By Kent D. Shifferd, April 9, 2018.
There is a good chance that the U.S. will attack either Iran or North Korea or both in May or June. The Administration has been increasing its war rhetoric. The appointments of the extreme hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, signal a move toward war. Bolton has already said he wants a preemptive strike against North Korea. When combined with the views of Vice President Mike Pence, another virulent anti-Muslim, and President Trump’s well-known brinksmanship rhetoric and extreme volatility, we are in a precarious situation.
While we cannot predict the future, it is always wise to look ahead dispassionately, asking “If we do this, what then would be the likely consequences? It’s the tested principle of contingency planning.
In the event of one or both of these wars, what are the likely play-out scenarios? How will the rest of the world react? What will be the environmental consequences, the impact on the U.S. and global economies? What will international business do? Note that both strikes would be a violation of international law and the UN Charter that prohibits aggression. That, however, will not likely deter the war hawks. Bolton has only contempt for the UN and believes that the U.S. would be treated as liberators, a mistake he made in promoting the Iraq War.
An Attack On North Korea
Attacking North Korea would be a great catastrophe given the ability to inflict huge damage on our allies, South Korea and Japan, and possibly on the U.S. itself.
While there is some talk of a meeting between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong Un, and Un has used the term “denuclearization”, it may never occur. At any rate, the outcome of such talks between two highly volatile men is impossible to predict. Even in the best case scenario, the price Kim would demand for abandoning his nuclear weapons would very likely be more than the U.S. would be willing to pay. A failed negotiation would provide the occasion to attack.
The U.S. argues that North Korea has an “illegitimate” nuclear weapons program and therefore is a threat to world peace. What makes the nuclear weapons of the U.S., France, Great Britain, Israel, Pakistan and India legitimate, and North Korea’s not so, is mystifying. The U.S. says North Korea might actually use them, but the U.S. is the only nation that has ever actually used them and it has threatened to use them many times in the past. In fact, no nuclear weapons are now legal. The United Nations outlawed all nuclear weapons last year, but the U.S., France and Great Britain contemptuously dismissed the action of the 122 nations that support the ban.
Kim Jong Un will not give up his nuclear weapons unless everyone else does. He knows they are the only deterrent against what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi when they relinquished theirs. He will rather go down fighting than end up being hanged or shot in a ditch.
Military Events and Consequences: The war would begin with a massive air attack to degrade the North’s air defenses. Most analysts say this would take a week or more. Meanwhile the North, which has thousands of long range artillery in hardened sites on the border with South Korea and in striking distance of Seoul, would devastate that city causing an estimated 500,000 deaths. The North, which has a large, modern, disciplined army would also likely invade the South, overrunning the comparative handful of U.S. troops there. At the same time the North would probably carry out its credible threats to rocket Japan and U.S. possessions in the Pacific, a strategy of which it is demonstrably capable. Such an attack could very well be nuclear.
Once the North’s air defenses were destroyed, the U.S. would attack their nuclear weapons facilities. These are in hardened sites and would probably require nuclear bombs. Also, the North Koreans might be able to make good on their promise to attack the West Coast of the U.S. with nuclear warheads on ICBMs. The very thing the U.S. cited as the rationale for the war, the dangers of nuclear war, would have been brought into being by U.S. actions.
If the real goal of the U.S. is regime change, it would have to invade with a huge land army. That was tried once before and failed dramatically. North Korea is a mountainous country where territory is not easily taken but is easily defended. In general, such an attack would result in the total destruction of the peninsula as it did last time. Very likely the U.S. would become involved in a protracted war in an irradiated land. If the U.S. finally decided it had no stomach for this, the North would probably take over the entire peninsula– Korean unification under Kim Jong Un.
Immediate Impact in the U.S. Very high probability of panic and mass exodus from cities in the Pacific Northwest as the result of a fear of nuclear attack. This would have enormous economic consequences to be examined shortly.
At the same time the President’s popularity would quickly rise for a time, until the prolonged and unwinnable war ate away at it. Eventually the war party would be voted out of office, leaving a successor government to clean up the mess, probably by arranging an armistice identical to the one now in place.
Diplomatic Impacts Most nations of the world would condemn such an aggression as a violation of the Korean War Armistice agreement and the UN Charter. It would really mean the end of the United Nations as an effective force for peace, taking us back to pre-World War I global anarchy. If the war went nuclear, as is likely, condemnation of the U.S. would be universal and we would be isolated in the world, lose all credibility as a keeper of agreements, and all influence—the universally despised, global rogue bully State. NATO would be fractured.
Would China come to the aid of the North again as they did in the Korean War? They have made it clear they do not want to see a Korea unified under U.S. tutelage or under the North. They want the status quo. The Russians would surely take advantage of America’s distraction in some way detrimental to U.S. interests and world peace, possibly invading the Baltic States and thereby starting a U.S.–Russian war, which is to say World War III. Other States would be similarly emboldened.
Economic and Environmental Impacts: Since South Korea, Japan, and the West Coast cities of the U.S. are heavily integrated into the global economy, the impacts on global trade would be severe, throwing the world into a Depression. And if the war goes nuclear, all bets for the world economy are off. The impact of even a few dozen nuclear weapons detonating and setting cities and surrounding forests on fire would temporarily reverse global warming as a mini-nuclear winter set in. Models of this situation predict major crop and herd losses and food shortages resulting in a spike in grain prices that would put many poor countries into revolutionary chaos as happened when droughts caused similar events that helped precipitate the Arab Spring. Of course the health and environmental impacts of a wider nuclear war would be devastating.
An Attack On Iran
The Excuse: The U.S. is part of a multi-lateral agreement including Russia, the UK, France, Germany, and China, in which Iran has agreed to end its nuclear weapons program. President Trump has said he will “decertify” Iran in May, arguing that they are not keeping to the agreement. None of the other parties believe this to be the case.
Military Events: An attack would begin with an air strike using Cruise missiles and fighter bombers aimed at degrading Iran’s air defense system. Once that is accomplished, they will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Military Consequences: It is very likely that the air defenses will be degraded sufficiently to allow the second phase to take place. However, much of Iran’s nuclear facilities are underground and can’t be destroyed by conventional bombing. Many people will die. It is not likely, though not impossible, that the U.S. will use nuclear weapons as they have already threatened to do in the current U.S. defense operations plan, but it is a possibility and would release atomic radiation into the atmosphere creating prompt deaths from radiation and an unknown number of cancers down the line.
An attack may set off even wider war in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as its chief rival in the region and will take advantage of any opportunity to diminish Iran’s strength and influence. Hezbollah, a militia group allied to Iran and headquartered in Lebanon, might attack Israel as a diversion in the event that Israel joins the U.S. bombing. Israel has bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in the past. Turkey has already attacked Kurdish forces in Syria and might well escalate that conflict. Meanwhile, Turkey and Greece are trading increasingly volatile, war-like rhetoric of their own. The U.S. will not be able to influence Turkey. A war between those two would fracture NATO.
Political Impact In Iran An attack will end dissent in Iran and greatly strengthen solidarity 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 very outcome the treaty avoids.
Possible Path I After bombing, the U.S. will claim victory and end the war.
Possible Path II The U.S. will realize it cannot achieve its goal without controlling the government of Iran and will attempt regime change. Therefore they will mount a ground invasion accompanied by heavy bombing as in the Iraq War. Iran possesses a modern army and while it would not prevail, defeating it would be extremely costly. Tens of thousands of lives would be lost accompanied by a great destruction of infrastructure and property. Past attempts at regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Somalia have failed spectacularly, leaving behind chaos or regimes hostile to the U.S.
Impact on the Islamic World: A war would bring all the jihadis into Iran to fight the U.S., and would create many more world-wide. Terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western Countries and citizens would escalate. Americans would become less safe, especially traveling abroad.
Diplomatic Impacts: The U.S. would be condemned by nearly all nations in the world and would be diplomatically isolated. Only Israel and Saudi Arabia will stand by the U.S. It will become clear to North Korea and the rest of the world that they cannot trust any agreement with the U.S. The U.S. will lose whatever remaining credibility and good will it still has. Such a war would strengthen the hands of China and Russia, perhaps even embolden them to some sort of action while the U.S. is tied down in yet another war in the Middle East, for example a Russian seizure of the Ukraine or an Israeli annexation of the West Bank. It would also embolden other States to employ unlawful aggression to achieve their own ends, especially Turkey. The UN Security Council would be powerless to oppose an attack because of the U.S. veto. However the General Assembly could act to condemn it under the provisions in the Charter that give it power to act when they think the Security Council has failed to protect the peace. The U.S. would ignore this, and given Bolton’s hostility to the organization might even use it as an excuse to withdraw from the U.N.
Economic Impacts: Either attack will add to the national debt. Weapons manufacturers will profit and become more powerful as lobbyists in D.C. It is hard to say what big business will do, since it has escaped the control of nation states. The controlling elites will probably hide out until it’s over and then see how they can make money out of the situation. There will be some disruption of world trade.
Environmental Impacts: The U.S. military is already the single largest non-State emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, larger even than many nation states. Sending carrier task forces and the bombing sorties of the planes will add considerably more carbon, worsening climate deterioration, as will the burning of infrastructure set on fire by the bombing. Additionally, the high performance aircraft require baths in highly toxic chemicals which then washes off into the environment. If cities are attacked, their load of stored chemicals will be released to some extent as well.
Political and Cultural Impacts At Home Initially the President’s popularity will go up. Opponents will be harassed. Freedom of the press will be restricted. Worst case–if there is a large protest, the President will consider invoking martial law. Attacks on Muslims will multiply dramatically. The Alt Right will be strengthened and the U.S. move closer to fascism. Polarization will increase.
Long Term Impacts: In the unlikely event that regime change succeeds, long term occupation of Iran by U.S. troops as in Europe after WWII and in Afghanistan currently, with all the consequences for economic drain, terrorism, and further militarization of American society.
Either one of these wars would be a disaster for the U.S. and the world, although the Korean adventure would be the worse of the two by far. Of course, these wars and scenarios I have sketched may just be the nightmares of an old man. The war talk may be just more of the same bluster and big talk we have become used to from the Administration. More cynically, it may be just more shock doctrine, a continuing distraction to cover up enacting economic policies that strip out the middle class, hurt farmers, erode civil liberties and destroy both 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.