It's not an easy choice.

 
We're hearing Trump supporters blaming previous Presidents for giving in to North Korea, and Iran, and letting those countries develop what they wanted without using an overwhelming military advantage to end their dangerous aspirations.
 
For Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, the intention may have been delay, to get the bad stuff off the table during their presidencies, and leave predecessors to deal with what came next.
 
However, the realities are seldom as simple as judged by hindsight, or by critics who have not pondered the realities as they existed.
 
For years North Korea has threatened the South with hundreds or thousands of conventional artillery pieces, within range of the Seoul metropolitan area with its more than 10 million people. 
 
Iran learned from Israeli attacks on the Iraq nuclear facility, and put its R&D deep underground and in several locations. 
 
Would a US preemptive attack on North Korea at this time be worth the upset in international relations, capable of rippling out to Russia and China? And would a US preemptive strike succeed in its mission, without producing at least an artillery attack on Seoul that did great damage and killed thousands?
 
Who knows, for sure?
 
Elite military units are highly trained, but even they may fail in overcoming opposition. When a major operation involves numerous units, the chances of mishap are greater.
 
Appeasement is a dirty word, thanks mostly to Neville Chamberlain, but it buys time that might produce a benign, if tense, situation that lasts for who knows how long. 
 
So far, so good is an acceptable judgment. 
 
Not for those who want final solutions, but Jews should know better.
 
Israelis weigh the value of threats from Iranian leaders, who do no great harm to Iran's 10,000 or so Jews. Israel has chosen to avoid a massive attack, let Shiite-Sunni warfare wear down Iranian extremists, do what Israel can accomplish in international politics amidst countries that want to sell things to Iran.
 
Over the years my substantial contacts with South Koreans lead me to believe that they'd rather live with threat from the North than endure the damage to a thriving economy and the deaths that would be involved in solving their problem or having the US try to solve it. 
 
Us outsiders (if there are any outsiders in the possibility of warfare that may spread far beyond initial attacks) can wonder if Donald Trump is any more concerned about causing death to Koreans than George W. Bush was concerned about causing death to Iraqis. Currently the estimates are well above a million, traced to Bush's destruction of the Iraqi regime, along with whatever US action in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to wider instability and a flood of refugees.
 
Should we blame Obama for appeasing Syria on chemical weapons, rather than going up against the alliance of Syria, Russia, and Iran?
 
There's no good decision.
 
It's at this point that I would tell my students that--inherent in politics--is the likelihood that every day we all must eat a bit of sh*t.
 
America's moments of military involvement since World War II have been mixed, with a tilt toward failure. 
 
Korea ended with the status quo ante, after the Chinese ended the career of Douglas MacArthur and the lives of many American soldiers

However, after 20 years or more of a harsh dictatorship, poverty, whores and the export of babies, South Korea became one of the world's most successful economies with decent politics. Despite the delay, and the greater input from Koreans than Americans, it must be counted--along with Japan and Germany--as part of America's successes in the aftermath of World War II.
 
That's pretty much the end of the America's successes. Those who are excessively ethnocentric may claim Israel as an American success, but Israelis will be justified in taking most of the credit for themselves. They recognize US assistance, as well as unwelcome interventions and restraints in 1948, 1967, 1973 and subsequently. Israelis also recognize a great deal of German assistance, especially in the years before the US became generous.

Vietnam was clearly a lost cause, with some 55,000 US deaths and many more ruined lives, along with uncounted Vietnamese casualties 
 
Iraq and Afghanistan have caused fewer American casualties, but most likely over a million other deaths. What the US did there contributed as much as anything to the mess of the Middle East, being spread elsewhere via millions of refugees, and no accomplishment that could be labeled positively
 
Overall, America's record since the 1960s is not encouraging with respect to the prospects of dealing militarily with North Korea and/or Iran, and coming out of the adventures with more to praise than to criticize or condemn.
 
The catastrophe in Las Vegas is another issue, outside the parameter of this discussion. However, the failure of American governments to allow the killer to amass an arsenal, and move much of it to a centrally-located hotel, then an overt reluctance to reduce the chances of another such event, does not add to confidence in this President and his advisers to execute an operation where thousands of South Korean, Japanese, and perhaps American lives are at stake.
 
We old folks won't be close to any of the relevant decisions. Neither should we get too excited about what is done in the context of limited information and pressure to do or not to do something with respect to North Korea or Iran. There'll be little point in arguing with specific elements of what happens. Political leaders and military officers can't rely on everyone beneath them. Mistakes are inevitable. Yet with cool dispatch, those of us left standing can quarrel with the larger issues of deciding to do something heroic, to do nothing, or trying to reach political agreements that are likely to be imperfect. 
 
For those of you sitting, eating, and sleeping in a Succah, or even recognizing that there is a holiday, חג שמח.
 
Comments welcome
 


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-- 
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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