Likely Defense Secretary Nominee Ashton Carter Called for Bombing North Korea in ’06
Pentagon insider Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama’s likely nominee to replace Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, once called for a ‘preventive’ military attack against North Korea.
Carter, a former assistant defense secretary during the Clinton administration, co-authored a July 2006 Time article with former defense secretary William J. Perry titled “The Case for a Preemptive Strike on North Korea’s Missiles.” The pair urged the Bush administration to launch a “surgical strike” against a North Korean missile base conducting a test of the Taepodong-2 missile, which some experts believe could threaten the western US seaboard.
“Such a strike could be seen by the North Korean leadership for what it is: a limited act of defense of the US homeland against a gathering threat, and not an overall attack on North Korea,” wrote Carter and Perry, a dangerous assumption to make about a sometimes desperate and always secretive totalitarian regime armed with nuclear weapons, a nation with which the US is still technically at war.
Carter and Perry continued:
For the US, the risk of inaction will prove far greater. The Pyongyang regime will view its stockpile of missiles and nuclear material as tipping the regional balance in its favor and providing a shield behind which it can pursue its interests with impunity. Worse, North Korea has a long history of selling its advanced weapons to countries in the Middle East, and it operates a black market in other forms of contraband. Like Pakistan’s rogue nuclear engineer A.Q. Khan, North Korean officials might be tempted to sell the ingredients of their arsenal to terrorists. Finally, many expect North Korea’s failed economy to lead one day to the regime’s collapse. Who then might get its loose nukes?
“We won’t know whether North Korea’s ambitions can be blunted by anything short of the use of force unless and until the US takes the danger seriously and gets in the game,” the authors hawkishly conclude.
Although Carter is likely to be nominated by President Obama, his advocacy of preemptive warfare is rooted in the Bush Doctrine. In his 2002 State of the Union address, in which he famously put the “Axis of Evil” on notice, Bush declared that “our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and defend our lives.” In order to accomplish this, the United States must “keep military strength beyond challenge,” Bush asserted.
The Bush Doctrine went beyond preemptive war—targeting an enemy force representing an imminent threat of attack—into the realm of ‘preventive’ war, or striking an enemy before it can become an imminent threat of attack. Since there was no imminent risk of Pyongyang launching Taepodong-2 missiles (assuming they even worked) against the United States, Carter’s call for an attack against North Korea was actually a call for ‘preventive,’ not preemptive war.
While there are times when national survival may call for preemptive war, the concept of ‘preventive’ war is far more nebulous. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, faced with calls for a ‘preventive’ attack against the Soviet Union, which was rapidly amassing a nuclear arsenal to counter America’s, dismissed the notion.
“All of us have heard this term ‘preventive war’ since the earliest days of Hitler,” scoffed Eisenhower. “I don’t believe there is such a thing and frankly, I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.”