Why can't we just destroy the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs with air strikes?
Let's stop two countries from making something that we don't want them to have by destroying the buildings in which they're making it. It seems sensible, particularly to tens of millions of Americans who think that a well-aimed air strike is the solution to all the United States' foreign policy conundrums, if not most of life's problems. Unfortunately, though, it's not as easy as the "get tough" crowd would have you believe.
The example of a "takin' 'em out" done well that's often cited by the "get tough"-ers is the Israeli air raid against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. In June 1981, Israeli war planes whacked Osirak because it was the physical center of Iraq's budding nuclear weapons program. Military genius that he is, Saddam put all of his nuclear research capabilities in one, single, easily leveled complex.
Nearly everyone agrees that the raid was a tactical success, but in the long run it was little more than a speed bump on Iraq's long and sandy road to nuclear manhood. The attack hardened Saddam's resolve to turn Iraq into a nuclear power. It also taught him the Leadership 101 lesson about how you shouldn't put all of your eggs in a single basket, particularly if that basket is comfortably within the flight range of an Israeli F-15. Iraq spread the work out to several sites and, to the extent that it was possible, tried to make them less vulnerable to easy air raids. Within a decade, Iraq had the capacity to enrich uranium for weapons — a capability it did not have at the time of the Osirak raid.
Neighboring Iran has developed its nuclear program with Osirak in mind. Its nuclear facilities are spread all over the country (which is bigger than Alaska). An attack to destroy Iran's nukes would require multiple air strikes, a few Trojan camels and lots and lots of good intelligence to make sure that we aimed at the right buildings. (Wacky trivia: The Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr that the United States and Israel wanna take out was attacked from the air several times by Saddamite Iraq during the 1980s.) While we've certainly got the planes, bombs and missiles, it's doubtful that we have the intelligence to pull off such a feat. Our intelligence on Iraq, for example, has sucked, and the people who allowed it to suck are still in charge.
There are other complications, too. Iran could retaliate against any attack by stirring up quite a bit of trouble for us in Iraq — by using its influence with Iraqi Shi'ites to incite an even larger uprising against Iraqi and U.S. forces there. There's also the not-so-small matter of Iran's military. Iran has its own version of the North Korean No Dong missile, capable of hitting our regional ally, Israel. Iran also has threatened to launch an air strike against Israel's nuclear facility, Dimona. Even though Israel has a much stronger military than Iran, just a single on-target explosion at Dimona has the potential to cause many deaths and an ecological nightmare.
The argument for not Osirak-ing North Korea's nuclear facilities are much easier to explain. 1. North Korea already has nukes and can retaliate by vaporizing parts of South Korea, Japan, and maybe even the U.S. West Coast (but that's OK, 'cause those are Blue States, anyway). 2. Even if North Korea's nuking capabilities consisted of nothing more than a large microwave oven, it could still cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries with the large conventional arsenal it has aimed at densely populated South Korea.
The approach that's probably gonna work is some sort of carrot-and-stick-type deal. The carrot: You give up your nukes and nukes program, and we'll offer you some sort of cushy economic package and a promise to never "regime change" you. Expensive? Sure, but less so than a nuclear attack on us or our allies. The stick: Within 15 minutes of attacking us or our allies with your WMD, we will level your country.
Deterrence worked with the USSR. With some slight modifications, it'll work with North Korea and Iran, too.