John Bolton’s Extremely Poor Arguments for Attacking N. Korea

John Bolton wants the U.S. to attack N. Korea. He has several arguments in favor of this. Each one is superficially plausible, but each one is also nonsensical or unsupported when analyzed.

His first argument is that N. Korea is jeopardizing the U.S., South Korea and Japan, and since diplomacy has not altered their development of weapons, a U.S. attack on N. Korea is the only option left. Let’s leave aside the history of diplomatic failure. It’s irrelevant to his basic argument, which goes like this. State X is developing weapons, and State Y thinks that they create a risk of loss or harm, or maybe there is indeed an enhanced risk of loss or harm. This distinction doesn’t matter. Bolton’s proposition is that therefore, State Y is entitled to attack State X (or to secure the help of an ally, State Z, in attacking State X).

What’s faulty about this conclusion? Since every state is always weaponized, devoting resources to weapons, and always developing weapons, or buying new weapons from others, every state in the world poses a risk of loss or harm to its neighbors or to distant countries if it has an air force, a navy or missiles, or is in league with another state that has these weapons. States all over the world are in fact jeopardizing many other states. There are all sorts of X, Y and Z combinations elsewhere. Does Bolton counsel war everywhere and always? Bolton’s contention is that these states are all entitled to be attacking one another in order to remove the risk of harm and end the jeopardy. In Bolton’s view, all armaments in possession of any state justify attacks by other states and vice versa. In his reasoning, there never can be peace, unless all states disarm. Yet Bolton claims to seek peace on a one-sided basis. The U.S. will maintain huge armaments and forcibly disarm N. Korea. What he’s actually proposing, hidden inside the notion of attacking N. Korea, is rule by force of U.S. arms of as much of the planet as the U.S. can get away with.

The only way to avoid these conclusions is for states to evaluate the intentions of other states. Is a state preparing to make an attack, so that the risk is clear and imminent? Or is a state building weapons as a defensive measure?

Bolton could conceivably support his case if N. Korea intended to attack the U.S. or S. Korea, but it hasn’t signaled that intention. Bolton has provided no such argument or evaluation. The fact is that it makes no sense for N. Korea to attack the U.S. and S. Korea because the retaliation would be so severe and destroy the N. Korean regime. The aims of N. Korea are in entirely other directions, such as being recognized as a world power and nuclear power and defending the regime by not making the same mistake as Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Bolton has a second argument, but it’s not different in essence than his first argument. It only lists a number of risks of harm:

“They could sell these weapons, ballistic missiles and the nuclear devices themselves to Iran in a heartbeat. North Korea can sell these devices to terrorist groups around the world; they could be used as electromagnetic pulse weapons (EMPs), not necessarily hitting targets, but destroying our electric grid’s capabilities.”

The same counter-arguments apply as above. States all over the world can ship weapons all over the place, and they do. If we follow Bolton’s argument, it means that any state can attack any other state that is shipping arms, or that is directly intervening in similar ways by introducing weaponry and other means of war. The U.S. is one of these weapons-shipping states, the largest in the world. The U.S. sold enormous amounts of weaponry, for example, to Saudi Arabia, which then proceeded to attack Yemen, an attack that also has the direct support of the U.S.

Under Bolton’s argument, Saudi Arabia as recipient of arms from the U.S. (in fact) is analogous to Iran as recipient from N. Korea (as a possibility). According to Bolton, this means that other countries who may regard Saudi Arabia as jeopardizing its security are entitled to attack it and its supplier, the U.S.

The only way out of these traps for Bolton’s argument is to assert that the U.S. is the exceptional good guy with pure motives and that N. Korea is the clear bad guy with evil motives. This is another poor argument, because it’s simply an assertion and a circular one at that. It amounts to saying “We have a right to attack because we’re in the right.” Who says the U.S. is in the right? The U.S. does. But what if other states assert that they’re right in other kinds of dangerous situations and that their assertions justify their making attacks? Clearly we cannot operate peacefully if everyone is allowed to aggress upon everyone else on their own say-so. We need some objective or more objective moral guidelines. Bolton has not supported his recommendation morally, but it’s incumbent upon Bolton and others who want to attack N. Korea to make their case morally because such an attack is going to kill and wound very large numbers of Koreans on both sides and American forces too.


11:47 am on September 4, 2017