The North Korean missile has the range to reach at least Hawaii or Alaska, an extremely uncomfortable fact given that Pyongyang is famously erratic and probably nuclear-armed. If launched, the missile would be unlikely to hit U.S. territory and unlikelier still to have something nasty on top. But the test itself — a step toward an even better-developed North Korean capacity to hit us — is alarming enough that two top Clinton-administration defense officials advocate a pre-emptive U.S. strike against the launch site, in what would be an act of war against a sovereign state.
This is the advent of the world that missile defense was designed to address. Reportedly, the Bush administration has switched the U.S. system, which includes 11 ground-based interceptors at sites in Alaska and California, from test to operational mode. If a North Korean test launch were to stray within its performance envelope, the system could be used to attempt to knock it out.
All of this should put to rest the canard about missile defense being "destabilizing." That was the charge made against the system when Bush first pursued it a few years ago, a charge based on outdated, abstruse Cold War arms-control theories that didn't even make sense at the time. Missile defense is clearly a stabilizing force, insofar as it gives an option to respond to North Korea short of a pre-emptive attack that could prompt a conflagration on the Korean peninsula.
Why do we need missile defense, critics ask, when we can use deterrence against threats like North Korea's? It is passing strange that liberals should want our only option in the event of a nuclear missile attack from North Korea or another rogue state to be absorbing the blow, then annihilating the offending country. And they complain about civilian casualties in Iraq?
The possibility of a missile-defense intercept itself plays an important role in deterrence. If a Kim Jong-il knows that a launch against the U.S. might not even succeed but risks calling down a devastating response, he would be that much less likely to try in the first place. Just as importantly, by rendering his nuclear arsenal less reliable, missile defense limits Kim's ability to deter and/or coerce the U.S. (from attacking him in the first instance and into giving him aid in the second).
In any case, deterrence is not the magically foolproof force in international relations that its supporters assume. It depends on understanding and correctly signaling an adversary, and on that adversary behaving reasonably — none of which is guaranteed. We warned Saddam Hussein against invading Kuwait prior to the first Gulf War, but he misunderstood us. Back in 1941, Dean Acheson declared, "No rational Japanese could believe an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country." He was right, but from the (not entirely reasonable) Japanese perspective, the enormous risk seemed worth it. Even in the Cold War, deterrence nearly failed during the Cuban missile crisis.
Missile defense isn't a guaranteed success either, of course, but the system should be steadily upgraded so that its odds improve. The Republican House just cut the Bush administration's request for interceptors from 50 to 41 and axed funding for a third interceptor site to be based in Europe and geared toward the emerging Iranian threat. Instead, Republicans should be getting as many interceptors into the ground as soon as possible and also pursuing the promising airborne laser technology designed to zap enemy missiles when they are in their vulnerable boost phase (and far away from U.S. or allied territory).
The new world is upon us, fueled up and ready to go at a launch site in northeast North Korea. It only gets more frightening from here.