The US-NATO intervention and fall of Qaddafi in Libya sent this troubling message to the world: Get a nuclear weapon, and you can stick around. Give it up, and you’re gone. It's time to offer states real security guarantees for disarmament and disavow the nuclear double standard.
As pundits contemplate the lessons that other states may take away from this undertaking, it may surprise one to learn that perhaps the shrewdest of those pundits has been none other than the "volatile," "unpredictable," and "irrational" leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il.
Just days after NATO commenced its "enforcement" of a UN-authorized "no-fly zone" by launching cruise missiles directly at Mr. Qaddafi's house, Mr. Kim immediately grasped the implications for his own state – and any others that might someday find themselves in the cross hairs of the West. In comments released this spring, an anonymous North Korean Foreign Ministry official stated that "The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson."
Qaddafi should have held on to his nuclear weapons program.
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If Libya had possessed the capability, oh, to obliterate a major American military base in Italy, or to vaporize an entire American "carrier battle group" off the southern coast of France, it almost certainly would have dissuaded Washington (not to mention Rome and Paris) from military action. If the Libyan regime wanted to ensure its own survival, then, just like North Korea, it should have developed a nuclear deterrent – small, survivable, and just lethal enough to inflict unacceptable damage on any aggressor.
But instead, Qaddafi was seduced by the siren song of the West. Give up your weapons of mass destruction, they said, and we will welcome you into the international community. Libya did, in late 2003.
And in retrospect, said the North Korean official, it was now clear that this had been, by the West, no less than “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.” Because as soon as the now-defanged Qaddafi took actions that displeased Libya's Western overlords, the mighty military hammer of the developed world came thundering down upon him.
It is inconceivable, of course, that Libyan rebel forces could have come close to succeeding without the punishing air assault directed at the regime in Tripoli. (Indeed, the tipping point in retrospect seems to have been Washington’s decision in August to double the number of its Predator drone sorties.)
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No such fate awaits North’s Korea’s Kim. Volatile, irresponsible, and loathsome though his regime, he holds in his hands the royal flush of a nuclear deterrent. He already possesses the capability to obliterate a major American military base in South Korea, or to vaporize an entire American "carrier battle group" in the Sea of Japan.
In this age of overwhelming American military superiority, no state can hope to defend itself against the great leviathan – to stop its missiles from hitting its targets, or to shoot its planes out of the sky. But a state can deter that leviathan from ever launching such attacks in the first place, by acquiring nuclear weapons.
When was the last time you heard anyone talk about a "no fly zone," or Predator drone sorties, or any other kind of Western military action directed at North Korea?
This is not to say that Qaddafi was without sin. Both Libya and the rest of the world are well rid of him. But whatever one thinks of Qaddafi’s reign, his removal by NATO and the rebels has likely hastened a journey toward a world not of nine, but a dozen, or 19, or 29 nuclear-armed nations.
And what will the odds be then, in that world, of forever avoiding nuclear terror, or accidental nuclear launches, or nuclear crisis mismanagement, or nuclear war?
The only way to dissuade these many other states from the nuclear temptation is to offer them real security guarantees (rather than the bait and switch that was presented to Libya). The international community, led by the West, must build and abide by a genuine world rule of law. (This would be in contrast to the monstrous canard of transforming the newly emerging principle of an international “responsibility to protect” vulnerable civilians into a devastating air campaign directed plainly at toppling the Libyan regime.)
And most important, the West must explicitly disavow the hypocrisy of the nuclear double standard – where some countries profess their intent to hold on to nuclear weapons for decades to come (or even centuries, according to Secretary of State Clinton), while other states are told they cannot possess a single one.
Until the West adopts such enlightened foreign policies, Kim just might be considered the greatest sage on the world stage today. What now would you recommend, if you were a defense planner for the state of Iran? What now would you do, if you were among the leadership cadre of Venezuela, or Zimbabwe, or Burma, or one of many other states that might someday annoy Washington?
What now would you hold on to, at any cost, if you were Kim?