If ever there was an individual who seemed prepared to hold a senior government position it is Secretary of State John Kerry. The combination of war hero and long-serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would seem to be a good background for someone thrown into the current crisis involving North Korea’s threats to attack its neighbors and the United States.
So it is surprising that the Secretary’s first instinct when he went to China was to offer concessions on U.S. missile defenses as a way of buying Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea. Emerging from his meetings with the new Chinese leadership, the Secretary declared that if North Korea denuclearizes then the robust forward leaning U.S. missile defense posture in the region would be unnecessary. This statement suggests that the only reason the U.S. would have missile defenses in the Western Pacific was because of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The Secretary seems to have forgotten that the real missile proliferator in Asia is China. The PLA has even tested and deployed a long-range anti-ship ballistic missile whose sole purpose is to threaten U.S. aircraft carriers. Our allies in the region are as worried about China’s militancy as they are about North Korea’s seeming psychotic rants, maybe more so.
Military experts are in virtual agreement that without a strong air and missile defense posture in the Western Pacific, the United States would find it extremely difficult to deter Chinese aggression. Beijing understands this. In fact, one reason they may be willing to continue to support the North Korean regime is in the hope that they can broker a grand bargain that would trade North Korean denuclearization for U.S. disarmament in the region. Secretary Kerry seems to have fallen into a potential Chinese trap.
More broadly, the offer to curtail U.S. missile defense deployments in the region makes no sense. Decades of experience trying to prevent both North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems should have made it abundantly clear to Secretary Kerry the impossibility of changing the drive by “crazy states” to acquire these capabilities. This leaves the U.S. with only two choices: deterrence and defense. The former is the historic solution but one that seems to be of uncertain value when it comes to the regimes in Pyongyang and Teheran. The latter at least gives the U.S. an option in the event of a deliberate first strike, miscalculation or even an accident.
The Obama Administration is determined to further reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal as it moves down the slippery slope to the mirage of Global Zero. There will come a point, soon I fear, at which the U.S strategic force posture will be reduced to such an extent that the result will be greater instability. At the very least, the credibility of the U.S. deterrent umbrella will be called into question. A robust theater and national air and missile defense posture can reassure allies, reduce first strike instabilities and enhance deterrence. Offering to give up this option makes no sense.
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