Policy decisions are often a matter of choosing between different sets of problems. The reason Clinton decided not to react to North Korea’s removal of plutonium-laden fuel rods from the Yongbyon reactor in 1994 — the last point in time at which the North Korean program could have been interdicted with confidence — was the fear of a North Korean conventional retaliation. In terms of pure strategic analysis, it’s inconceivable that North Korea would have reacted to the destruction of a single building by launching a suicidal attack on the South, but the 12,000 North Korean conventional missiles trained on Seoul were able to focus the attention of U.S. commanders and of the White House. So Clinton, as was his fashion, decided that it was better to let his successors deal with a big mess than risk dealing with one himself.
Well, look at the mess. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and can detonate them at will just a few hours’ drive from an international border, and there isn’t a thing we can do about it. Even if we were willing to risk the chance of a North Korean nuclear retaliation against the South or against Japan (which we aren’t) we don’t know anything about the location of their stockpile of fissile material and warheads, so the program can no longer be interdicted. The window for effective self-defense against the North Korea nuclear threat opened and closed in 1994, on Clinton’s watch.
The Clinton administration appears to have seriously considered the use of force against North Korea only once, and rejected the option in that same meeting. It’s unbelievable, in retrospect, that a decision of such enormous consequence could have been taken with such little deliberation. If a regime as puny and as thoroughly criminal as North Korea’s could bluff the U.S. into accepting its nuclear breakout, what on earth was the U.S. going to do to prevent half the third world from acquiring nuclear weapons? The answer that emerged was “isolation.” But that is no punishment at all for regimes that need isolation in order to maintain their grip on power.
When Clinton allowed North Korea to break out of the nonproliferation regime, the nuclear genie was let out of the bottle. Iran saw what North Korea had been able to accomplish armed with little more than crazy talk, and lunged for nuclear weapons of its own. It only backed off this gambit briefly in 2003, when it seemed like a secret nuclear program was not the smartest thing for a terror-sponsor to be pursuing, but 2003 turned out to be a temporary blip in the long decline of America’s effective strategic deterrent. In 1994, the appearance of a single U.S. aircraft carrier 12 miles off your coast might have been a terrifying sight. Today, we cruise three aircraft carriers in plain sight off the Iranian coast — each of them much more powerful than the carriers of the Cold War, because of precision-strike — and the Iranians basically laugh at us.
Though our actual military power has continued to increase, deterrence is ultimately psychological, and nobody really believes any longer that we are willing to risk a fight in order to prevent anybody from going nuclear. Petty rogue regimes were afraid of us in 1994; no longer. I used to blame Clinton for this, but that’s sort of like blaming FDR for the neutralism of the 1930s. The simple fact is that a majority of Americans nowadays would rather get bluffed and pushed around by petty criminal regimes than lay down the law on what kind of world we want to live in. And it could take something more tangibly horrifying than a faraway underground nuclear test to make us snap out of it. But that thing could be closer than anybody realizes: The nuclear genie is out of the bottle.