(Captain's log): Yet another response to a reader letter which ended up becoming a post. In response to this post, David writes:
In reference to the suggestion from one of your readers for a first-strike nuclear attack against North Korea, not only is it abhorrent--it is preposterous. One of our ongoing problems in the post-Viet Nam era is the absence of national will to respond in a proportional manner to attack (failure to respond adequately to hostages in Teheran, failure to respond to killing of Marines in Lebanon, failure to respond to killing of troops in Somalia, failure to respond to attack on barracks in Saudi, failure to respond to attack on U. S. S. Cole, failure to respond to attack on embassies, etc.) Whether we have the national will to hold on in Iraq remains to be seen.
In the absence of the national will to respond adequately to attack the notion that we would engage in a massive first strike is simply preposterous. I believe that this manifest absence of national will calls into question our entire nuclear deterrence. If no one believes that we will actually engage in a massive response to an attack, it doesn't make much difference how many nukes we have.
The case of a response to a nuclear attack against us is not the same as the others. If we were attacked with nukes, the presumption is that it's all over anyway. In that case "national will" is no longer a factor because in fairly short order there won't be any nation left.
Despite what David says, nuclear deterrence did work during the Cold War precisely because the Soviets and Chinese did believe we'd launch a retaliatory strike, or at least believed that there was an intolerably high chance that we'd do so. The decision to "push the button" would not have been referred to the voters; it was a decision we collectively had already made and supported, and the specific power to carry it out had been given to the President.
Where we've gained the kind of reputation David talks about of lacking national will over the last 25 years has been in response to lesser provocations and attacks against us or our people.
Both political parties are equally culpable. We've been hearing a tired refrain over the last two years about "international law", but there are actually some kinds of international conventions and understandings which go back centuries, and one of those has to do with the inviolability of ambassadors and embassies. Technically speaking, the grounds of an embassy are sovereign territory of the embassy's home nation, and violation of that sovereignty is an act of war. But President Carter didn't respond that way when our embassy in Tehran was overrun, even though it soon became clear that the "militant students" who had done it were agents of the government.
Reagan is usually thought of as the least "wimpy" president we've had in the last thirty years, but he's the one who sent American troops into Beirut, who refused to let them set up adequate security perimeters because of the political message that would send, leading to the detonation of a suicide truck bomb next to a barracks building where some 300 US Marines died. And he's the one who then ordered our troops to retreat, and did not make any serious attempt to find and destroy those responsible for the attack.
The first President Bush led us to war in 1991 after Saddam overran Kuwait, but he also refused to crush Saddam, and ordered that our forces let large parts of the Iraqi army get away with all their arms and equipment.
Clinton continued the trend, and during the Clinton administration the WTC towers were attacked the first time. Clinton repeated the Beirut mistake in Somalia almost exactly, right down to the end. He was also at the helm for the USS Cole attack, the attacks against our two embassies in Africa, and the attack against the Khobar Towers.
On the other hand, we have to give Clinton credit for Yugoslavia, where the Serbs in particular had ignored years of threats. It was Clinton who finally had had enough and convinced the Europeans that diplomacy had failed and that military force was required. Clinton was the one who kept the bombing going until the Serbs in the "Yugoslav" government (distinct from the "Serbian" government, which also existed) finally gave up. By finally being willing to resort to military force, and by staying with it until it succeeded, Clinton finally managed to bring the Yugoslav civil war to an end. We have to give him credit for that. Unfortunately, that one case wasn't enough to counteract the lesson we taught our enemies all the other times about ourselves.
In all the other cases, we taught our enemies that in response to such attacks, Americans would either not retaliate at all, or would only make a half-hearted symbolic retaliation, would make a lot of angry speeches and would bluster a lot, and would then show a yellow streak and turn tail and run.
There's good reason to believe that one of the reasons we're now at war was because of our failure in those cases to demonstrate a deterrent, and it was to some extent a failure of the national will (though there's more to it than that). al Qaeda was responsible for the embassy attacks, the attack against USS Cole, was probably involved in the first WTC attack and may have been involved in the attack on the Khobar towers, and each time got away with it. Such retaliation as we did launch against them was s