If the Trump administration is really thinking about trying to give North Korea a “bloody nose” with a limited military attack, it should look carefully at Israel’s experience — which shows the possible benefits of a quick strike but also the difficulty of keeping a lid on a conflict once it starts.
Discussions with Israelis at a conference here reinforced the value of deterrence but also offered some basic lessons: If you’re going to try a quick hit, don’t talk about it; don’t strike unless you have very good intelligence about your targets; and don’t assume that your adversary won’t drag you into a long, bloody war.
All three negatives complicate any plans to strike North Korea. Trump keeps advertising his eagerness to attack “Little Rocket Man,” as he calls Kim Jong Un. American intelligence about North Korea is imperfect, to put it mildly. And it’s entirely possible (some say likely) that North Korea would retaliate hard, rather than absorb a U.S. strike.
There’s one final, essential point: Unlike any of the adversaries that Israel has attacked, North Korea has nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration’s consideration of a limited strike was described in a Post op-ed Wednesday by Victor Cha, whose nomination to be ambassador to South Korea was shelved after he privately expressed doubts about the bloody-nose strategy. His article was much discussed at the annual gathering here of the Institute for National Security Studies.
Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence who now heads the institute, argued that if the CIA has good intelligence about what to hit, the U.S. Air Force can destroy anything it wants. But speaking on the same panel, Michèle Flournoy, a former U.S. undersecretary of defense, warned that North Korea has scattered its stockpile of nuclear weapons and buried some deep underground. That means a quick, supposedly surgical American attack would almost certainly still leave North Korea with a potent arsenal for a counterattack.
Israel probably knows more about deterrence than any other country. For 70 years, its survival has depended on the credibility of its willingness to use force, and to preempt adversaries if necessary. Often this hard-nosed approach has succeeded in preventing wars or keeping them short. But it has sometimes meant protracted, costly conflicts that left Israel weary and its adversaries plotting the next round.
Yadlin embodies the doctrine of preemptive attack. As a fighter pilot, he led the 1981 raid that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. This strike came before the reactor was operational, and it blocked one Iraqi path toward nuclear weapons. But after receiving this big punch in the nose, Baghdad embarked on a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Israeli raids on Syria show the importance of keeping quiet if you want to avoid reprisals. After bombing a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Israel didn’t take credit — hoping to avoid a public humiliation of President Bashar al-Assad that would increase the likelihood he would retaliate. Unfortunately, Trump’s trash-talking against Kim has made this low-key approach almost impossible.
Israel’s wars in Gaza and Lebanon show that deterrence isn’t permanent, and that hopes for short, punitive military actions can prove illusory. Since the terrorist Hamas organization took power, Israel has fought three costly wars in Gaza, in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014. The Hamas threat has been checked but not destroyed.
To combat the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982. The 1982 assault eventually drove the PLO from Lebanon. But amid the rubble, Iran helped spawn the Hezbollah militia, a more disciplined and potentially deadly adversary. Israel attacked Hezbollah in 1993, 1996 and 2006. The last campaign rained so much destruction on Lebanon that it seemed to accomplish its goal of deterrence. But thousands of Hezbollah missiles remain pointed at Israel.
In 1982, I watched the Israeli army sweep toward Beirut with devastating speed, only to get bogged down in a summer-long siege. A year later, when the war had gone sour, I visited Jerusalem to interview Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But Yehiel Kadishai, his closest aide, waved me off. Because of heavy casualties in Lebanon, he said, “there is a deep sadness in his heart.”
That’s the image of war that any commander in chief must consider: not the hope that it will be a glorious success but the risk that it will come at a ruinous cost.
Trump rightly wants to deter North Korea, but he should be wary about betting on a short, quick attack. As a top Israeli military official told the INSS conference, “The battlefield is the kingdom of uncertainty.”
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