For the last several decades, the idea that Iran is run by "Mad Mullahs" has been one of the most common racist stereotypes in American foreign policy discourse — and that is saying something. The idea is that the Iranian leadership is so brown and Muslim that if they get a nuclear weapon, they would immediately use it on Israel or the United States, despite the certainty of overwhelming retaliation. The desired conclusion, obviously ordained in advance, is that we must immediately invade to stop them from getting one.
Not only is this utter hogwash (Iran acts pretty much like any middle-ranking power would in its place), the only people in the world in positions of high influence who actually behave like foreign policy suicide bombers are American neoconservatives, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). He has been agitating for a pre-emptive strike on nuclear-armed North Korea if they don't stop their long-range ballistic missile program.
Graham and Co. need to put a sock in it. North Korea has America deterred and there's nothing we can do about it.
So far, this hasn't sunk it, as Graham has been eagerly stumping for war with North Korea for months now. In August, he said that President Trump told him he is ready for war; in November he said "we're headed to a war if things don't change;" and just last week he said that the military should start shipping soldiers' families out of South Korea.
The implicit justification has been just the same as the mythical Mad Mullahs — we must launch a pre-emptive war of aggression to halt North Korea's weapons development, because they might use it on us.
The first problem with Graham's logic is he and his president are at least somewhat responsible for the latest round of weapons development from North Korea. From almost his first minutes in office, President Trump and his bootlicking sycophants in the party (of whom Graham is a fairly recent addition) have been furiously stoking tensions with North Korea: personally insulting Kim Jong Un, declaring the Navy is sending aircraft carrier battle groups into the Sea of Japan as a show of force (though not really), threatening to destroy the country, and on and on.
It's not a coincidence that the North Korean weapons buildup came immediately after Trump took office. The country's leadership is pretty clearly calculating that only the capability to hit big American targets with a nuke can successfully deter the Trump regime — since the ability to hit our allies in Japan and South Korea has not slowed the constant macho posturing.
The second problem is that it ignores history. North Korea, despite being a totalitarian police state, is absolutely within its rights to view the United States with naked distrust. Not only did the American military recently invade Iraq on false pretenses, it also conducted terror bombing on North Korea itself on a quasi-genocidal scale during the Korean War, killing between 650,000 and two million people — or roughly 7-20 percent of the entire population at the time. (The equivalent fraction of the current American population would be roughly 23-65 million people.)
People have a tendency to remember that sort of treatment, and behave accordingly. As former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara argues, this sort of empathy is critical in any military or diplomatic situation: "We must try to put ourselves inside their skin, and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions." North Korea is not going to trust Lindsey Graham when he says "I don't want a war." They're going to assume that he's lying and trying to gin up a pretext to start a war, and they're right to do so. Therefore, more chest-thumping belligerence can only inspire accelerated nuclear development.
Finally, the third problem is that we absolutely cannot afford a war with North Korea. Indeed, it was already an unacceptable choice even leaving nukes aside, given the heavy artillery emplacements just north of Seoul. Just with its conventional weapons, North Korea could probably kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of South Koreans (and tens of thousands of American soldiers) in a matter of minutes. Limited nuclear capability that could hit Tokyo, Seoul, or Hawaii only adds to that moral calculus.
And now, North Korea has developed ballistic missiles which look probably capable of hitting anywhere in the mainland U.S. Even if that capability is exaggerated, it completely rules out a war of aggression. Even for the most genocidal racists who value an exciting new foreign war over the lives of millions of South Koreans and Japanese, an aggressive attack is now simply too much to risk for Americans, too. Which American city would Graham be willing to reduce to radioactive cinders? Los Angeles? Washington, D.C.? New York City? Charleston?
If Americans could live with Stalin's Soviet Union, we can live with North Korea today. All we need is for people like Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump to shut up.