Syria’s red line ought to be North Korea’s red line, too

The most ironic argument the administration has advanced to support the bombing of Syria is that it’s necessary to send a message of credible deterrence to North Korea, against its own use of weapons of mass destruction. There’s a lot to unpack there, so I’ll summarize my arguments first and expand on them below.

First, I agree that we (and many other nations) have a compelling interest in deterring the use of WMD. I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but using chemical weapons ought to be a red line. So should proliferating them.

Second, I have yet to hear a compelling case that a limited campaign of air strikes will do anything to achieve that interest or improve the situation on the ground in Syria.

Third, if there’s a reason the North Koreans question our credibility, it’s more likely to be the fact that North Korea’s own development, use, and proliferation of ballistic missiles, nuclear technology, and chemical weapons has elicited almost no response at all from our government, despite the fact that some of the non-military options in our arsenal have a hell of a lot more deterrent power than a few cruise missiles. And North Korea turns out to be a major supplier of all of these WMD technologies to Syria. Want to at least slow the use of chemical weapons in Syria? Cut off the source, by making it impossible for Syria to pay North Korea for them.

Because this is a blog about North Korea, I’ll take these points in inverse order.

I. North Korea’s Proliferation to Syria

The administration is saying today that there are links between the Syrian and North Korean chemical weapons programs. In fact, the evidence of North Korea’s proliferation to Syria is far more extensive than the administration is letting on. It goes back to at least the 1990s with North Korea’s sale of SCUD-C and other chemical-capable ballistic missiles, and runs right up through fresh reports that North Korea is assisting Assad with his chemical weapons program now. This one is sourced to the U.N. panel of experts overseeing North Korea sanctions:

They said the CW assets could have facilitated non-conventional weapons attacks against the Sunni revolt over the last two years, including one that killed at least 359 people near Damascus on Aug. 21.

Bruce Bechtol, a former U.S. intelligence analyst, said North Korea has increased weapons exports to Syria over the last year. Bechtol, who has long studied North Korea, said Pyongyang, motivated by profit, has built at least two CW facilities in Syria.

“North Koreans have been doing so much in the Middle East for so long,” Bechtol said. “It’s nothing new in Syria. It’s just stepped up. Their role has increased.”  [World Tribune]

The panel has produced a series of surprisingly (for the U.N.) detailed and hard-hitting reports about North Korean proliferation to Syria and other clients. Both the 2010 and 2013 reports have information about North Korea’s shipment of chemical weapons technology to Syria, and the 2013 report also has photographs of chemical protective suits and missile components North Korea was shipping to Syria. Greek authorities found about 13,000 of them, along with chemical-detection equipment, in transit from Nampo to Latakia, in 2009. The 2010 U.N. report contains information about a similar shipment intercepted in Busan, also in 2009.

Separately, another report from last week, citing Japan’s Sankei Shimbun, claims that Turkish authorities recently seized a shipment of gas masks, arms, and ammunition moving from North Korea to Syria via Turkey. (This particular report should be taken with a grain of salt, given Turkey’s support for the rebels and its poor relations with the Assad regime. It’s difficult to see how Syria would have thought it should ship such sensitive cargo overland, through the territory of a hostile neighbor. If this report is true, you’d think that the Obama Administration would have leaked a corroboration to the press by now.)

There have been other recent reports that North Korea is supplying Syria with chemical weapons technology and materiel, including vacuum dryers and “after-sales” service for the production of more chemical weapons.  North Korea also reportedly has advisors in Syria who are assisting Assad’s Army with logistics and the use of artillery.

In a sense, you could forgive the North Koreans for concluding that none of this is all that important to the United States. After all, they built a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert and got away with that. (The Israelis bombed it in 2007, just before it went online.) And what did the State Department do, you ask? Why, it hid the evidence from Congress, that’s what it did. It was afraid that if Congress found out about North Korea’s involvement in nuclear proliferation to a (then-fellow) state sponsor of terrorism, Congress would de-fund its disarmament deal with North Korea, which was then receiving a million tons of U.S. heavy fuel oil.

That would be the first occasion when bombing Syria did nothing to restore our credibility with North Korea. But there’s a longer pattern of our State Department overlooking North Korea’s chemical weapons program, starting with this:

You may recall the episode from several years ago, during the pendency of that same disarmament deal, when an obscure State Department official asked another obscure State Department official to “sacrifice a few adjectives” from its annual human rights report about North Korea, “for the cause.” The obscure State Department official who made that request is now our special envoy to the Six-Party Talks. You may not be willing to conclude from this that the policy of the State Department was to downplay North Korea’s atrocities and proliferation for the sake of appeasement, but I’m pretty sure I know that the North Koreans think.

I’m not saying we should have bombed North Korea for these things. Non-military options (short of full-scale war) would have been far more effective at curtailing and deterring this trade anyway. One symbolic, but important, option would be to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. The most effective option, however, would be to return to the kind of financial sanctions that have been devastating to North Korea’s palace economy. The administration could do (but hasn’t done) a lot of this with existing laws and executive orders–by declaring North Korea to be a “primary money laundering concern,” blocking all North Korean correspondent accounts in U.S. financial institutions, working with other concerned nations to block North Korea’s overseas slush funds, and blacklisting banks that conduct business transactions for North Korea. There’s a bill pending in Congress now (which I helped draft) that would make all of this much easier and more effective, and which would force the administration to use the authorities it has.

Unfortunately, experience has taught North Korea that it has nothing to fear from getting caught in the act of proliferation, so the North Korean chemical weapons program that was killing North Korean kids a decade ago is now being used by another tyrant to kill kids half a world away.

syria gas victims via

If North Korea and other rogue states now question our credibility, that may be why.

II. Terror Fills a Vacuum; Early Indecision Draws us Into War

Events in Syria have turned out just as I feared they would. The direct causes of this arise from the region’s dysfunctional political culture, but an indirect cause is the failure of secular societies to support to what was once a secular opposition movement, one that was once stubbornly reluctant to turn to violence, even as the shabbiha were sniping at crowds from rooftops. If we had nurtured a secular opposition in 2011, that opposition might have overthrown Assad, preempted the metastasis of Al Qaeda from Iraq, and not drawn us back into a new conflict next door. A takeover by a moderate opposition (I use the term advisedly) would not have transformed Syria into an earthly paradise or even democracy as we know it–the Middle East is not a land of binary options–but it would have been far better than any outcome that’s plausible today. In the end, the only way the situation in Syria can improve is if a relatively moderate opposition takes military control on the ground. Whether that’s still even possible is debatable, but if it is, achieving it will take far more time, cost, and blood than it had to.

I can’t see how air strikes would move us closer to that outcome. The delivery systems for Syria’s chemical weapons include aircraft, SCUDs, and hundreds of pieces of rocket and tube artillery. We’ve already signaled that we aren’t staying long enough to destroy them all, even if that were possible. The Syrian Air Force is the only one of these components that our military could effectively knock out from the air, but a likely result of destroying the Syrian Air Force–or the military’s command-and-control systems–would be to put more territory under the control of ascendant extremists allied to Al Qaeda. The President says the objective it isn’t regime change, which is good, because at this point, change would be for the worse. The most plausible idea I’ve heard yet is an aerial punitive expedition to destroy Assad’s palaces, but even this wouldn’t stop him from using chemical weapons, and in any event, I haven’t heard the President propose this.

So what is the objective? If the answer isn’t clear to U.S. military officers, it’s not clear to me, either.

III. Credibility and Deterrence

It gives me no confidence that liberal interventionists are driving the push for intervention. I often sympathize with liberal interventionists in the abstract, but I don’t trust them with the use of force. I especially distrust their tendency to be driven by emotion and lose their will to see a conflict through as soon as the conflict becomes harder than they’d expected, usually around D-Day plus three weeks.

Liberal interventionists were early backers, and early deserters, of the political coalition supporting intervention in Iraq, and whatever you may say about the decision to go in, President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq came at a time U.S. and Iraqi casualties were low and when the Iraqi government was consolidating its control and its legitimacy. Had we remained for two more years, Al Qaeda could not have metastasized from Iraq to Syria.

Like just about everyone else, after 9/11, liberal interventionists could see the U.S. interest in denying Al Qaeda a haven in Afghanistan. Obama couldn’t have killed Bin Laden or hit Al Qaeda’s field-grade command structure–the greatest, and perhaps the only, national security successes of his presidency–without the ability to base drones, air power, and special operations forces in Afghanistan. But by the end of President Obama’s first term, they were tired of Afghanistan, too. There are good questions to be asked about whether indigenous Afghan militias–as opposed to its national army–could keep Al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan, but I’m not seeing a case being made for that. I’m seeing an impulse to run away, an impulse that assumes that our problems there won’t follow us home. Which they would.

Recall, by the way, that I supported the Libya intervention, where the administration applied barely enough military force and political capital to achieve the best possible outcome (none of which should be read as a defense of how it handled the Benghazi disaster, or how it scapegoated speech protected by the First Amendment to appease mobs incited by terrorists). But Libya then was not like Syria now. Al Qaeda had a presence in Libya, but that presence never had a chance to become a dominant one, and Libya’s army was small, poorly disciplined, and easy to break. And in a region that, like I say, has few binary options, it’s hard to imagine any better outcome for Libya than the one Libya got (which, I realize, isn’t saying much).

Yes, it’s bad for America’s credibility when we set red lines and let thugs run across them. What’s worse is our current cycle of attack-and-retreat. Can we at least finish the things that directly affect our security before starting new projects that affect it indirectly? No regular reader of this site would call me a pacifist, but direct military force isn’t always the best way to enforce a red line. This might be one of those times.

Update:  As an afterthought, if I can summarize all of these complex problems into a few basic lessons this should teach us–a doctrine, if you will–it would be these:

1. The earlier you send your message of deterrence, the more likely you can say it with flowers instead of missiles.

2. Proliferation of WMD merits as serious a response as the use of WMD.

3. Never use force to do what non-forceful options can do.

4. Never use U.S. forces to do what indigenous forces can do.

5. If you do commit U.S. forces, commit them decisively, until your objectives are won.

6. A decisive commitment of U.S. forces requires a long-term investment of political capital to gain and hold domestic support.

There isn’t much here that’s really novel, but it’s clear to me that we haven’t learned these lessons.