The Magazine

North Korea Goes South

ADVANCE COPY from the January 20, 2003 issue: The crisis in North Korea and the collapse of the two-war standard.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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What is amazing, and depressing, is that the strategic predicament in which the United States currently finds itself--with simultaneous crises in the Persian Gulf and on the Korean peninsula--is precisely the one everyone imagined could arise. From the end of the first Bush administration through the Clinton era, our military posture was supposedly based on a "two-war" standard, derived from the evident possibility that crises in the Persian Gulf and in Korea could erupt simultaneously. The only problem was, successive administrations, Republican and Democratic, and successive Congresses, led by Republicans and Democrats, refused to provide our military the funds necessary to be ready to fight two wars simultaneously. Throughout the 1990s political support for defense spending was scant. What political will existed was undermined, in part, by a coterie of defense experts who counseled starving the Pentagon even further to force it to carry out a "revolution in military affairs"--to cut force levels and eliminate weapons systems. They argued that the present era was a time of "strategic pause," that the United States faced a period of about 20 years when no threat would require large-scale military action. Not a very sound prediction, as it turned out.

Even the present administration has largely failed to address the problem. The proposed defense budget increase this year is a pitiful $14 billion. The administration is using its political capital to propose hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts. Surely we can afford the necessary tens of billions for defense. After all, whatever the merits of the tax package, what's really bad for the economy is collapsing international security.

It's not just military capacity this nation lacks right now, however. It's an adequate sense of the seriousness of the present world crisis. It seems odd to suggest, after September 11, 2001, that the United States has still not awakened to the real challenges of this dangerous era. But we fear that is the truth. Right now not just the administration but Congress and the foreign policy establishment and the nation are all having great difficulty managing two crises at once. But it is entirely possible that we haven't seen the end of troubles. There have been periods in the past when the world was confronted by multiplying crises--the 1930s, for instance, when every year seemed to bring fresh aggression from the "rogue" states of that era, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Today it is just as easy to imagine new crises--involving Iran, India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan--as it was to imagine the present confrontations with Iraq and North Korea. Are we ready? The answer, we're afraid, is no.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol