President Obama campaigned on the repudiation of Bush-era policies, most notably the neoconservative idea of military pre-emption. The Bush Doctrine--regime change, followed by democratization and reconciliation--is indeed in disarray, but Barack Obama has yet to offer a fully complete alternative.
Seven-and-a-half years after George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech, two thirds of that axis--Iran and North Korea--are more hostile and dangerous than ever. Iran elected the Israel-hating, saber-rattling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, and North Korea has exploded two atomic bombs.
And there's nothing we can do about either country, because America shot its wad in Iraq. We achieved no WMD-elimination in Iraq (because there weren't any), and while we managed to increase the freedom that surviving Iraqis enjoy, the Iraqi government we installed at such great cost now seems simply waiting for us to leave, and soon, so it can reimpose internal security, Iraq-style. So whereas once the Sunni suppressed the Shiites, now it will be the Shiites suppressing the Sunni. Tit-for-tat justice, perhaps, but not what Americans were promised.
Obama opposed Bush's vision for pre-emptive war in 2002-03, and that's why he's president. His major opponents in 2008, Democratic as well as Republican, supported a war that turned decisively unpopular in the years that followed Operation Iraqi Freedom.
So, having gained so much from opposing Bush policies, Obama must now avoid the trap of falling back into them. So far, in terms of Iran and North Korea, the signs are not encouraging.
It's obvious that North Korea and Iran fully intend to become nuclear powers, gaining mastery over the military technology needed to deliver nukes onto foreign targets. Do such belligerent and threatening policies make enemies? Sure they do. But as Machiavelli said, it's better to be feared than to be loved.
Thus it was ironic, and faintly comic, when President Obama issued a stern declaration on Monday--
--because the odor of futile déjà vu was palpable.
With all due respect to the 44th President, Obama's warning to the North Koreans was just a rehash of the foreign policy that emerged from the second term of the 43rd President. Starting around 2005, in everywhere but Iraq, the swaggering unilateralist--once so enraptured with his transformational liberation vision--had become just another chattering multilateralist.
Meanwhile, let's get to the nub in the here and now: What's the real danger from North Korea? The most obvious and immediate answer is that North Korea might be able to fire a-bombs at some unlucky country. As Obama also said on Monday, "North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile program, constitute a threat to international peace and security."
Well, that's for sure. Except for one thing: All the huffing and puffing aside, it's not so obvious that one leading member of the international community, namely China, really objects to what North Korea is doing. And yet more obvious is that China rejects any application of American-style "regime change" on its neighbor.
So Obama is stuck, like Bush before him, issuing empty threats and empty cajolements, moving around the same ineffective sticks and ineffective carrots.
Or is he? And are all the rest of us thus doomed to suffer through more dangerous n-proliferation?
Let's go back to what Obama defined as the danger--"North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile program"--and break down the two weapons categories.
It's true that we can't do much to stop North Korea's effort to develop nuclear weapons; we've already failed, in fact. But surely we can thwart the effectiveness of Pyongyang's ballistic missile program.
How so? If North Korea builds up its missile offense, we can respond by building up our missile defense.
Right here, right now, we should be asking ourselves: Why don’t we have an effective missile-defense program? Not just Patriot missile batteries and Aegis missile ships, which may or may not work when deployed in dribs and drabs--but a genuinely comprehensive, multi-layered defense system, well funded and constantly tested, that really would do the job, backed by a robust international consensus in favor of self-defense. (As an aside, robust missile defense would be the best argument against nuclear proliferation--the incentive to proliferate is much less if nuclear wannabes know that they couldn't use their new weapons.)
The Obama wing of the Democratic Party has always opposed missile defense, of course, going back to the Cold War days. Back then, the left supported the nuclear freeze and deep disarmament, even total disarmament. And if such disarmament efforts didn't succeed, figured liberals of that era, the default scenario of MAD--Mutual Assured Destruction--made for an acceptable "balance of terror."
But while such policies might have worked out during the Cold War, against a cautious and conservative Soviet Union, it's harder to argue that arms control and deterrence will keep the peace today, in the face of a multiplicity of volatile actors--not just North Korea and Iran, but also Pakistan and any particularly ingenious terrorist group.
So the answer is obvious: missile defense. Now. Why are we afraid of North Korea? Because it might soon be able to fire a missile that nukes Seoul or Tokyo--or maybe San Francisco.
And half a world away, Israelis view a nuclear Iran as an "existential" threat to the Jewish state's survival. Maybe the Israelis will attack Iran, and maybe they won't. But even if they do, it's a safe bet that Iran will be a nuclear power within a few years. How so? Because most likely, the Iranians will get a nuke from North Korea, or Pakistan--or from some source we haven't yet identified.
Sadly, nuclear technology is not that difficult to develop or obtain. That's why Mohamed Elbaradei, the outgoing director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, predicted recently that the number of nuclear states could double in the next few years. A doubling would take the "nuclear club" from nine to 18 members. That's a lot of countries to keep cool and calm at all times.
So what is the U.S. doing in response to these ominous nuclear trends? For his part, Obama, keeping faith with his ideological roots, called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in his April 5 speech in Prague.
But in case that complete and verifiable disarmament doesn't break out worldwide, America should do a better job of defending itself. Currently the U.S. spends about $9 billion on missile defense, although the Obama administration plans on pruning back some component programs. (And yes, the danger of quiet shipment of nuclear materials must be addressed, too--here, the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative offers the Obama administration a good platform upon which to build.)
But at a time when Israel is routinely pelted with cross-border rockets from low-tech Hamas--and jeopardized by a potential typhoon of rockets from Hezbollah--this is not the time for any nation to be cutting back on missile defense. Instead, this is the time to push forward not only on missile defense, but to push toward what might be called comprehensive defense, protecting against any sort of hostile projectile, large or small, that might cross a frontier. Such technology would make the whole world a safer place.
Israel would join us in such an ambitious effort, and so would Japan. That's two of the most technologically adept countries in the world, potentially working in league with us on a Manhattan Project-like endeavor.
Some will still say that missile defense won't work. To which we can respond, nothing works until it is made to work. And over time, anti-aircraft defenses have proven effective, especially when developed by technologically superior countries. Fortunately, that's us--we're the ones with the edge. And so on to the next challenge: missile defense.
President Obama has the opportunity to make a clean break with the failures of the past. Those failures have left America, and its allies, in more danger than ever--a proliferating peril, taking us ever closer to nuclear midnight. Yet if America would take the lead, dozens of peace-loving countries would follow, and a new system of worldwide defense would emerge. And nobody is better equipped to state the argument, speaking to the civilized world in ringing Kennedy-esque terms, than Barack Obama. If JFK could inspire Americans to go the moon, Obama could inspire the world to defend itself against rogue nukes.
In the past, such a system was called "collective security." In the 21st century, it could become known as The Obama Doctrine.