President Obama had warned Kim Jong Il that should he launch a long-range ballistic missile the United States would "take appropriate steps to let North Korea know that it can’t threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity."
Last weekend, Kim went ahead with the launch anyway. Obama took the matter to the United Nations where, as expected, nothing happened.
The lesson — not just for the Dear Leader but also for Tehran and other regimes that regard themselves as global revolutionaries — is clear: "Yes you can — threaten the safety and security of other countries with impunity," warnings from the engaging, new American president notwithstanding.
Who is going to stop you? At the U.N., Russia, China and the Organization of the Islamic Conference now rule the roost. The Europeans — whose "leading role in the world," Obama lamented, Americans too often "fail to appreciate" — have been feckless in one crisis after another. Think of Bosnia, Kuwait, Rwanda, Darfur and, of course, Europe’s endless tango with Iran’s ruling mullahs. Has there been even one exception?
Obama is the third president in a row to have adopted the same policy toward North Korea. That policy boils down to talking, bribing and finger wagging — and being shocked and disappointed when Pyongyang continues to menace its neighbors and proliferate nuclear technology to rogue regimes.
Obama has added one twist: If America and Russia begin to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, he said in Europe, that would "give us a greater moral authority to say to Iran, don’t develop a nuclear weapon; to say to North Korea, don’t proliferate nuclear weapons."
Can anyone really think what’s needed now is to change the perception that Kim Jong Il and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have of America’s "moral authority"? More to the point: Can anyone seriously believe they will be more cooperative — rather than more aggressive — if we respond to what President Obama called a "provocative" act by disarming?
A thought experiment: Suppose North Korea’s Taepo Dong-2 missile had been launched — and then knocked out of the sky by an American, Japanese or South Korean missile defense system.
Kim would have been hopping mad. The Russians, Chinese, Iranians, Syrians and others would have said we had "no legal authority" to break Kim’s rocket, and they might well have organized an expression of U.N. disapproval — which probably would have contained stronger language than any letter Kim is likely to find in his mail box.
But then they all might have given some hard thought to whether it makes sense to devote time and resources to developing nuclear weapons and missile systems that the United States and its allies will have the resolve and the ability to neutralize.
In fact, the United States and Japan did have Aegis destroyers tracking the North Korean missile. Some of those ships carried missile interceptors that could have brought down the North Korean missile. A decision was made not to do so.
One can argue that was a prudent decision. But how can one make the case for the Obama administration’s plan to cut $1.4 billion from America’s missile defense programs? Six senators, Republicans and Democrats, have sent a letter to the president saying such "deep cuts" could "undermine our emerging missile defense capabilities to protect the United States against a growing threat."
In other words, the lesson of North Korea’s rogue launch is that America needs more missile defense not less. Militarily and technologically, our adversaries can catch up with us only if we choose to stand still. Why would we do that? And why are only half a dozen senators worked up about it?
Defending American lives and the American homeland is the first duty of every administration. North Korea and Iran are developing capabilities with which to threaten, intimidate and possibly attack the United States and its allies. An integrated, multi-layered missile defense system would help frustrate their ambitions.
Should we not, at the least, have a vigorous debate before we decide to forego such protections?
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)