The United Nations Security Council agreed to put tougher sanctions on North Korea earlier this week. This is a clear win in the diplomacy column for the Trump administration.
While U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit Poll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field Harris to hold fundraiser for McAuliffe ahead of Virginia governor's race MORE didn’t succeed in getting a total embargo on oil to North Korea and a freeze of all Kim Jong Un’s assets abroad, she did manage to reach an agreement for some punishing economic restrictions. Under this new sanctions regime, North Korea’s exports could take a 90 percent hit, which will crush their hard currency reserves.
But what if this doesn’t work?
We need to prepare for the possibility that diplomacy will fail in containing the North Korean crisis. This forces us to consider the otherwise unthinkable alternative of direct military action, including the terrifying possibility of firing a nuclear weapon north of the 38th parallel.
Given the recent statements from President Trump and Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisFormer Defense Secretary Mattis testifies in Theranos CEO trial 20 years after 9/11, we've logged successes but the fight continues Defense & National Security — The mental scars of Afghanistan MORE, among others, there can be no question that the U.S. would respond to a direct attack from the mad boy-king Kim and his uniformed henchmen with overwhelming force. If Kim Jong Un were to fire off an intercontinental ballistic missile at Guam or Honolulu, he would surely find this out for himself.
The situation becomes much less clear when assessing a first strike against North Korea in response to an imminent threat, or escalation of a conventional conflict already underway.
Any limited U.S. military intervention against North Korea could put Seoul, South Korea, at risk for annihilation within minutes. A conclusive strike that completely incapacitates Kim Jong Un’s offensive capacities could thus be justified, which may in turn call for nukes. This is the kind of grim war gaming that keeps even the most grizzled veteran Pentagon analysts and think tank wonks up at night.
However, it is not just military necessity but moral misgivings that pose hurdles to the nuking of Pyongyang.
In international relations circles, they call this the “nuclear taboo.” This theory posits that nuclear weapons are so horrific, the civilian casualties are so unacceptable, that the moral prohibition against their use outweighs any military rationale. In essence, no state with nukes will use them, because it’s simply too awful to do so.
In addition to its admirable humanitarian impulse, there is some empirical data for this point of view. It is true, for example, that Americans have become less supportive of President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 with the passage of time. This had led to a conventional wisdom that a “nuclear taboo” among the American public would prevent the commander-in-chief from any military action that would result in mass civilian casualties in any of the rogue states that threaten our security.
But, as it turns out, Americans may be more willing to abide an offensive nuclear strike in principle than previously thought. In a fascinating piece of analysis published in August, entitled “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think about Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants,” the International Security journal crunches the numbers, with results that somewhat upend the notion of a “nuclear taboo.”
When faced with the choice of a military campaign that results in 20,000 U.S. casualties, or dropping a nuclear weapon to kill 100,000 Iranian civilians and end a conflict, a majority of Americans surveyed chose the bombing campaign. When faced with the same scenario, but 2 million Iranian civilians, almost half of Americans (about 48 percent) chose the airstrike once again.
Assuming the results of this survey are representative of wider American public opinion, it indicates that our reluctance to use nuclear weapons may have been exaggerated. Yes, nuclear weapons are an abominable thing, but war is hell. Whether confronting Iran or North Korea, defeating an opponent that is part of the “axis of evil” with minimal loss of American life would likely supersede the international community’s revulsion against nuclear weapons.
Hopefully, this is not a thesis that will ever be tested. A peaceful resolution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula is in everyone’s best interests. But in our nuclear standoff with North Korea, our leaders often say that all options are on the table.
It appears the American people agree.
Buck Sexton is a political commentator, national security analyst and host of the nationally syndicated radio program, “Buck Sexton with America Now.” He is a former CIA officer in the Counterterrorism Center, appears frequently on Fox News Channel and CNN and has been a guest radio show host for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Follow Buck on Twitter @BuckSexton.