Archive for Washington Views

Americans hate foreign policy, and also, the lack of one

One lovely April morning, the world awakened to find that its greatest power has fallen under the control of a cabal of perky Starbucks baristas. As it turns out, I am not alone in ridiculing the weaponization of tweets and hashtags as a substitute for tough and substantive national security policymaking as the world’s predators seize the day.

Conspiratorial minds will suppose that this is all somehow coordinated, and maybe some of it is, but I assure you that I’ve been excluded. This snub stings all the more, given that the illuminati’s standards of membership are permissive enough to include liberals (James Carville, Fred Hiatt), self-described “realists” (Richard Haass, see also), whatever you call David Brooks, and conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, whose criticism (unsurprisingly, to many of you) looks spot-on to me:

Step 1: Be Barack Obama (and not George W. Bush).

Step 2: ????

Step 3: World peace!

(With apologies to South Park.)

As a candidate, Obama held a huge campaign rally in, of all places, Berlin, touting his bona fides as a citizen of the world. The crowd went wild, as he talked at length about a world without walls (you had to be there). As president, in his first major speech abroad, Obama suggested to a Cairo audience that the fact America elected him was all the proof anyone should need that America had turned the page.

It all seems very strange now in retrospect, but in his defense, you can understand how seductive this notion must have been. The whole world — at least the parts of it that Obama listens to — was telling him that replacing George W. Bush with Barack Obama was just the ticket for what ailed the planet. The fervor was all so detached from facts on the ground that the Nobel Committee even gave Obama a Peace Prize for the stuff they were sure he was going to do, eventually. [....]

The problem, of course, is that Obama never had a Plan B. He never really thought he’d need one, and besides, he never much cared about foreign policy. Particularly in his first term, his top priority was to keep international problems from distracting from his domestic agenda. He ordered the surge in Afghanistan but then went silent about that war for years. He passive-aggressively let a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq evaporate. Even his controversial policies — targeted killing, drones, etc. — were intended to turn the war on terrorism into a no-drama technocratic affair out of the headlines.

If you prefer something more academic, then try this article by Walter Russell Mead in Foreign Affairs.

America has two political parties, but in the field of foreign policy, it has many warring tribes — Wilsonians, Jacksonians, liberal isolationists, radical leftists, paleoconservative isolationists, neoconservatives, and “realists.” (All of these labels are imprecise, misleading, and overlapping.) It’s rare that these warring tribes reach a consensus as quickly as the one they reached last month – that our President’s foreign policy has a viscosity somewhere between the gelatinous and the vaporous. The President’s ratings on foreign policy now stand at 38.7% approval and 52.7% disapproval, for a difference of -14%.

This is not just a case of the President’s approval ratings on foreign policy being dragged down by other unpopular policies. His ratings on foreign policy are lower than his handling of the economy (41.8% approve, 54.5% disapprove, net -12.7%), Obamacare (40.7% approve, 51.6% disapprove, net -10.9%), or his presidency as a whole (43.9% approve, 51.4% disapprove, net -7.5%).

For now, Obama can take some comfort from the fact that this still isn’t as bad as Bush’s approval rating on foreign policy in May 2006, the low point of the Iraq War. But now that he has been marked as a weak leader, his ratings will enter Bush and Carter territory if more power-grabs by tyrants fill the headlines, and if Republicans make an issue of his weakness before the mid-term elections.

But if they did, what would they argue for? Do these results tell us anything useful about the kind of foreign policy Americans want? As The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt noted here, citing Robert Kagan here, the voters have a much clearer idea of what they don’t want than what they do want. They want to disengage from the world, but they don’t like what disengagement looks like. They don’t want us involved in ground wars overseas, but they’ve also been reminded that they don’t want the kind of passivity and drift that invites aggression, war, and proliferation. They don’t want Russia invading its neighbors, China threatening to do the same, Iran nuking up, and North Korea nuking off. They won’t like it if the Taliban seize Kabul, if Al Qaeda seizes Mosul and Damascus, or if Assad gasses his way to victory. (This is why isolationist fads like those of Rand Paul and his zanier father are more popular in the abstract than in practice. In practice, his foreign policy would look a lot like Obama’s, only with fewer tweets, and without its unsettling Gidget vibe.)

In other words, Americans expect pax Americana, but deny it like closeted Baptist preachers, and hate paying its costs. Our allies (some of which are better described as “supplicants”) won’t call for it publicly, but they expect it, too (too much, as I’ve often argued). That’s why President Obama went to Asia — to reassure allies and supplicants alike, although it’s far from clear that they feel more reassured now. Even before the President returned, he found himself defending his foreign policy from critics across the political spectrum. That defense was the torch of a pyromaniac in a field of straw-men,* a cheap slander that called all of the President’s diverse critics war-mongers:

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

The president did not name his critics, except to refer to them as foreign policy commentators “in an office in Washington or New York.” He also referred to the Sunday morning talk shows, where Senator John McCain of Arizona, a fierce Obama critic, is a ubiquitous guest.

“If we took all of the actions that our critics have demanded, we’d lose count of the number of military conflicts that America would be engaged in,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. [N.Y. Times]

Nonsense. It was Obama who intervened in Libya (which I supported) and who wanted to intervene in Syria (which I opposed, because I didn’t believe he had the will to see it through to a favorable conclusion).

Even this is beside the point, because some of the toughest and most effective strategies that President has overlooked don’t involve the direct use of military force at all; they involve strategies like more aggressive information operations, more support to resistance movements against hostile leaders abroad, and a more effective use of “hub-blocking” strategies, like financial sanctions.

~   ~   ~

So after the backlash from Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re now seeing the back-backlash. No, Americans still don’t like taking casualties in foreign wars when they don’t understand what compelling interests justify those losses. Part of that is due to an insufficiency of explanation, explanation often being the greater part of leadership.

Now that Bush isn’t President anymore, our screens are seldom filled with funerals and casualty statistics, although the funerals and casualties continue. That double standard relieves Obama of the burden of reminding the voters that people based in Afghanistan and sponsored by our enemies attacked and killed 3,000 American civilians, and likely cost us trillions of dollars in damages, risk insurance, and domestic security costs. It also relieves him of the burden of explaining exactly what plausible outcome his Afghan strategy is supposed to achieve, aside from yielding uncontested domination of most of the Afghan countryside — and eventually, its cities — to the Taliban. It won’t relieve him of the swift and severe impact that Chinese aggression in the Pacific would have on our economy. And it won’t relieve the rest of us of the incalculable long-term costs of global anarchy.

Picture of the Day

Taken at L’Enfant Plaza, at about 11 a.m. today.


Rep. Albio Sires and Rabbi Abraham Cooper on Human Rights in North Korea

I’ll begin a gradual return from my hiatus by linking to this excellent op-ed by Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, on the imperative of addressing North Korea’s human rights abuses. It’s a welcome sign that this isn’t a partisan issue.

This op-ed, by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, follows it logically and compares North Korea’s abuses to some of those that occurred during the Holocaust.

Last week’s Senate hearings on N. Korea marked by skepticism and ambivalence

Last Thursday, two days after the  hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also held a hearing (on video here).  This time, consensus was much less evident than ambivalence, and the views of the State Department were much more in evidence.  Most of the oxygen was consumed by the first witness, Special Envoy Glyn Davies.

Our Special Envoy’s testimony, by the way, was sponsored by Deer Park Bottled Water (written statement here).

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 12.00.57 PM

Chairman Bob Menendez (opening statement here) and Ranking Member Bob Corker* seem to agree that past policies, whatever you may think of them, have failed. (* Yes, Corker, not McCain. Noted.).  You may also be interested in what Menendez had to say in Foreign Policy.  On the Senate side, it’s just as clear that the current policy direction is considered a failure; it’s less clear what the Senators think a better policy would be, and the State Department’s traditional influence was much more evident in the selection of witnesses.

Say what you will about Davies, but the man certainly knows how to follow a script. Listening to him talk about North Korea’s “deplorable” human rights conditions, or its starvation of its people while it pours money into WMD programs, you wouldn’t think that this was the same guy who once asked a State Department colleague to Trotsky the naughty bits out of a human rights report on North Korea, during the heyday of Agreed Framework II.  His statement today reads like an indictment, and he didn’t counsel the senators to show patience or restraint while he works on Agreed Framework III, although later in the hearing, he let on that that’s still his objective. For now, however, the focus has clearly shifted to counter-proliferation and sanctions.  Davies mostly talked about U.N. sanctions, but also talked about “national” sanctions, such as the weak ones Treasury recently imposed under E.O. 13382.

Behind the tough talk, however, Davies still sees sanctions as just another way to pressure North Korea back to the bargaining table.  To Davies, sanctions are “not punitive, but a tool to impede,” “make clear the costs” of refusing to engage in “meaningful dialogue” and “authentic and credible negotiations” to “bring North Korea into compliance with its international obligations” toward irreversible disarmament.  Davies says he (meaning he) “will not engage in talks for talks’ sake,” and that he will insist on “serious and meaningful change in North Korea’s priorities.” I wouldn’t disagree with a word of that last sentence, but then, I didn’t disagree with it when Chris Hill said it, either.

Davies didn’t express, and did not seem to harbor much optimism about diplomacy.  He took a swipe (1:30) at the “Camelot” view of Kim Jong Un, a view that he now thinks has been discredited by events.  He suggested (1:34) that the most effective sanctions are those directly focused against luxury good and proliferation (seriously?). In his highlighting of sanctions directed at particular categories of transactions, Davies reveals an approach that targets the proceeds of prohibited activities, rather than the instrumentalities of regime maintenance and WMD proliferation.  He’s clearly more interested in pressuring North Korea at the margins than in rocking their world.

With respect to what diplomatic approaches stood the best chance of being effective, Davies said that North Korea “allowed” the famine to happen (1:42) in 1990s, so food aid isn’t worth much to the regime as an inducement.  He noted that that the Chinese are paying close attention to debates like the one he’s participating in there, at the Senate.  In what was clearly intended as a message to China, he references the U.S. “pivot” to Asia and told China (1:44) that if it doesn’t bring North Korea to heel, it will see “more of the same” and “you’re not gonna like it.”

Chairman Bob Menendez was hard to read, but clearly skeptical of past strategies and ready to be persuaded (if not yet persuaded) that the right kind of sanctions could work.

Corker wasn’t hard to read at all.  He thinks we’re at a “crossroads,” where if we don’t get results now, we may never get them.  Later, at 1:04: “Some people are saying we should call the entire North Korean government as a money laundering concerns, which we could then enforce against third party entities, some of which reside in China.”  Gee, who might that be?  Davies thinks we’ve already reaped a lot of the benefits to be gained from sanctioning illicit activities, but we should continue to focus on it.  Corker also endorsed a greater emphasis on human rights issues in North Korea, and suggested we should increase broadcasting to the North Korean people.

Later, Corker suggested that Davies conceded that a diplomatic solution was years away at best, and that North Korea is well past the red line we drew for Iran.  Do we need a red line in North Korea, like with Iran?  Why is our policy in North Korea so different than it is from Iran (1:56).  Davies thinks pressure will eventually get North Korea to change course.  Corker called that “highly aspirational” and unrealistically optimistic.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D, Conn.) gets it.  Listen to him distinguish the peoples’ economy from the palace economy at 1:38.  Davies notes that “many people are fooled when they go to Pyongyang” based on more cars on the street, and more cell phones.  Hmm.  He really doesn’t sound like an AP fan, does he?

Sen Chris Coons (D, Conn.) also seemed interested in emphasizing the human rights issue, potentially via the inquiry proposed by the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights.  He also expressed concern about our inability to monitor food aid distribution.  Davies seems to think the answer is following the examples of groups like Mercy Corps, that have continued to work in North Korea (not the World Food Program, interestingly enough).

Sen. Mark Udall (D, N.M.) asked if negotiated denuclearization is still our goal.  Davies thinks there’s still a hope for the six-party talks.  Maybe “within a generation or so” we’ll see a very different situation in North Korea.  He certainly is good at being cryptic.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R, Fla.) thinks North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear power and stay isolated notwithstanding its “atrocities.”  He doesn’t think they can be negotiated out of that goal. Everything North Korea does until it achieves that goal is a scare tactic or a delay tactic. Japan and South Korea will want nukes, and Iran will see what North Korea can get away with.  Rubio thinks we should (1) delay North Korean’s proliferation, (2) never let the world forget what the North Koreans’ atrocities, and (3) begin to create the conditions for reunification — a unified, democratic, peaceful Korea.  Rubio doesn’t think Davies is likely to succeed, and Davies (1:19) agreed to a great extent.

Sen. Mark Warner (D, Va.), thinks the transition to a hereditary dictatorship is a dangerous and unstable time for North Korea.  He’s clearly focused on the potential for “fracking” the “microfractures” inside North Korean society.  Good analogy.  I think I’ll use that.

After Davies’s testimony, there was a second panel, consisting of Amb. Stephen Bosworth, Amb. Joseph DiTrani, and Amb. Robert Joseph.

I had not realized what an extreme figure Bosworth really was until this hearing.  You could have mistaken him for Christine Ahn with sensible glasses. Bosworth thinks we’ll eventually engage again, because there are no better ideas.  But for what purpose?  (Bosworth didn’t say it here, but he has acknowledged that North Korea will never verifiably disarm.)  Bosworth wants broad engagement that would give North Korea aid, diplomatic recognition, and a peace treaty.  He thinks we need to make North Korea feel secure.  Bosworth blamed the BDA sanctions for the collapse of the 2005 agreement — because all negotiations with North Korea are tenuous, and they have to be “reassured” that they are not giving up their one piece of leverage for nothing.

DiTrani took a more careful view — yes, we have a lot of benefits to offer North Korea, but only after they denuclearize.  In a way he didn’t when he testified at the House, he seemed to blame the BDA sanctions for the collapse of the 2005 agreement.  Menendez picked up with this in a revealing question, asking why, if North Korea was serious about diplomacy, it still refused to allow verification in 2008, long after we dropped the BDA sanctions. DiTrani backed away from what Menendez and I heard, saying that we’d always told North Korea that law enforcement was a separate matter, unrelated to disarmament talks.  Later, under questioning by Corker, DiTrani spoke up that economic sanctions against the regime could be an effective pressure point.

Robert Joseph, in my view, got it exactly right: North Korea will only abandon its nuclear and missile programs “if it is judged essential to regime survival.”  Listen to his statement at 2:17; it’s a shame no one was listening anymore.  Joseph doesn’t suggest we should shouldn’t abandon diplomacy, but we should do it right, and we should adjust our expectations to reality.  We need to pressure China “the principle obstacle to effective pressure on North Korea,” which supports them unconditionally, no matter how deadly their behavior.  and we always release pressure prematurely.  “Promotion of human rights, while part of official U.S. talking points for years, has not been a significant element of U.S. strategy.  It should be ….”  Listen to him again at 2:36.  He’s on fire.

Rumors Hint at Policy Shifts in U.S. and South Korea

From Engagement to Reunification?

So says the Chosun Ilbo, in describing what would be a major policy shift for South Korea. From 2008 until now, the policy would best be described as reluctant engagement, which brought out North Korea’s violent and extortionate streak. Now, according to unnamed sources in the Unification Ministry, the administration seems to be looking for ways to prepare for and even accelerate reunification:

The government is shifting the emphasis of North Korea policy from exchanges and cooperation to fully fledged preparations for reunification beginning in 2011. “Next year, we intend to concentrate our efforts on strengthening our reunification capabilities rather than on dialogue with the North,” a Unification Ministry official said. It is apparently looking to influence ordinary North Koreans to bring about changes in the Stalinist country. “We must free ourselves from the perception that reunification by absorption is unfeasible,” he added.

More on that here. The problem with stories like this, of course, is that they name only anonymous officials, and therefore, we really don’t know whether we’re hearing the views of a junior official with rogue views, someone who represents a faction within the Ministry, or someone who is intentionally disinforming the Chosun Ilbo to scare the North Koreans. I maintain that the Lee Administration isn’t serious about holding North Korea accountable for anything, catalyzing change, or even about cutting off the money used to terrorize its own population until it shuts down Kaesong. When Kaesong closes, it will be time for a serious discussion of a policy shift. Everything else, especially this, is empty talk.

The Force Has Great Power Over the Weak-Minded

One of our perpetual questions about North Korea has to be whether they’re just too smart for us to comprehend, or whether it’s just the rest of us that are too stupid and weak-minded to deal with them properly. I still vote for the latter:

Senior Grand National Party lawmakers who gathered yesterday to deliberate the government’s policy toward North Korea after its attack on Yeonpyeong Island quarrelled intensely and broke into two camps.

One group argued the government should ease its tough stance against the communist regime to abate the highly strained relations between the two Koreas. This met fierce opposition from another group that maintained it was too early to “appease” North Korea.

I’d wonder where the constituency is for appeasing North Korea now, except that public opinion in South Korea is almost impossibly unpredictable. One person who obviously thinks there’s a constituency for appeasement is our old friend Comrade Chung. Although I can certainly see why the administration denied him permission to visit Kaesong, there’s a part of me that thinks he’d have been an ideal hostage — just think of what a win-win that would be for all of those involved.

Kim Jong Bill for Secretary of State?

Meanwhile, there are also rumors foreshadowing a policy shift on this side of the Pacific. I find those rumors hard to believe, beginning with the explanation that Hillary Clinton would step down … so spend more time with Bill. Yeah, right! If Hillary Clinton steps down, she’ll do it to distance herself from the administration or to mount a primary challenge, which I think is also unlikely.

Still, I can’t quite dismiss this. The obvious argument for Richardson’s appointment is that it would help the President with Latino voters, and I’ve always suspected that this President cares very much about domestic politics and so little about the actual substance of foreign policy that he’s delegated it to a group of sensible advisors, including James Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Philip Goldberg. Putting Richardson in charge of them would be like putting a cat in a basket of pigeons. At a bare minimum, it would cost us a year of policy reviews, internecine struggles, and purges — a repeat of what happened after 2004. It might even mean that someone gets to follow in Mike Chinoy’s footsteps and write a book chronicling this administration’s paralysis-by-analysis on North Korea.

Ultimately, I don’t think it will happen because the adverse political consequences would outweigh the benefits, and the Administration seems smart enough to get this. Kim Jong Il’s behavior has been bad enough that any hint of Agreed Framework 3.0 would go over badly with the American people. Until now, President Obama has successfully neutralized foreign policy as a campaign issue, but a Bill Richardson foreign policy would give the Republicans an opportunity to cast off their discrediting by Bush, Rice, and Hill, find their voice, and make this an issue they can run on.

The greatest barrier, however, may be South Korea’s certain opposition to such a shift in Washington. Lee Myung Bak will still be President for a little more than two years, and with him facing a likely challenge from Park Geun-Hye on the right, you can expect his Administration to strongly oppose a new American diplomatic initiative to the North now. Say what you will about Lee not having a vote in our elections, but South Korea exerts a powerful influence over U.S. policy toward North Korea.

I wonder if China is pleased with Japan’s new plans to expand defense spending, deploy more PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries, build more submarines to patrol disputed waters, and arm more Aegis cruisers with Standard-3 missiles. Again, there is even talk of acquiring nuclear weapons. China has only its own reckless backing of North Korea to blame for this. Me, I’d be happier if we sold the same types of gear to Taiwan, which as I take delight in repeating, happens to have China’s only legitimate government anyway. But any step toward an integrated alliance of stronger Asian democracies is a step in the right direction. Key to this is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan must not give in to the temptation of excessive dependence on a fickle and debt-laden America, and they must be able to survive a first strike well enough to give America a viable option of coming to their assistance. Chinese and North Korean behavior this year has tilted Asian voters sharply in the direction of demanding more defense spending and closer relations with the United States.


In the Washington Post, Victor Cha argues against what he describes as five myths about North Korea. I mostly agree with 1 and 3; I agree with 4 for other reasons; and I agree with 5 even if I wish Cha gave us a better explanation than a consensus of august diplomatic minds that hasn’t a thing to do with the price of rice in Chongjin (the North Korea crisis will be solved in places like this, not in any embassy’s foyer). On point 2, Cha argues against the perception that “Kim Jong Eun is too young and inexperienced to successfully replace his father,” which he defends by noting that older, more experienced people will really be running things from behind the scenes. But isn’t that what most Kim Jong Eun skeptics have always said? Cha always notes that we have no good options in North Korea, something that’s undoubtedly been true since we irreversibly licensed North Korea’s nuclear power status in 1993. But rather than simply reflecting consensus views and writing pieces that no one ever disagrees with more than 40% of the time, I wish that Cha would actually offer a least-worst solution.

In the Wall Street Journal, Brian Myers takes apart Selig Harrison’s imaginings of a reformist faction in North Korea. The key to scoring this speculative argument is the question of whether you really count what the North Koreans tell Selig Harrison as evidence of anything, because that’s about all the evidence Harrison really has. Myers might have answered this with his own interpretations of what the regime tells its own subjects, but as interesting as those interpretations are, I’m glad he didn’t rely on them. After all, North Korea’s actions alone are sufficient to refute Harrison’s view. The same can be said of too much of our foreign policy commentariat, which held similarly naive and wishful views for far too long. The less credit given to those views, the sooner we’ll turn to more productive alternatives.

No, now that I think of it, Kim Jong Il probably isn’t accustomed to seeing his work panned by critics. Yes, Kim Jong Il’s writing is an easy enough target, but the piece actually ends with an insightful argument. Hat tip: Theresa.

OPLAN 5027 1/2? It occurred to me last night that if North Korea escalates hostilities to the point that a military response becomes necessary to save lives in South Korea, such a response need only be sufficient to neutralize North Korea as an immediate threat to the South and deal its system a fatal political blow. This doesn’t necessarily require a full-scale invasion and occupation of all of North Korea, which could well unite much of the population around the regime. Instead, it might “only” require an intense bombardment of North Korea’s artillery sites near the DMZ — yes, a big “only,” that — followed by the seizure of a ten-mile-wide strip of North Korean territory nearest the DMZ. This would neutralize the artillery threat to the South and completely disrupt North Korea’s own military plans for threatening the South or repelling an allied invasion. It should go without saying that we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit whatever nuclear targets we can, although there are undoubtedly some we’ll never find until after reunification. Rather than taking on the bloody work of racing the Chinese Army to Pyongyang and occupying a hostile country, we could encourage, support, and supply whatever elements were thereby emboldened to rise up against the regime (this would have the added effect of discouraging China from getting involved, unless it wants to get bogged down in an insurgency that would turn unpopular very quickly for any foreign power). Again, I doubt that such an uprising would succeed in the short term, but in the medium term, it would bleed the regime to death, both economically and politically.

In the comments, there have been some suggestions of arming the prisoners in the camps to fight as well, as they are said to have done in the Onsong Camp many years ago. I’m deeply ambivalent about this idea, because I think some of us underestimate how weakened those prisoners really are from the starvation and torture they’ve experienced. To arm people with no military training, organization, or outside logistical support can only mean one inevitable result — the massacre of the prisoners in any camp that rises. But then, it’s probably assured that the prisoners in most of these camps will never get out alive anyway.

Huzzah, I’m finally a moderate!

Not being a frequent reader of Foreign Policy, I don’t know much about the leanings of the particular bloggers there, although most would call that publication a stalwart of the “realist” view that had so recently become fashionable in Washington, before Al Qaeda in Iraq was squeezed down to a small nub of its former self, and before it became evident that North Korea, Iran, and China weren’t prospective negotiating partners after all. This week, we read one FP contributor calling for us to give up on the six-party talks, and another, Will Inboden, coming to the realization that we need leverage against North Korea to have any prospect of productive negotiations:

In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il’s $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea’s behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea’s (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage. To gain more leverage, reimposing the financial market sanctions on the private accounts of the regime’s leaders would help, as would revisiting the state sponsor of terrorism list. Equally important will be exploring ways to change China’s cost/benefit calculation for its support of the DPRK. Perhaps after these kinds of steps are taken, it will be time to talk again.

I knew that if I waited long enough I could be a moderate, too! The consensus, it seems, has washed right past the self-professed Militant Wing of the Korea blogosphere, and we are all neocons again. I don’t mean to pick on these gentlemen, by the way, for their delayed arrival at the idea that negotiation alone is no way to deal with people like the North Koreans. Words like these from Inboden are especially welcome in wresting this debate from the shrill voices who dominated it for too long:

Let me be clear — I support the White House on this aspect of their North Korea policy. But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the “partisan mind” at work.

It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other’s positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic “negotiate or not” rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal.

I’ve been as guilty as caricaturing as anyone. It’s fun, and some people just insist on making caricatures of themselves. But to expand on what I said here, I’ve never been a fan of Americans who blame each other for Kim Jong Il’s outrages (here’s a particularly discredited example). I believe those Americans vastly overestimate our influence over Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il’s perceptions of President Obama or Lee Myung Bak may or may not have played a role in his recent decisions, but it’s more likely that once he correctly dismissed our long-lost capacity to deter him, he made his own decisions for domestic reasons. Or, maybe because he’s just not all there anymore.

Actually, I think the administration is playing the talks issue exactly right — refusing to talk when North Korea makes war on its neighbors, but displaying some willingness to talk in the future should talks ever show real promise. I doubt that talks with North Korea will show any promise as long as the Kim Dynasty persists, but if the six-party talks become five-party talks, they might become a useful forum for pressuring China, and for doing the important diplomatic business of averting conflict over North Korea in the event of a sudden or “rolling” collapse of the regime’s authority.

China’s conduct is more rational (if malicious) to us, and more responsive to diplomatic and economic stimuli. In China’s case, there may be more that all of our recent presidents might have done to present an image of an America willing to attach consequences to China’s support for Kim Jong Il. For those Koreans that this regime hasn’t yet killed, there is still time for America to learn that.

Meanwhile, it’s heartening to see conservatives again taking up the idea that (lacking real military or diplomatic options) we should try to undermine the regime from within. Michael Gerson has been particularly persist about this:

There is, however, a third possible outcome that has not been considered seriously enough – an option other than possible war or strategic humiliation. South Korea, America and Japan, employing their technology and vast wealth, could attempt to undermine the North Korean regime from within. An aggressive, sustained campaign to break the North Korean information embargo, expose the barbarity and corruption of the regime to its own people, promote the work of dissidents and defectors, and encourage disloyalty among North Korean elites may or may not work. But the alternatives are increasingly unattractive.

Hat tip to Theresa.

Update: A better-informed reader tells me that I’ve quoted the more conservative “Shadow Government” blog, as opposed to FP’s “The Cable,” which represents a view I’d tend to associate with that publication. That certainly weakens my case that these posts prove that Washington is moving my way, although I do believe that that is the case, for many other reasons. The most important of those is Kim Jong Il’s behavior, but a close second is the Obama Administration’s admirable refusal to reward it. I hope that by now, they’re thinking hard about ways to deter it.

Throw the Book at Him

So I will assume that Stephen Kim, the Korean-American State Department contractor who is now being prosecuted for leaking top secret / sensitive compartmentalized information was neither employed by, nor sympathetic to, North Korea given his choice of Fox News as a recipient for his leak of information that might have revealed U.S. intelligence sources in North Korea. And having said that, I really don’t care what Kim’s specific views were, I just want to know if any foreign government put him up to this. Regardless of Kim’s views, the administration is right to throw the book at those who illegally leak classified information.

One of the most inviolable rules any civil servant, contractor, or employee must respect is that confidential or classified information must never leave the office. That’s why you’ve never seen me talk about my work, and you seldom even see me allude to it. There are exceptions, recognized by law, for revealing abuse of authority or a violation of law by colleagues, but the appropriate vehicle for those reports is to report that information to the Inspector General, not Fox News or Wikileaks.

I already regret making the comparison to Robert Kim, because I only draw it because of Stephen Kim’s ancestry, which shouldn’t matter. But among South Korea’s favorite methods for exerting its extensive influence over U.S. policy toward the Koreas is to leak reports that favor its policy goals. I emphasize that I have no particular reason to believe that Stephen Kim was working for South Korea, but Kim’s case does illustrate the danger that foreign governments will use leaks to corrupt U.S. government employees for their own purposes (and in case you’re wondering, I hold precisely the same view of Jonathan Pollard, who deserves to die in prison). Ultimately, this legitimizes suspicions of dual loyalties against loyal and honest American citizens who may bring badly needed linguistic and cultural understanding to the federal service. That means that leaks of this kind are toxic for good policymaking, for the civil service, and for society as a whole, and that the Obama Administration gets my full support for this prosecution.

The New Conventional Wisdom: We Have No Idea

I don’t recall ever seeing Victor Cha offer a view that was particularly original, imaginative, or likely to end in a successful result, but he is a reliable indicator of Washington conventional wisdom about North Korea, which in turn is heavily influenced by Seoul’s views about the North. And here is the new conventional wisdom: we have no idea what to do now. In Cha’s own words:

North Korean behavior has gotten so bad, according to East-West Center Visiting Fellow Victor Cha, that foreign policy experts are really at a loss about what to do.

“You do want to have some sort of diplomacy or engagement, but what do you do if a country just refuses to engage, and in the meantime it continues to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles?” Cha said during an interview at the EWC’s recent 50th Anniversary International Conference. “It’s a real dilemma. This is really a case of a country that is operating outside the normal bounds of international relations. And when use of force is really difficult to contemplate as an option, what are you supposed to do?” [East-West Center]

For years, the conventional wisdom has been based on mirror-imaged rationalizations of North Korean motives, rationalizations that failed to understand its irrational (to us) pathology. This was needless, of course. The pathology would have been evident to anyone who confronted is capable of doing to other human human beings, and the profound pathological implications of that capability. Our foreign policy establishment, accustomed to dealing with states that respond to ordinary economic and political incentives, assumed the same of North Korea — that it seeks better trade relations, more commerce with the outside world, the exchange of ambassadors, the reduction of tensions, and a better life for its people. The Foreign Policy Industry clung to them throughout the mutual partisan recriminations (yes, a cliche) that blamed everyone but Kim Jong Il for the collapse of two agreed frameworks.

Perhaps President Obama’s election was just the first necessary element of the destruction of these false assumptions. During the last year, I’ve watched them fall, starting with North Korea’s May 2009 nuclear test, and concluding (for everyone but Mike Chinoy and a few others) after North Korea sank the Cheonan. The new consensus is that talks stand no chance of disarming North Korea, and perhaps not even of preserving the peace. The new consensus is that China isn’t a “responsible partner” that will help us restrain Kim Jong Il within the range of what passes for acceptable provocations. And while sanctions have become more attractive as a policy option, there is no “accepted” view of what plausibly attainable objective they are supposed to serve, because the conventional wisdom still sees them as an accessory to diplomacy. Simply stated, the conventional wisdom is still trying to recover from the destruction of its fundamental assumptions. It has no idea what to do next.

The first step toward a better policy is to acknowledge that the last one didn’t work, and won’t work. The second step is just beginning.

Back to Gridlock?

Secretary of State Clinton will travel to Asia, including South Korea, next week. In announcing the visit, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell gave this July 15th on-the-record briefing. In contrast to the Bush Administration’s anytime, anywhere approach to the six-party talks, you can sense a subtle shift in tone:

Let me say that the United States and South Korea have always maintained, and our position is clear, that we are prepared under the right circumstances to sit down in a dialogue with North Korea. But as President Lee Myung-bak has said on numerous occasions, we do not want to talk for talking’s sake; there has to be a clear determination that North Korea rejects its provocative ways and embraces a path towards denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

I get a growing sense of polarization in the Obama Administration. On the one hand, they seem to have figured out that diplomacy is going nowhere, and accordingly, they’re backing away for the Bush Administration’s desperate pursuit of it. On the other hand, they seem to have found neither the will nor the means to punish, deter, or change to the behavior of the North Korean regime.

All of which sounds very much like the polarization that beset the Bush Administration, almost from the very beginning.