Why don’t they hit them first?

Occasional fisticuffs were unavoidable in the neighbourhood where I grew up. After a few useful if painful lessons, one usually grasped the cardinal rule of street fighting: get the first punch in and keep punching, especially when facing a known bully.

On the somewhat larger scale of global politics, this sort of thing is called ‘pre-emptive strike’, but the principle is the same: hit’em first and hit’em hard. Chances are the first strike will also be the last.

The strategic benefits of this approach were demonstrated most clearly by the Germans in the summer of 1941, when they beat the Soviets to the punch, wiped out the regular Red Army within a couple of months and almost succeeded in taking Moscow. This in spite of the Soviets’ seven-fold superiority in tanks (infinitely better ones than anything the Germans had at the time), five-fold superiority in warplanes and in (much better) artillery – to say nothing of their vastly greater numerical strength.

The USA enjoys not just a superiority but indeed supremacy over North Korea in firepower of every description and also in the quality, experience and training of its armed forces. Yet the Koreans are allowed to get away with their aggressive stance, threatening both American Pacific bases and South Korea, America’s ally. The first threat is probably perceived as being trivial: US antimissile defences should be able to negate it. The second threat isn’t just real but, considering that Seoul sits only 30 miles from the border, deadly.

Nevertheless, after their original tough response the Americans seem to be softening their position and making vaguely conciliatory noises. The reasons for this aren’t immediately clear, considering that the nature of North Korea’s deployment and the belligerent pronouncements of its leaders would have been justly regarded as casus belli at any point in history.

Moreover, dithering at this point may create a situation where a nuclear response would become the only one available. On the other hand, a powerful first strike with conventional weapons could probably reduce the North’s military capability to ruins, nipping war in the bud.

So back to the original question: why not strike first? Part of the reason may be the way the Americans approach such situations historically. The second Gulf war is the only one I can think of in which they attacked without either waiting for the other side to make the first move or provoking it into doing so.

The USA got into the First World War by openly assisting the Allies, especially Britain, while staying technically neutral. The House of Morgan floated British war loans, and a steady trans-Atlantic traffic in arms left the Germans no choice but to engage in submarine warfare (not that they needed much provoking). Eventually the Lusitania was sunk, and Woodrow ‘He-kept-us-out-of-the-war’ Wilson was able to swing the public and legislative opinion towards the war he craved.

The other day I commented on a similar stratagem used by Roosevelt to get America into the Second World War by provoking Japan into the raid on Pearl Harbour. And in the 1950s and ‘60s both the Korean and Vietnam wars were legitimate responses to communist aggression. So what’s going on now?

One explanation of American shilly-shallying could be the viscerally dovish nature of their socialist president who, in accord with his ideology, has to believe in the good nature of his fellow men, even those who aim ICBMs at his country.

Another reason may be that Americans trust their ironclad intelligence showing that North Korea isn’t really planning an attack. Instead it’s indulging in empty posturing designed to soften the sanctions against it.

I don’t know what exactly American intelligence services have done to deserve such trust. After all, their most recent coup was to provide incontrovertible evidence that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. I’d treat their information with a pound, as opposed to a mere grain, of salt, but I’m in no position to know for sure.

It’s also possible that America’s prolonged and ill-advised involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has sapped its will even to contemplate muscular action elsewhere.

Yet another possibility is that the Americans actually want a war to break out in earnest and escalate to a major, possibly nuclear, conflict. It’s conceivable that this is the only way they have of steering their economy out of its dire straits.

I don’t know which of the four guesses, and that’s all they can be, is true. All I know is how to act when being bullied in a bad neighbourhood. And the Far East, what with the North Korean sabre-rattling and growing tensions between China and Japan, is as rotten a neighbourhood as they come at the moment.

If America wants to prevent a major war, now is the time either to act or to pray that the communists don’t mean what they say. If America actually wants a war, God save us all.





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