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Ashton Carter, Obama's Defense Secretary pick, really wanted to bomb North Korea in 2006

Ashton Carter, left
Ashton Carter, left
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ashton Carter, the former Deputy Secretary of Defense, is President Obama's choice to replace Chuck Hagel as the Secretary of Defense, the White House announced today. Carter is a Pentagon veteran and national security insider well-respected on the right; you can read all about him here.

There's one somewhat strange incident, though, that may hang over Carter during confirmation hearings: the time he called for the United States to bomb North Korea.

This was in 2006, when North Korea was preparing to test-launch a long-range missile. Carter co-wrote a column in the Washington Post, along with Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry, arguing that President Bush should bomb North Korea's test missile before it could launch. Here are the relevant sections:

Therefore, if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. ...

Diplomacy has failed, and we cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature. A successful Taepodong launch, unopposed by the United States, its intended victim, would only embolden North Korea even further. The result would be more nuclear warheads atop more and more missiles.

Carter's column was bizarre for several reasons. First of all, North Korea's long-range missile program was at the time, and today remains, a laughable failure that could not possibly reach, much less threaten, the United States. Yet Carter described North Korea's spit-and-glue program as a "mortal threat to U.S. security," raising questions about his judgment when it comes to measuring threats.

Second, basically everyone other than Senator John McCain (who is an Ash Carter fan) thinks that bombing North Korea would make the country more aggressive and unpredictable, not less. North Korea-watchers generally agree that the country's weapons programs, while certainly dangerous and reprehensible (not to mention illegal), are mostly about domestic propaganda and about deterring North Korea's many enemies, not actually intended for aggressive use against the US. In any case, the nature of North Korean propaganda, which is obsessed with hyping the threat of American "imperialism" and with the memory of 1950s US bombings of the country, would virtually force Kim Jong Un to meet to any bombing with an over-the-top, potentially dangerous response. Carter, bizarrely, seems to misunderstand all of this.

But the third and biggest problem may be political: Carter needs to get confirmed by the Senate, and while McCain and a handful of other super-hawks are likely to approve of his plan to preemptively bomb North Korea, most others likely would not. Today's political climate just does not favor aggressive (supporters would call it "muscular") American military actions abroad.

None of this is likely to be fatal for Carter; North Korea is not a hot-button issue and he is generally respected in the Pentagon and in Congress. Still, it is all awfully odd, which is why you will likely be hearing about it as he moves through the confirmation process.

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