Foreign policy is often a form of theater, with elaborate rituals and pretenses that no one takes too literally. But rarely have the gimmicks of stagecraft been as obvious as in the latest standoff between North Korea and the United States.
Lately, even more than usual, the Pyongyang regime has been a picture of belligerence, threatening to hit the U.S. with a nuclear strike. A foreign ministry spokesman announced that "we will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest."
Sure you will. Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear arms expert at the Ploughshares Fund, told CNN that North Korea is "years away from the ability to field a missile with a nuclear warhead that could hit the United States." But it's useful for the North Koreans to pretend they could obliterate Los Angeles or make Detroit even less livable.
Apparently President Obama is willing to play along, countering fiction with fiction. "I can tell you that the United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, citing the missile defense system arrayed on the Pacific Coast.
But in case anyone had doubts, the Pentagon announced last week it would spend $1 billion to add more interceptors. Never mind that the ones it has are of doubtful utility. In controlled tests against sitting ducks, these weapons miss their targets as often as they hit them.
It's tempting to think that we must have mastered missile defense, if only because we've been working on it for so long. This episode comes shortly before the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" speech, in which he envisioned making "nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."
It's also tempting because the idea is so darn agreeable. Who wouldn't want the U.S. military to be able to knock down incoming warheads like King Kong swatting away biplanes? Who wouldn't want to make sure no deranged dictator can vaporize Times Square?
Keep wishing. Over the past three decades, the Defense Department has burned through some $200 billion chasing this dream—more, adjusted for inflation, than NASA needed to put all those men on the moon. While it took less than a decade for astronauts to plant the American flag in the lunar dust, we are still waiting for that missile shield.
The military-industrial complex was supposed to convert enemy missiles into giant, shiny museum pieces. Yet the rulers in Tehran and Pyongyang persist in thinking that nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles are worth their weight in gold.
The U.S. missile defense program has been an exercise in frustration. The undertaking is so difficult that the Pentagon no longer even dreams of being able to foil a massive attack by Russia or China. Its biggest ambition is to knock down a rocket or two from some rogue nation that is willing to risk being turned into a radioactive pile of gravel.
Even there, the technical requirements are several bridges too far. Last year, a report by the National Academy of Sciences noted the essential requirements of such a system and concluded the existing one is "deficient with respect to all of these principles."
To have any realistic hope of shooting down an intercontinental ballistic missile, you have to be able to track it while it's above the atmosphere ("midcourse"). But the enemy probably won't cooperate.
The CIA has said North Korea and Iran should be able to develop countermeasures by the time they have usable ICBMs. The simplest is to simultaneously release dozens of other objects that, in the vacuum of space, would travel at the same speed as the warhead and be extremely difficult to distinguish.
That was the unsolved problem in 1983, and it's the unsolved problem today. David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me, "None of the tests conducted so far of any of the exoatmospheric missile defenses have been realistic tests against realistic countermeasures like you might expect from North Korea." We haven't found an answer, and we may never.
So if and when North Korea or Iran obtains the means to hit us with an ICBM, we will have to prevent it the old-fashioned way: by assuring them they will be destroyed, immediately and utterly. It's not the most satisfying option. Unlike national missile defense, though, it's actually worked.