Back in 1994, I was a young producer on a new PBS program called “Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg.” One of our first shows was “Defusing the North Korean Bomb” and one of our guests was Richard “Prince of Darkness” Perle. We kind of stacked the deck against Richard, pitting him against three people who came from the “there’s always time for more talk” school of nuclear proliferation. He was more than up to the job. And his remarks stuck with me ever since.
Perle made two arguments. First, that we should look to the Israeli precedent.
Mr. Perle: In 1981, the Israeli air force attacked and destroyed a reactor that was about to come on line near Baghdad. It was a breathtaking display of bombing accuracy. They destroyed the reactor and did no damage beyond the reactor site itself.
The North Koreans have a reprocessing plant at Yong Byong. We know exactly where it is.
Mr. Wattenberg: But they also have a million men 20 miles away from Seoul, and boom, in they go, and you are talking about a mass conflagration.
Mr. Perle: The question is, would the surgical destruction of that reprocessing facility lead to a North Korean invasion in South Korea, or wouldn’t it? And I don’t think we know the answer.
I think he was probably right about that. But I can totally understand why President Clinton found the risk of an all-out war so unappealing. Which brings me to Perle’s second argument. Ben asked Leonard Spector from the Carnegie Endowment if Perle was “being too tough.” Spector replied that he thought Perle was ready to launch a strike tomorrow. To which Perle replied.
Mr. Perle: No, I don’t think we need to launch a strike tomorrow, but I think unless you have decided that you will launch a strike before you will allow North Korea to become a significant nuclear power, and I think in practical terms, that means before you allow them to reprocess the fuel they now have into plutonium — once you make that decision, then I think it’s fine, sit down at the table, but make sure that your allies know that you’ve made that decision and that the North Koreans know that you’ve made that decision.
Mr. Wattenberg: So you agree with Paul and the rest of the panel that we ought to proceed with the negotiations?
Mr. Perle: Only after we make the decision that if the negotiations fail, we will do what the Israelis did and end the program in that way, because if you don’t make that decision first, there is a risk that you go on negotiating past the point at which they take irreversible action and become the nuclear power we’re trying to prevent them from becoming.
This seems crucial to me and it gets lost in the world of diplomacy all the time. Talk is not an end in itself. Talk is a means to an end. Talk is always preferable to war if talk can do the same job war can. Talk can even be preferable to war if it can’t deliver outcomes war might be able to deliver. A diplomatic half-a-loaf is very often preferable to total victory in war (and, we should remember, total victories are few and far between these days).
But here’s the thing: If you go into negotiations with an enemy who sees negotiations as nothing more than a stalling tactic (or shakedown operation) in its pursuit of a goal, then you have to decide how far you’ll take negotiations. There will always be loud and large constituencies insisting there is more time to talk. There will always be strong forces encouraging leaders to kick-the-can to some future administration. If you don’t decide before you enter negotiations what you want from negotiations, all you are doing is negotiating for more negotiations while your opponent is negotiating for more time in pursuit of a concrete goal. In the meantime, their position becomes stronger and ours weaker, which means future negotiations are less likely to yield more desirable outcomes.
That has been the story of the bipartisan failure that has been our North Korea policy for decades and why we have no good options now. And, it seems obvious to me, if we get through this mess, we’ll be saying something very similar about the mess we made for ourselves in Iran as well.