war on the rocks

Entry 56: Bolton and Bad Strategery

March 1, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 56th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I was on a roll today, writing nearly 1,000 words in two hours in the morning.  After dinner I snuck in an additional 200 words.  It felt like I was in a groove in the morning, and might’ve banged out an additional 600 words if not for needing to cut it off to attend a meeting.

I also had an academic journal article come out today entitled “Why Not Bomb North Korea?”.  I wrote the first draft of it in 2016, but it’s never been more timely given all the talk of “bloody noses,” new threats of an unspecified escalatory “Phase 2,” and preparations for war.

Long before Trump, I was already grappling with the question of launching strikes against North Korea—the preemptive kind, the preventive kind, the covert kind, and the retaliatory kind.  Not because I’m morbid, but because it’s a hard ass problem and we’ve painted ourselves into a corner where nothing short of attack could achieve what we demand (denuclearization).  This isn’t a new problem as of the Trump administration; it’s just that the Trump team is handling it differently, and more poorly.

Anyway, I’ve spent years looking at every which way you can attack North Korea.  Preemptive strikes—a last-minute intervention to literally preempt an imminent North Korean attack—are almost impossible.  They’re legally defensible, but super rare.  The scenario just doesn’t ever present itself.  There’s only been one notable act of preemption in recent history, and it was in the 1960s.

Having said that, there are ways we can launch strikes against North Korea and still not end up in war, but not as a preventive strike.  The difference between preemption and prevention is the imminence of the threat.  It’s a legal difference, and it’s a strategic difference.  A preventive strike on North Korea would lead to North Korean retaliation every time; that’s what my new research says anyway.  A preemptive strike is something we might be able to get away with depending on the circumstances, but it has to be truly preemptive not to trigger a salvo of missiles in retaliation.

After spending so much time on this problem, I was kind of outraged that John Bolton—who never saw a problem that couldn’t be solved with a few bombs or a war—wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal yesterday making the legal case for attacking North Korea.

The whole thing was playing language games with war; very much a textbook asshole move.  Bolton has, for several months, been engaged in a process of trying to elide the difference between preemption and prevention when it comes to attacking North Korea.  Why?  So Trump can attack North Korea!  He’s quite plain about it; you can Youtube countless videos of him advocating one reckless action after another on North Korea.  In the Wall Street Journal piece, he claims “The threat is imminent…we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation.”

See what he did there—the threat is “imminent,” yet we can’t wait “until the very last minute?” He’s literally changing the definition of a crucial word.  That’s Orwellian.  That’s bad legalism.  Most importantly, it’s bad strategery.  Even if preventive attacks were legally justifiable, in the North Korea context, they’re instruments of mass destruction that achieve no positive purpose for the United States.

Thing about what would need to happen in U.S. discourse around North Korea in order for Trump to have the decision space to launch a war.  I could spell it out for you, but I might save it for an op-ed (assuming one of my friends doesn’t read this and beat me to it).  Hint: it’s been happening for months, and blurring the line between preemption and prevention is a crucial part of it.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.