The U.S. may attack Iran or North Korea or both in May or June. War rhetoric is increasing. The arrival of extreme hawks John Bolton, the new national security adviser, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo signal a move toward war. Bolton advocates a preemptive strike against North Korea. What would be the diplomatic, political, economic and environmental consequences?
North Korea can inflict huge damage on South Korea, Japan and possibly us.
The talked-about meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un may never occur and the outcome of talks between two highly volatile men is impossible to predict. The price Kim will demand for abandoning nuclear weapons would likely be more than the U.S. would pay. Failed talks would provide the occasion to attack.
The U.S. argues that North Korea’s nuclear weapons threaten world peace. What makes ours legitimate, and the North’s not, is mystifying. No nuclear weapons are now legal. The U.N. outlawed them last year.
Kim will not give up his nuclear weapons unless everyone does. They are his only deterrent against what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi when they relinquished theirs. One hanged, the other shot in a ditch.
The war would begin with an air attack. Meanwhile, the North’s thousands of long-range artillery would devastate Seoul, causing some 500,000 casualties. They would likely invade the South, overrunning the comparative handful of U.S. troops there, while rocketing Japan and U.S. possessions in the Pacific, possibly with nuclear warheads.
The North’s nuclear weapons facilities are hardened and would probably require nuclear bombs. Also, the North may be able to rocket the West Coast with nuclear warheads. What the U.S. cited as the rationale for the attack — the dangers of nuclear war — would have been initiated by the U.S. attack.
If the U.S. goal is regime change, it would need to invade with a huge land army. Tried once before, it failed dramatically. North Korea is mountainous; territory is not easily taken but easily defended. A ground attack would result in massive destruction — a protracted war in an irradiated land. When the U.S. eventually tires of this, the North would probably take over the entire peninsula.
Fear of a nuclear attack would start panic and a mass exodus from cities in the Pacific Northwest. The president’s immediate popularity would collapse as the unwinnable war ate away at it. Eventually a successor government would arrange an armistice identical to the one now in place.
NATO would be fractured. It could mean the end of the U.N. as an effective force for peace. If the war went nuclear, condemnation of the U.S. would be universal. We would be isolated, without credibility, the universally despised, rogue bully state.
Would China come to the aid of the North as they did before? They do not want Korea unified under the U.S. or the North. Russia would surely take advantage of America’s distraction in some way detrimental to U.S. interests, possibly threatening the Baltic states.
South Korea, Japan, and our West Coast cities are heavily integrated into the global economy; a war could throw the world into a depression. The impact of detonating even a few dozen nuclear weapons, setting cities and forests on fire, would temporarily reverse global warming as a mini-nuclear winter set in. Result: major crop losses, food shortages, and a spike in prices putting many poor countries into revolutionary chaos. The health and environmental impacts of a wider nuclear war would be devastating.
The U.S. is party to a treaty with Russia, the UK, France, Germany, and China, in which Iran has agreed to end its nuclear weapons program. Trump has said he will “decertify” Iran in May, arguing that they are violating the agreement. None of the other parties believe Iran is in violation.
An airstrike to degrade Iran’s air defenses would be followed by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. These are largely underground and can’t be destroyed by conventional bombing. It is not impossible that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons, releasing deadly radiation and creating prompt radiation deaths and thousands of later cancers.
An attack would set off even wider war in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia would take advantage of any opportunity to diminish Iran’s position. Hezbollah might attack Israel as a diversion if Israel joins the U.S. bombing. Palestinians would rocket Israel. Turkey may escalate its attack on the Kurds.
An attack would end dissent in Iran as this extremely proud people coalesce around the defense of their country and their ancient civilization. There is no chance the U.S. would be seen as liberators. Iran would lose all trust in limitation treaties and would restart its nuclear weapons program, creating the outcome the treaty now avoids.
We may mount a ground invasion. Iran’s modern army would not prevail, but defeating it would cost tens of thousands of lives, destroying infrastructure and property. Past attempts at regime change have failed spectacularly, leaving behind chaos or regimes hostile to the U.S. A war would bring all the jihadis into Iran to fight the U.S., and would create thousands more worldwide. Terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western countries and citizens would escalate. Americans would become less safe, especially abroad.
The U.S. would be universally condemned and diplomatically isolated. Only Israel and Saudi Arabia would stand by us. It would become clear to North Korea that they cannot trust any agreement with the U.S.
A war would strengthen the hands of China and Russia, perhaps embolden them to some new aggression while the U.S. was further tied down in the Middle East, The U.N. General Assembly could condemn it, but the U.S. would ignore this, and given Bolton’s hostility, might use it as an excuse to withdraw from the U.N. Bolton despises.
Either attack would add to the national debt and disrupt world trade. Even if regime change succeeded, a long-term occupation by U.S. troops would drain our economy and result in more terrorism.
The U.S. military is the single-largest non-state emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. A war would add more carbon, worsening climate deterioration. High-performance aircraft require baths in highly toxic chemicals, which then wash off into the environment. If cities were attacked, more chemicals would be released.
The president’s popularity would rise, opponents will be harassed, press freedom restricted, and protests may trigger martial law. Attacks on Muslims would multiply, the alt-right will be strengthened, and the U.S. would move closer to fascism. Polarization would increase.
Perhaps these scenarios are just be the nightmares of an old man; the war talk just more of the bluster we are used to, more shock doctrine, a continuing distraction to cover up economic policies that strip out the middle class, hurt farmers, erode civil liberties and destroy the social safety net and hard-won environmental protections. Or it may be cynically designed to influence the mid-term elections, or all of the above.
Kent Shifferd is author of "From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years" and co-author of "A Global Security System." He holds a doctorate in European history and taught in higher education for many years. He was director of peace studies at Northland College in Ashland from 1968 to 1999, and a founder of the 21 campus consortium The Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. He lives in northwestern Wisconsin.
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