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Asan Washington Forum


I am delighted to have the opportunity to spend a little time with you this morning. I think it is clearly a historically significant event to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-ROK relationship. MJ talked about being born in 1951 in Korea. I have a memory from my early days in 1953 when I was 12 years old. We lived in Lincoln, Nebraska and my mother worked in the State Capitol Building as a secretary in the Health Department. But she insisted that my brother and I come down one day to the rotunda of the capitol there in Lincoln because there was a very special ceremony to recognize a young man who had grown up on a farm in rural Nebraska, Nebraska farm boy, but he was a sergeant in the United States Army and had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in combat in Korea. It was one of those events that stands out
from that period some 60 years ago in my mind, but it was an example, if you will, of the extent of which the nation was committed to the effort that was undertaken in 1950 to 1953 to defend South Korea that laid the foundation for the relationship that has been so important, I think, to both nations over those last 60 years.

I know how important it was from a military standpoint. I had the opportunity to visit Korea on a number of occasions as Secretary of Defense and that was one of our closest and warmest and I think most effective military-to-military relationships that we had any place in the world. What I wanted to do this morning is talk about some concerns I have that really deal with the broader context within which our relationship with South Korea must proceed. I am very concerned. The current state of affairs, not with respect to the United States and the Republic of Korea, but with respect to what I believe are the policies of weakness, if you will, on the part of the current administration with respect to how we address an enormously challenging set of circumstances. And those circumstances, in no small part, represented by North Korea and the danger that I think North Korea represents, not only for South Korea, but for the United States and the far broader problem that we have of the proliferation of nuclear technologies in various parts of the world.

If we think back to the circumstances that we faced in 9/11, in the immediate aftermath of that, one of our great concerns was that there would be a follow-on attack after 9/11; that it would be carried out by a terrorist using far deadlier weapons than airline tickets and box cutters, which is all they had on 9/11 and of course on that day, they launched an attack on the United States that was worse than the attack on Pearl Harbor: the loss of 3,000 American lives, destruction of the World Trade Center, major damage to the Pentagon, and would have taken out either the White House or the Capitol Building if it hadn’t been for the passengers on Flight 93. So as we responded to that, one of the key decisions we made was that we were no longer when we dealt with terrorism, dealing just with a law enforcement problem. But rather, we were at war. That an attack on the United States that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, killed 3,000 of our people wasn’t a law enforcement problem. It was indeed an act of war. And following from that, and trying to adjust our strategies and develop the programs and capabilities we needed to guard against that next attack and contemplate the possibility that the next wave of attacks might involve chemical weapons, or perhaps biological weapons, or even a nuclear device.

We had intelligence at the time in the aftermath of 9/11 that the Al Qaeda organization was actively seeking nuclear capabilities. So it was a very real threat, and I think it continues to be a very real threat today. And that as we look at the world and the set of circumstances that we’re faced with now that indeed, the threat is growing in my mind because of the proliferation of nuclear technology to rogue states, or states that I would describe as rogue states, that it’s a continuing problem. We made some progress with respect to those issues in the Bush administration, but we didn’t always get it right. And if anything, the problem has spread, expanded, become more serious since then. My bottom line concern is that I don’t believe this administration has the proper appreciation for the nature of the threat and I think there are policies that they’ve put in place or are contemplating that will make it more difficult for the United States to be able to do what we need to do because we’re the only ones who can do it, deal with, head off, and prevent those threats from metastasizing, or becoming even more significant than they are already.

If you look at what we encountered in our concerns about nuclear proliferation, if you will, when we took down Saddam Hussein, obviously a controversial policy in the United States, but I believe absolutely the right one, we took down a regime that had previously produced and used weapons of mass destruction and a regime that had on at least two prior occasions had an active effort underway to develop nuclear weapons. The first one ended in 1981 when the Israelis destroyed the Osirak outside Baghdad and a second one in 1991, when we put a significant dent in the program during Operation Desert Storm. But when we eliminated Saddam Hussein, we significantly reduced, or certainly eliminated at that point, Iraq as a potential source for the proliferation of nuclear capabilities.

When Muammar Gaddafi saw that development in Libya, he stepped forward and surrendered his materials. He didn’t want to be next so we received from him, still in U.S. possession, the basic weapons design that he’d acquired, the centrifuge technology and one of the feed stock that he had acquired to develop his own nuclear weapons. After we took down that program, we then followed up by disabling, if you will, and putting out of business the black market network that had been developed by A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear weapon. And that program ended when Mr. Khan was placed under house arrest. Libya had been his biggest customer, but he had been dealing with others as well: with Iraq, with North Korea. So three major sources of proliferation were eliminated then. That was one of our objectives, obviously, in what we were pursuing in that period of time.

But what we found as we went forward was evidence of the extent to which North Korea was directly involved in those developments in the Middle East. It wasn’t just a regional problem in the sense that the North Koreans obviously tested their first nuclear device in late 2006. We discovered, even though they’d been involved directly with the United States, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan in the so-called Six-Party Talks, that during that whole period they had been actively and aggressively building in Syria a nuclear reactor using the technology they had up at Yongbyon. And in the spring of 2007, we discovered the fact of a nearly complete reactor at Al Kabar in eastern Syria, courtesy of North Koreans. The North Koreans had, in effect, if there’s a way to describe it, I think has been the most dangerous proliferators of nuclear weapons technology. So our problem, when we look at North Korea isn’t just with respect to the Korean Peninsula, or even with respect to the region in Asia, it is the fact that they have already provided nuclear weapons technology, attempted to do so, to one of the worst terrorist sponsoring states in the world, Syria.

And today, we’re obviously very concerned about developments in Syria and the administration wrestling with the question of how they should get involved or what efforts we should make in Syria, with respect to the conflict there. One of the things that everyone is deeply concerned about is chemical weapons because Syria had a significant stock of chemical weapons. But imagine how much worse that situation would be today if that North Korean-built nuclear reactor had not been taken out and destroyed by the Israelis in the fall of 2007. It would be a far more dangerous situation than it already is, and it is already a very difficult, complicated situation. We found during the course of our work, and obviously I’m only talking about what’s publicly available, I don’t have access anymore to classified information, but we also found that Mr. A.Q. Khan made public statements within the past couple of years that North Korea had bribed senior Pakistani officials to acquire uranium enrichment technology, which the North Koreans now have and are using. There’s been an American scientist who had been an eye witness observer of the program in North Korea of some 2000 operating centrifuges producing highly enriched uranium of far more sophisticated technology than they had with their old 1950s, British-era plant that relied on developing plutonium up at Yongbyon. So the North Koreans went to the Pakistanis, supposedly bribed senior Pakistani officials for that capability. When we were negotiating with them back during the Bush administration, they kept insisting they did not have a uranium enrichment program. They repeated that over and over again. Our State Department did not handle it very well, but obviously they did have a program, it was up and operating and they now are clearly producing more highly enriched uranium to develop more weapons.

The situation with respect to the proliferation continues to be dire. I haven’t even talked about Iran yet. And that’s front and center as a major concern obviously as well, too. North Korea has also helped, provided assistance in the area of the development of ballistic missiles to Iran and Iraq as well at various times in the past. We are rapidly approaching the point now where both North Korea and probably, shortly, Iran, will have nuclear capability, probably weapons sophisticated enough to be able to represent a significant threat able to miniaturize warheads enough to put them on the tops of ballistic missiles so that they become a very real threat from the standpoint of the neighbors in the region, and obviously potentially even the United States of America. If you consider that development and the continuing escalation, if you will, we find ourselves in a situation where frankly, I believe, the administration’s policies are totally

inadequate to address that emerging threat. Barack Obama, of course, recently announced that he’s very interested in reducing the U.S. nuclear inventory and our stockpile of strategic weapons. It’s hard to tell at this point whether he means that’s a unilateral move he plans to take, or whether it’s going to be negotiated with the Russians. What it reminds me of, though, is a situation which, 30 or 40 years ago, maybe even 20 years ago, when I was Secretary of Defense and we worked as the Soviet Union imploded, as the Warsaw Pact went out of business, we did find ourselves in a situation where the threat had diminished and we adjusted accordingly, both with respect to our strategic and tactical nuclear weapons as well as conventional forces.

But as I listen to President Obama talk, it’s as though he’s back in that time slot 20 or 30 years ago, when one of our major problems was our relationship with respect to the Soviet Union and the need to find ways to reduce those inventories of weapons. But we did it. It’s already been done. The problem we have today is that we are in fact faced with a growing possibility that we’re going to have states like North Korea, probably Iran, possibly others, develop and deploy nuclear weapons, probably on missiles. That the extent that those two states increasingly become threats with sophisticated weapons systems, I think the temptation, the pressure, for their neighbors to develop their own capabilities is going to be enormous. That it will be a major spur, if you will, for example, in the Middle East, if Iran does in fact field that kind of capability. There are others out there who clearly have the capacity and/or the funds, the resources, to be able to acquire their own and we will see a spur, if you will, for their proliferation.

One of the things we did in the Bush Administration that we cared very deeply about, was we abrogated the ABM Treaty. We did it the first year we were in office so that we could move forward on developing defenses against ballistic missiles. And that was aimed specifically at the problems that we perceived with respect to North Korea and Iran and we did successfully build, deploy, and test anti-ballistic capability. We’ve got some missiles deployed both in California and Alaska. Unfortunately, one of the first things the Obama administration did was to cap that program and they’ve just recently recognized that there is a significant threat there, so Secretary Hagel has indicated he’s going to buy some additional missiles for that program.

The problem is, an important part of our approach was, that Poland and the Czech Republic would participate in the program. That we would deploy the radars in one state and the interceptors in another, but it would in fact set up a capability for us to be able to take down, destroy Iranian missiles, should they be launched at our NATO allies in Europe, or even potentially against the United States. Barack Obama came to office and he canceled that program in Poland and the Czech Republic because Vladimir Putin didn’t like it. It was, I think, an egregious example of allowing the Russians to dictate to the United States what our relationships are going to be with our key NATO allies. And obviously the Poles and the Czechs, having taken the difficult step and agreed to that deployment, accepted the political controversy that it had entailed in some circles, all of a sudden found the rug pulled out from under them when the United States backed out of that commitment. But it also leaves in this case Europe, and potentially the United States, without defenses deployed where they would be most effective if the Iranians move forward with respect to their aspirations, obviously, to develop and field that capability.

We now find ourselves in a position where we are continuing to try to persuade the Iranians that the time has come for them to give up their capabilities, to try to persuade the North Koreans that they too should give up their capabilities. We’ve pursued that diplomatically. But the problem, again, has to do with what they perceive to be the U.S. attitude with respect to national security policy. And at the same time that President Obama was in Israel with Prime Minister Netanyahu announcing that they were prepared to take whatever steps were necessary in order to be able to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities, the administration was announcing major cutbacks in the defense budget, made a decision, for example, in the U.S.S. Truman—one of our aircraft carriers scheduled to go out to the Gulf. We’ve been maintaining two carrier battle groups there now for some years—the Truman deployment was halted and the Truman is still tied up at the dock down at Norfolk, Virginia. And our carrier battle groups in the Gulf, which would obviously play a key role were there to be any military action involving the Iranian nuclear program has been cut in half, simultaneously with more threats being issued by the president about what the Iranians may have in store if they don’t listen to political wisdom.

The overall situation with respect to U.S. military capabilities, I think, is headed in absolutely the wrong direction. The action that’s been taken with respect to our defense budget, the so-called sequester process, unfortunately, has some support from Republicans, not all, but some who are of an isolationist bent of mind, but there’s an excellent column written this morning in the Wall Street Journal by David Deptula, who used to be an Air Force 3-star and now teaches at the Air Force Academy, but when I was Secretary of Defense, he was one our key planners in putting together the air war during Operation Desert Storm. And he talks about the no-fly zones that now exist, not overseas, but right here over the U.S. military bases because so many of our squadrons have been grounded, pilots not getting the flying hours they need, the maintenance being allowed to pile up without action being taken, the consequences of the sequester that is now being imposed on the U.S military. Devastating. In my day, the standard was that our pilots had to get 30 hours a month of actual flying time to maintain their proficiency. Now, in some cases, some squadrons have been grounded completely. The U.S.S. Lincoln, an aircraft carrier I commissioned 25 years ago, is due now for its 25- year refueling and overall, and it’s been tied up at the dock. It’s not being refueled, it’s not going through overhaul. It’s an enormously valuable asset that is simply sitting there idle, and it looks like, because of the budget pressures, there will be no effort to do what ought to be done to extend the life of that carrier for another 25 years.

If we look at our overall posture, I think the United States has sent every signal that we’re not serious. I think the kind of talk we saw with respect to Syria, that the President would “get really upset” if the Syrians used chemical weapons. Well now, apparently they have, so now we’re wrestling with what kind of small arms we’re going to provide to the Syrian opposition. But our withdrawal from Iraq without negotiating a stay behind agreement, the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, the reduction of our military presence in the Middle East, the argument now that we’re going to pivot to Asia strikes me as less of a strategic consideration than that it’s all budget driven. It is budget driven because of the sequester, but it’s also budget driven because this president would much rather reduce defense spending dramatically, which he’s doing. And as a result, we’re going to find it increasingly difficult, I think, to have the kind of influence we would like to have and that our bold talk about nuclear proliferation is just that, it’s just bold talk and nothing else. It’s not backed up by anything of consequence. I worry very, very much that we are rapidly approaching the point where our friends and allies can no longer count on us, where they no longer trust us to be there when they need us in the event of a crisis, and when our adversaries and our enemies no longer fear us. And obviously, I’m a Republican, I’m a conservative, I didn’t support Barack Obama, but I think the evidence is overwhelming that the United States’ capacity in future years is being significantly diminished.

One of the final points—and then I understand we’ll have the opportunity for some questions and discussion—after Operation Desert Storm ended in the spring of 1991, very successful, the first thing I did was pick up the telephone and call former President Reagan, who was then retired, living in California. And I thanked him for all that he had done in the 1980s to build up and improve the capability of the United States military, which is what made it possible for us to send half a million men and women half way around the world to liberate Kuwait, to do it with only 148 of our soldiers killed in action, to do it quickly and decisively because of the impact of the investment he had been willing to make in personnel, equipment, and in new technology in the 1980s. We had an absolutely first-rate military force when it came time to use it in 1990 and 1991.

The decisions that Barack Obama is making now in this administration aren’t just about the capabilities he’s going to have if there’s a crisis tomorrow or next year or the year after that. He’s making decisions that will limit the capabilities of future presidents, 10, 15, 20 years down the road and the kind of capabilities they’ll have to respond to crises we know will emerge at some point. And his drive to reallocate resources away from the defense and national security arena and to spend it on domestic programs of various kinds, his unwillingness to recognize the long-term consequences of what he’s doing to U.S. military capability is very, very serious for our capacity as a nation, to keep the kinds of commitments to our friends in Korea and elsewhere around the world.

I’m deeply, deeply disturbed by what I see happening, and I will once again congratulate the Asan Institute. I think you did good work. I think it’s very important, but I can’t think of a better forum in which we need to address some of these kinds of concerns. And our friends that we work with around the world, often times, especially some of our Asian friends tend to be polite and we appreciate that, but there come times, too, when our friends need to be able to speak the truth to the United States about what the world looks like from your perspective if in fact we continue on the course we’re on, which is going to dramatically reduce the influence and capability of the United States to alter, change, or redirect trends and events all over the world.

Thank you very much

* The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.