Stop Comparing North Korea to Libya

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Marc Thiessen has more awful advice for Trump on North Korea:

Trump should make clear to both North Korea and China, absent an agreement, that sanctions will get tighter and military action is possible. And that means the “Libya model” is indeed on the table.

Thiessen’s “analysis” of why North Korea reacted so angrily to the “Libyan model” rhetoric is wrong as usual, but the more important thing that he misses is that North Korea today and Libya c. 2003-04 don’t have much in common except for their pariah status. North Korea’s government took offense from the Libya comparison above all because they found it demeaning to be likened to a government with a much less developed nuclear program. Inasmuch as North Korea’s government desires to be acknowledged as a nuclear-weapons state on par with the others, talking about them in the same breath with Libya was an insult as well as a threat.

Talking about military action against North Korea as though it were anything like bombing Libya in 2011 is also profoundly misleading and dangerous. Unlike Gaddafi’s Libya, North Korea is prepared and able to retaliate against an attack and could do enormous damage to South Korea and Japan and possibly to the U.S. as well. Attacking Libya was ill-advised, but attacking North Korea would be insane. Backing a rebellion against a relatively weak dictator with an air campaign is very different from initiating a war with a nuclear-armed state. Trump and Pence’s threats against North Korea over the last week were so alarming to American observers in part because neither of them seemed to grasp how much more destructive and disastrous war with North Korea would be than the 2011 intervention in Libya was. Intervention in Libya was a serious mistake, but war with North Korea would be a catastrophe, and pairing the two makes the latter seem easier and much less dangerous than it really is. Only ideologues and fanatics would keep insisting that there is a military option against North Korea.

Sanctions aren’t going to get any tighter than they have been. “Maximum pressure” was not what brought North Korea to the table anyway, and now that it has come to the table China and South Korea have little incentive to support increasing pressure. By blindsiding US allies and everyone else with his summit decision, Trump made it easier for other governments to ignore what he wants and he has reduced US influence with all of them. Thiessen was wrong last week when he said Trump had North Korea “cornered,” and he is wrong again that Trump can resume and intensify the pressure campaign.

The US still needs to lower its expectations and reduce its demands, and then maybe some compromise agreement could be worked out if the administration is prepared to accept one. The administration has to stop thinking of North Korea as another Libya in any way, and to do that they need to come to terms with the reality that North Korea isn’t going to agree to their maximalist demands.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.