The powerful recent PBS documentary on the Vietnam War offers a timely lesson about the sources of foreign policy disasters. They often follow a common, tragic script, built around two fundamental mistakes: untested assumptions about the need to act, and wishful thinking about magical schemes to act without consequences. And what’s so disturbing today is that the US seems to be following the same script in the unfolding Korea crisis.
Modern foreign policy fiascos — whether the war in Vietnam or the US invasion of Iraq or even the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — often begin with a sense of false urgency. In Vietnam, it was the domino theory (the theory that a communist takeover in one nation would lead to the collapse of other pro-Western governments nearby) and the obsession with defending every inch of global ground in the Cold War contest for supremacy. In Iraq, it was the post-9/11 conviction that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was cooperating with terrorists. In the case of Moscow’s lurch into Afghanistan, part of the motivation was a sudden and obsessive conviction that the CIA was trying to topple the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.
All of these assumptions turned out to be wrong. Vietnam’s fall did not trigger a line of communist dominoes. Saddam had no WMDs and feared al Qaeda almost as much as the United States. The CIA had a very limited role in Afghanistan in 1979. In each case, more precise facts and interpretations were widely available even at the time. But facing strategic and political imperatives to act, national leaders did not take the time to assess them.
Once a nation is convinced of the need to do something fast, it then often makes a second mistake on the way to disaster: It brushes aside the risks and costs of the escapade by concocting some scheme to avoid the worst outcomes. In Vietnam, the scheme eventually became graduated escalation: Successive US administrations put their faith in hitting North Vietnam progressively harder until it buckled, which it surely would — long before the US got dragged into a quagmire. In Afghanistan and then in Iraq, Moscow and Washington used versions of the same basic scheme: We’re going to go in, displace the government, and then get out, fast and clean.
Foreign policy disasters are often the sum of these two basic errors: Embracing exaggerated claims about the need to act, and inventing a conceptual magic wand to wish away potential consequences. Both are increasingly apparent in US policy toward North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.
The assumption driving the perceived need to act is that a nuclear-armed North Korea with missiles that can reach the US is unacceptable. This could be true — if Kim Jong Un hoped to start a war once he got them, or if his control of the arsenal was so flimsy that missiles might be fired at random. There is little evidence to support either of those propositions, however. North Korea has actually been mostly restrained since the infamous 2010 attack on a South Korean navy corvette and subsequent artillery attacks, with the exception of a 2015 land-mine incident, and most experts believe that the main obsession of North Korean leaders is regime survival. A reckless drive south, using the nuclear arsenal as a sort of geopolitical suicide vest, would destroy that goal.
In fact, there is good historical reason to believe that an alternative approach can work: Deterrence, combined with a long-term effort to transform the regime in the North. That was the US Cold War strategy, adopted after Washington rejected heated demands for pre-emptive war against either the Soviet Union or China. Deterrence has worked in Korea since 1953. With help from China and Russia — in the limited but critical sense of broadcasting zero tolerance for North Korean aggression — it should be able to work in the future.
The second mistake is then to invent a scheme that wishes away the risks of pre-emptive action. In the case of Korea, the analogy to graduated escalation or the quick-exit proxy strategy is a notion of “limited” military strikes, attacks that would degrade the North’s nuclear capabilities and send a message without provoking general war.
Such a scheme could work. One of the problems in recognizing an unfolding disaster is that there is always a chance the wishful plan could actually succeed. But the idea of limited strikes in Korea depends on a range of uncontrollable forces, from the reaction of local North Korean military officers to Kim Jong Un’s emotions. It is a shot in the dark rather than a strategy whose means and ends are tightly linked. Much like graduated escalation in Vietnam, it depends on largely untested, and ultimately unverifiable, assumptions about the adversary.
At a minimum, the existence of these two symptoms of an emerging tragedy demands a far more intense national debate before the United States acts. And it suggests that two especially critical questions should be at the forefront of that debate: Is the alternative to action really unacceptable? And will the proposed course of action truly sidestep calamitous results?
The consequences of a new war in Korea — especially if the North employs nuclear weapons — could be more catastrophic, both in terms of human life and international politics, than Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a dozen other fiascoes put together. If there was ever a time to insist upon a deeper examination of proposed options, this is it. Because it is when unfounded assumptions and magical thinking come to guide US policies that disasters occur.