with one another by economic competition—and hence, cooperation—instead of military confrontation.
One basic tenet, then, of Objectivist political philosophy is that the only just governments are those of the free countries—and all the free countries are natural allies. Free countries are those that essentially embrace the principles of liberty, including freedoms of speech and assembly, competitive elections, the rule of law, and property rights. The essentially free countries include the 30 members of the OECD, "sharing a commitment to democratic government and the market economy." But their hard core are the American military allies: Japan, South Korea, and the members of NATO. None of these countries respects all the freedoms they should, but they all provide at least the minimum of just rule. They are essentially open societies, where business can go on and where policy can be reformed through rational debate and honest electioneering. At bottom, despite their differences, the free countries share a basic orientation toward the cultural values of the Western Enlightenment: reason, achievement, and freedom. It is entirely proper—and entirely self-interested—that the United States contribute to the military defense of these allies. In defending them, we are defending a world based on our values. And their flourishing redounds to our benefit.
War is anathema to relations within the free world. War among free countries would be a sign that one or more of the parties had probably abandoned the basic principles of the open society. What could justify a war between the United States and Canada, for example? Perhaps the triumph of the radical left in Canada, with wholesale expropriations of American businesses? Let it never happen.
There has been a great brouhaha within NATO over the war with Iraq. France and Germany have refused to cooperate with the Bush administration's plans. But let us be clear: these countries are essentially and basically the friends of the United States. This squabble is a family spat; indeed, it reveals more about the open nature of the alliance of free nations than it does about any fundamental rivalry between Europe and America. It is a debate about means, not ends. While the acrimony flies back-and-forth across the Atlantic, U.S. troops go about their business in German bases, and French and/or German forces are to be seen in the Balkans and Afghanistan, helping to expand the ambit of the free world. Meanwhile, we can agree in principle with the Bush administration's basic orientation. Any country must, first and foremost, be "unilateralist" in defense of its citizens' interests. It is only on that basis that "multilateral" international cooperation makes any sense. Ultimately, the shared interests of the free countries will keep giving them reasons to cooperate where cooperation is a help and not a hindrance.
Despotisms have no moral legitimacy; they cannot claim moral immunity from any outside party who would use force to liberate their citizens.
At the opposite extreme from our natural allies are the despotisms. These are the regimes that derive their power not from the consent of the governed, but from the guns of the armies that hold the governed down. Iraq and North Korea are despotisms, to be sure, but so are Saudi Arabia, China, and many other countries. Between the free countries and their antipodes stand the governments of mixed political character, where the rule of law is uncertain and/or political freedom is under siege. Russia is now an example of this sort. Singapore is another. Toward the in-between countries we must remain hopeful and encouraging. But toward the illiberal despotisms we must be exacting.
International law customarily grants even despotisms "sovereignty" over their territory and people. But sovereignty implies that a government has the right to rule. The morality of self-interest and freedom can accord that moral status only to the legitimate governments of the free world. But despotisms have no moral legitimacy, and therefore in justice no sovereignty. Since despotic regimes violate the rights of their own citizens in fundamental and pervasive ways, they cannot claim moral immunity from any outside party who would use force to liberate their citizens.
Insofar as such regimes are committed opponents of liberty, they can have no long-term interest in common with the free world. The most we can grant them is toleration. And we must make sure they stay contained. We may hope that they will eventually collapse like the old Communist regimes of Eastern Europe or the late military dictatorships of Spain, South Korea, and Taiwan. We may have reasons not to go to war with a despotism, or even to hold our noses and enter into an alliance of convenience with one. After all, we have no blanket duty to rescue oppressed and suffering foreigners, and sometimes even bad governments can reform, with the right encouragement. But our reasons will be based in the practical costs and benefits of war and other policies in the particular case.
We can see in the Middle East the way realpolitik and idealism work together, because to a certain degree current U.S. policy accords with what ought to be done. Most governments in the area are illegitimate or only somewhat liberalized. The exceptions are Israel and Turkey, which count as free countries (though Turkey barely squeaks in: Freedom House rates it only "partly free," albeit improving). The area is of vital interest because it stands astride the bulk of world oil reserves. Two overriding principles must shape our policy there. The first is to see our free allies secure. The second is to ensure the freedom of the oil trade on which the industrial economies depend. Defending commerce is not a dishonorable cause, as some critics think. Material goods are the soil in which our lives and our achievements must grow. These are both idealistic—yet practical—moral principles: each upholds the international society of political and economic freedom that best serves our interests in the long run.
Deciding on War
War can be a proper means of dealing with illegitimate regimes, but it is not simply another policy option. War puts an end to rational debate and looses brute force on society. It is terribly destructive, killing soldiers and civilians, often in large and unpredictable numbers, often indiscriminately. It damages property and destroys infrastructure and institutions. It opens old grievances and excites extreme passions. It almost always creates unintended results. It was a surprise that the Saddam Hussein regime survived the first Gulf war, and an unforeseen tragedy that it slaughtered perhaps tens of thousands of Iraqi rebels in the following months. The war also lead to the creation of the Kurdish autonomous zone in Iraq's northeast. Many Iraqis suffered in the fighting. These were not results the Western allies aimed at in fighting the war. And we are now observing the unintended effects and horror of a second Gulf war.
War is therefore a decision that should never be reached lightly. Because of the dangers it imposes, it is worthwhile only if it abates or removes even greater dangers. In particular, a free country is justified in pursuing war only as a means to reduce the threat of harm to its citizens, to its legitimate government functions, to its commerce abroad, and to its allies. Any case for war must show that war is the best available policy for reducing such threats.
Of these threats, the most basic is that of a direct attack. Any nation, after all, would properly take some kind of action in response to direct invasion or a foreign-sponsored terrorist attack on its own soil. But not all countries can answer threats to their interests in the same way. The defense of overseas citizens and commerce, and the protection of allies, for example, are aims that depend on a country's strength. Weak Lithuania cannot do much to protect its nationals in the Middle East, while powerful Britain can do quite a bit.
Defending allies is further complicated by the particulars of the ally's situation and capability. We must have reasons to think that protecting the ally is practical and in the national interest. The casus belli of World War II, for example, was Germany's invasion of Poland, the ally of France and Britain. But the Western powers were never in a position to defend Poland, and if their own necks had not been on the line in the foreseeable future, their declaration of war against Germany would have made little sense. In addition, a country's ability to aid an ally may depend on a formal alliance structure. In alliances like NATO, where a consortium of countries agree to mutual aid, united action may also be a precondition. Denmark can likely give real aid to Turkey in a crisis only if it does so as part of united NATO command.
To analyze the costs and benefits that might follow from a war we must therefore consider the interests at stake and the particulars of the situation. Our analysis must proceed logically. 1) It must begin by identifying the threats involved. 2) It must then assess the probable impact of warfare aimed at tackling those threats. 3) Lastly, it must compare war with alternatives for responding to the threats. Furthermore, we must consider each of these three points across time, distinguishing the short term of months from the medium term of a few years and the longer term of a decade or more. Indeed, in the age of terrorism the menace of the present is often simply the potential for destructive attacks within a few years' time: terrorists don't mass troops at the border and their rhetoric is always shrill. And as we can see in the Balkans and Afghanistan, any war we undertake now has repercussions for the region and our own country well into the future.
With this framework in mind, we now turn to the problems of Iraq and North Korea. What objective considerations should we weigh in considering war with these countries? This author is not an expert on either country and draws his assessments from publicly available facts. At the very least, he may be ignorant of intelligence data that would bear strongly on the final decision. And things unknown at press time might have been revealed in the meantime. Thus the following considerations are offered as a road-map to reasoning about war in each case, highlighting the elements a rational argument for war—or against it—needs to establish. We begin with the threats.
The Iraqi and North Korean Threats
War takes place in the present. However long the run-up, it requires the decision that war now is the best course. We must assess the scope of the danger involved and the magnitude of potential harm. The proper assessment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan changed radically in this respect after 9/11. Before the attacks, who could have thought the Taliban more than noxious local thugs and sponsors of small-scale terrorism? After 9/11, Americans could only regard the Afghani training camps of al-Qaeda as devastating and effective weapons being wielded directly against us.
The question in the case of Iraq and North Korea is not exactly war in the legal sense, but the practical sense of open warfare. After all, the United States is not at peace with either country. As President Bush noted in his ultimatum of March 17, Iraq's ongoing failure to comply with the terms of the 1991 cease-fire and subsequent U.N. Security Council resolutions has meant that in a legal sense the Gulf War never really ended. In fact desultory combat continued for years in the "no-fly" zones that British and American aircraft patrolled. For its part, the Korean War was ended by an armistice, not a peace treaty. The fighting has stopped, but relations have never been normalized, despite the slight economic and political links now developing between South and North Korea.
But neither Iraq nor North Korea has directly attacked the mainland of the United States. Thus neither is a threat, in the short-term, to the United States proper. Nor is either regime aggressively threatening our allies who are its neighbors, at the moment. In considering an attack on either, the urgency of the matter has to do with depriving hostile and irrational regimes with the means of posing a threat, before it is too late.
Over the next few years, the danger looks likely to become much more serious from Iraq and North Korea.
Over the next few years, the danger looks likely to become much more serious in both cases. North Korea may already have a nuclear bomb or two. But more critically, it could begin producing fissile material rapidly within months. We are likely to see its paranoia and belligerency backed up by a potent nuclear deterrent. But worse, its willingness to sell weapons to all comers may well put nuclear arms in the hands of terrorists or terrorist-sponsor regimes. Over the same period, Iraq, if left to its devices, would have continued sponsoring anti-American and anti-Israeli terror—at least to the extent of hosting known terrorists and financing the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. It would have begun re-arming itself, expanding its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them. And it could have become a prime customer for the North Koreans. Iraq is weak now, but if it could use its full oil wealth, it could become formidable again quickly. A hostile regime in Baghdad would then loom over the Persian Gulf oil trade while threatening our allies with nuclear blackmail.
In addition, the survival of these two regimes could well contribute to a long-term threat to the open society itself. If safe havens were widely available and the West were seen as weak, we could face a legion of motivated and effective terrorists for years to come. Ending such a threat could well come at the cost of freedom itself. After all, if major terrorist attacks proceeded at a steady pace for years, our only remaining response would be to give all powers to the government's homeland security forces. In that terrible end-state, decades from now, any victory we came by would be Pyrrhic: We could prevent the devastation of the outward forms of Enlightenment civilization—office buildings, hotels, factories—only at the cost of the freedom and individualism at its heart.
"Might," "could," "would have?" It is hard to know the likelihood of these threats, but one way to gauge the risks is to use the detective's standard: means, motive, and opportunity. We can never be sure what a person will choose to do, but we can settle what he can do, what his goals—and his assessment of the facts—make him want to do, and whether he will have a chance to do it. As to means: both regimes would be able to strike the U.S. and our allies in the medium term. But the same could be said of any number of other countries, including Israel and India. Likewise, that there would be opportunity is fairly plain. It is difficult, after all, to trace the origins of specific terrorist attacks: If a big strike came, it wouldn't be via a missile launch from either country. The crux of the matter is the motive, or more precisely, the reasoning behind either regime's choice to act on its anti-Enlightenment beliefs.
In the case of Iraq, many who oppose war argue that we should have taken history as our guide, counting on prudence to deter Saddam Hussein from any direct attacks on Americans or from future expansionism. He was deterred for the last decade, after all. And this is how we normally handle other nuclear-armed regimes. Similarly, advocates of compromise with North Korea describe Kim Jong Il's regime as backed into a corner and mainly interested in avoiding an invasion or a national collapse. Thus, the key consideration in the case for war is that both dictators suffer from irrationality and megalomania, compounded by the fact that they are often misinformed about the outside world. As signs, consider Saddam's bizarre nightly, televised tête-à-têtes with his military leaders in the run-up to war, or Kim Jong Il's erratic mix of trivial peace offerings and provocative saber-rattling. One must be convinced on this point to conclude that if either regime could strike American interests, it would.
The Impact of War
Suppose that both Iraq and North Korea pose the kinds of dangers outlined above. War is not the only means of seeing them off. We cannot know simply from the existence of a threat that war is the best response. First we must establish what the effects of war would be. This involves answering three questions: Can war eliminate the threats in question? What is its cost in blood and treasure? And over the long run, what political and cultural after-effects can we reasonably anticipate?
Can war end these threats? In a word, yes. War with Iraq should shortly put paid to the Hussein regime. And military strikes on North Korea could radically reduce its ability to produce nuclear weapons. But the two scenarios differ sharply in terms of projected casualties and expenditures, and in their likely ultimate effects.
What price, victory? The Iraqi military is fairly negligible and the Baathist dictatorship there is widely loathed. Precision U.S. weapons can hopefully avoid massive civilian casualties. U.S. casualties may be worse than in the Gulf War, but if in the end they number more than a few thousand, it would be a surprise to pre-war assessments. Various officials and experts have bruited financial costs on the order of $50 billion to $120 billion. The wild-card in the Iraq situation is the response of the Iraqi regime. If Hussein becomes desperate and a hard-core remains loyal to his orders, there is a danger that he will either destroy the economic infrastructure of Iraq—magnifying the financial cost of reconstruction—or lash out with chemical or biological weapons. U.S. troops are supposed to be well prepared for both eventualities, but civilians aren't, even in Israel. We may find out the hard way how much anti-missile technology has improved since 1991, and how effective Iraqi weapons remain after twelve years of inspections.
By contrast, intelligence officials rate North Korea's military capabilities as formidable. It has long made its military the primary focus of its economy. It resembles the Soviet Union in miniature: well-armed and able to respond to a military strike despite its grossly inefficient economy and dated technology. The South Korean capital and the bases of most of the U.S. troops in Korea are thought to be within artillery range of North Korean forces entrenched along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). And then there is the odd nuclear weapon. The North Koreans appear aggressive and paranoid, and their control of information is so severe that their citizens may well fight hard out of a misguided patriotism, thinking an impoverished, imperialist United States aims to loot the supposedly wealthy, peace-loving North. North Korea has said it will regard a military strike on its atomic plants as an act of war. If full-scale war breaks out, tens of thousands of South Korean civilians and U.S. and South Korean troops could be the initial victims. If the million-man North Korean army goes on to surge over the DMZ, it could take months of the hardest fighting to halt and drive them back. Seoul, a city of 12 million people, might be destroyed as the armies flowed back and forth. The total financial cost could be crippling.
Then there is the question of foreign intervention. Iraq has no great-power sponsor and no outside country actively opposes the Americans there. But in North Korea, U.S. and Chinese troops could end up facing off well south of the Yalu river. Americans tend to forget, but the Korean War was in the end a war with China, a war the United States did not win. Chinese recount that they fought to blunt U.S. imperialism and re-establish China's traditional sphere of influence. The Chinese government could easily see a U.S. invasion of North Korea as an aggressive move towards China itself.
Only the most brilliant diplomacy or a very rapid U.S. victory in Korea could keep China quiescent. And the present U.S. advantage in weaponry might rapidly eliminate the North Korean threat to Seoul and interdict North Korean movements—and even do so largely from the air. Or perhaps Kim Jong Il and his generals would blink in the face of a surgical air strike. But the risks are huge, commensurate with the threat North Korea could pose. Ultimately, any decision on war with North Korea now should conform to the wishes of the South Korean government. The direct threat to the U.S. remains distant and speculative, but for Seoul the dangers of a war are immediate and real.
Over the medium-term, the major cost of either war would be the post-war occupation and reconstruction. Reconstruction is not optional—It is the only means of eliminating the longer-term threat. If we fail to leave behind a stable state based in the norms of rule of law and freedom of speech and commerce when our troops finally depart, then the threat may well re-emerge. To achieve the ultimate aims of the war, troops—American or allied—will have to keep the peace and billions upon billions of dollars will be needed for reconstruction and re-education.
This consideration is critical to a case for war: if it is culturally or financially infeasible to transform these countries from enemies into allies—or at least into stable, non-threatening regimes—then war will not resolve the longer-term threat from either regime. Thus the ability of war to resolve a threat depends crucially on the answer to our third question: What cultural and political after-effects can we expect from war?
President Bush has compared his aims for Iraq to the U.S. reconstruction of Japan after World War II. And certainly that example shows that Western values can flourish in a non-Western culture. But the new Japan was based in the moral authority of Emperor Hirohito and on Japan's Westernized pre-war governmental and economic institutions. Not every non-Western despotism that we fight will bring so much to the table.
Yet in Korea, at least, the fierceness of any war would likely be matched by the meekness of its aftermath. Over a few years, South Korea could reconstruct itself and go on to absorb the North, much as West Germany has absorbed East Germany. Indeed, the North Koreans will probably be stunned when they discover how good life is in the South.
But Iraq is a smellier kettle of fish. Like most of the Arab world, it lacks any tradition of political toleration or limited government. "Iraqi" is not an ethnicity, nor is Iraq a cultural melting pot. It could completely splinter into ethnic/religious factions: Sunni versus Shiite, Arab versus Kurd, Secular versus Islamist, and even tribe-versus-tribe. The occupation of Japan lasted six years, and U.S. troops still base there. So it certainly appears that a sizable U.S. military presence in Iraq might continue for decades. Iraqi oil might go far to pay for rebuilding, but the United States cannot expect to get off cheap.
Iraq is a smellier kettle of fish. It lacks any tradition of political toleration or limited government.
An ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq may well fuel anti-Americanism throughout the region. If the "Arab street" continues to see the U.S. role in the Middle East as imperialistic and unjust, the post-war occupation could embolden a new generation of Mohammad Attas, while providing them with ample local targets. There is a substantial segment of Arab society that yearns for a return to the caliphate—a militant, unified Arabia that is aggressively Islamic. These people have a genocidal hatred for Israel that may not be mollified even by a West Bank peace. Their impressions of the outside world are filtered through penchants for cultural myths and conspiracy theories. They will probably reject any Westernized Arab regime, and they may never accept a U.S. presence in Arab lands.
However, Arab society is also one in which rulers hold their places by main force, and where division into countries, religions, and clans—not union—is the real state of politics. This is the hope of the Iraq-war hawks: that the open use of U.S. might can cow the anti-Western Arabs (and the Iranian conservatives), while emboldening the forces of Westernized reform. A tolerably clean victory in Iraq might even give the United States a more open hand in the region, to settle the Palestinian question and demand greater openness and honesty from the cultural authorities of putative allies like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Egypt.
To judge which of these scenarios is more likely, one needs to assess the cultural condition and resources of the Iraqi people and of Arabs elsewhere who may side with them. How large is the appeal of aggressive Islamism? To what extent have modernist values been adopted? These questions cannot be addressed fully without extensive knowledge of the area. But it is worth noting that before the Iran-Iraq War, Iraqis were better educated, more secular in their culture, and had a higher standard of living than most other Middle Easterners.
The long-term effects of wars in either case will be a changed perception of America's role in the world. At the least, we will be seen as more aggressively engaged, more hegemonic, and more imperialistic than we have been seen heretofore. Perhaps this will be for the good: U.S. engagement in Europe in the Cold War was a hegemony that the Eastern Europeans welcomed once they were free to speak. But we will hear "Yankee go home" more often, too. Europe, and especially France, may seek more actively to counter the United States throughout the world. And if Europeans perceive the United States as bullying or dangerous, they may even spend the money to build a military that can face us. But an aggressive U.S. policy of eliminating rogue states will probably give small countries a strong incentive to stay away from terrorism. Until such time as a coalition of anti-American major powers develops the ability to boldly face down the United States, it seems likely that a "Yemen effect" will hold sway. Love us or hate us, they would take care not to trouble us.
Could war bring widespread democracy and freedom over the long term? It is nonsense to say—as have some peace activists—that liberty has never struck from outside: Germany, Italy, and Japan are examples to the contrary. The unification of Korea (on South Korean terms) would anchor East Asia with a second capitalist democracy comparable to Japan's economic and demographic weight. This would surely be a great long-term force for the values of modern civilization, particularly in China. And even in the Middle East, something must give: the Arab despotisms are nearing a dead-end economically and culturally. If we can close out military expansionism and promote economic reform, it is possible that freedom of speech might break out alongside freedom to trade, as it has done in many parts of Asia. Already, democratization is advancing in Iran and Jordan. A free Iraq could cement the transformation of the entire region.
War, then, might abate the medium-term threats from Iraq and North Korea, and reduce the long-term danger of anti-modern reaction world-wide. But it could have enormous human and financial costs, especially in Korea, and could inflame anti-American sentiment among Muslims—spawning more terror—and in the great powers of Eurasia—reducing international cooperation and increasing support for anti-American operations. And it would tie the United States to the occupation and reconstruction of distant and alien countries for a long time to come. Is war then the best alternative available for dealing with the threats we face?
The Alternatives to War
An active military containment and deterrence policy is the principal alternative to war in dealing with known threats in peacetime. Cold War containment restrained the Soviet Union and put it under economic pressure that helped cause its collapse. But the end of the Soviet empire was also due to moral and practical considerations: The great wealth of the West sold the capitalist economic model, while the defensive posture of NATO taught that conquest was not the American or Western goal.
Containment has likewise been policy with regard to Iraq and North Korea. But it has not worked well of late. Indeed, we must now discuss war in these cases because containment has failed to prevent the new threats that have emerged there.
In Korea, U.S. forces and the military and economic might of the South have prevented the North from trying its hand at conquest again. Meanwhile, South Korea's generous policy of détente, along with international famine-relief aid, has demonstrated the free world's peaceable intentions. But the North's weapons building, aggressive gestures, and nuclear program continue apace. Economic reform has not come to the North: It remains the world's most closed society. South Korean tourists to the North, far from spreading the truth about the North's bankruptcy, are strictly kept out of any meaningful contact with northerners—they aren't allowed even to chat about life in the South. It might be hoped that North Korea's long-time ally, China, could restrain Kim Jong Il. But, due to its history in the North, China appears unwilling to act strongly in concert with the United States. Meanwhile, North Korea, angered by China's rapprochement with the South, seems unwilling to listen to Beijing in any case. South Korea, more focused on the immediate danger of an attack on Seoul than on the medium-term threat of a nuclear North, has just elected an administration committed to further détente. It seems unlikely, unless something gives, that anything short of military action is going to deliver a de-nuclearized Korea. But it is easy to see why the Bush administration openly hopes for a diplomatic solution. A second Korean war could be a cure worse than the disease.
For the United States and South Korea it would be best to reach a negotiated settlement with North Korea that provides for verifiable nuclear disarmament. Practically, however, this could amount to a kind of appeasement, rewarding the North for its bad behavior. Furthermore, the North is insisting on a non-aggression pact with the United States as a condition of any settlement. It would be contrary to our basic principles to make that kind of commitment to such a loathsome regime.
That's the rub: the regime is intrinsic to the problem in North Korea and in Iraq. How could we verify the weapons capability of a hermetically sealed country like North Korea? How could we trust a secretive, fear-based dictatorship like that of Iraq? Weapons programs, aggressiveness toward their neighbors, and links to terrorists may be the direct threats these countries pose, but underlying all of these is the regime. It is hard to see any lasting negotiated settlement succeeding without reforms in both countries that allow greater freedom, so that reliable information can flow. But that is just what neither regime wants to see happen.
Assuming containment is failing in Korea, and that South Korea demurs from military action due to the human and financial costs of war, then perhaps the best alternative for the United States is to withdraw from the peninsula altogether. This could reduce the U.S.'s diplomatic isolation and perhaps even abate the North's hysterical fear of America. Could this policy address the threat? The United States could hope its soon-to-be-activated anti-missile system and the promise of retaliation would keep the North from directly attacking America. The key here would be whether our intelligence services could keep an eye on North Korean contacts with terrorists. Certainly, were it effective, this would be the least expensive alternative. We could trust the Japanese and South Koreans to look to their own defenses against North Korea and hope that the Kim regime would eventually disintegrate without having harmed more Americans.
In Iraq, of course, the United States has attacked as long expected. But there was nothing intrinsic to March of 2003 that called for war. Rather, war has been dictated by the alternatives. Containment in Iraq has been touted by the peace movement as a success, and many think containment is kinder than war. But in the wider context, this is not obvious in the least. Containment of Iraq has irritated Arab sentiment with a decade-long pageant of air strikes and Iraqi casualties in the no-fly zones. International weapons inspections have waxed and waned with American bellicosity, but big questions about Iraq's weapons have gone unanswered. Containment's cornerstone was a blockade of Iraq that limited Iraqi oil exports and directed the revenue to the U.N. "oil for food" program. But international support for the blockade and the inspections was in terminal decline for years. The Iraqi government cheated the blockade and diverted funds to arms and palaces. Meanwhile, Iraqi civilians went hungry and did without medicines. Thousands died who needn't have. And in the popular Arab mind, America was to blame for it all.
Whatever the relative cooperation of Iraq after November, 2002, the inspections were a dead letter before the U.S. troop build-up. The recent international enthusiasm for inspections is a chimera: The countries that have lately supported inspections most are largely those that supported them least before Bush got tough. Inspections on these terms were unsustainable. Keeping a massive troop presence in Kuwait for even half a year would have cost the United States a good part of the cost of a quick war. And that's to say nothing of the price in the readiness and availability of those forces, or the rising political cost if America is continually seen to be acting the bully.
This author supports the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the long-term commitment to rebuild that country that must follow.
Containment could not last in Iraq. The more realistic alternative was war now, or the total abandonment of sanctions in the next few years. No matter what the arms inspectors had achieved, it is easy to see that in the future we would have needed to count on deterrence at a distance to hold back the Hussein regime. Meanwhile, a U.S. and British climb-down would not have removed death-loving Islamism or rabid anti-Americanism from the Middle East. Thus, we see again that how well we trust in the Iraqi regime—or at least how well we trust in its sanity and objectivity—is the key to a judgment for or against this war.
This author supports the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the long-term commitment to rebuild that country that must follow. We need to be willing to use military force soon in Korea as well, if we cannot get a reliable settlement with North Korea—and provided that South Korea accepts the risks. But this is not an expert position, nor is it the position of The Objectivist Center. The Objectivist Center does not endorse particular government policies; rather, it promotes the principles that underlie good policy in general.
What those principles teach us is that a free people should be unembarrassed about defending liberty and the modern, Enlightenment values that underlie it. Ultimately, war must be a weapon we are willing to use against illiberal despotisms. But war itself is only a means of changing foreign government policies. We cannot lose sight of the fact that political policy is a symptom, but culture is the root cause. There would have been no 9/11 without Islamism and the Middle Eastern culture of resentment. There will be no end to such attacks without religious toleration and a culture of reform. We should seek whatever realistic means we can find to keep ideas and business flowing. While in the short range we act to maintain our interests, in the long run those interests require that we build up a world society of individuals living by their own choices and thinking their own thoughts. Being willing to fight for our interests will not ensure that great goal, but being unwilling to fight will surely doom it.