How the next President can confront the North Korean threat

Just over two years ago, I wrote about the conflict between Americans’ apparent impulse for a more passive foreign policy and their strong disapproval of what that policy looks like in practice. In other words, Americans’ views on foreign policy are seldom as simplistic as they seem to be. Strong majorities favored going into Iraq and Afghanistan, strong majorities wanted out of both by 2008, and by 2016, strong majorities disfavor the policies of those who would allow them to dissolve into chaos or terrorist domination. What Americans support in the abstract isn’t necessarily what they support once its concrete consequences become clear. Furthermore, polls that ask broad, loaded questions about America “minding its own business” don’t test Americans’ specific views about Iran sanctions, arming the Ukrainians, helping Japan and Taiwan build up their forces, or applying a contain-constrict-collapse policy toward North Korea.

Is there some way to satisfy these two seemingly contradictory views that the voters hold? After all, sending ground forces overseas isn’t the only way to influence events there. Of course, there are times when foreign enemies pose a direct threat to the United States, and other alternatives aren’t sufficient to suppress those threats. We all agree that this was true of Afghanistan in 2001. I’m not sure why that’s less true today, but that issue can be debated in other places. My point here is that there are a number of underused strategies that can deter aggression effectively without the direct use of force. Some of them may even sound like the “smart power” that Barack Obama promised us as a candidate.

I. Hub-Blocking Strategies

One set of tools with great promise are what I call hub-blocking strategies, which leverage America’s position as a hub of global commerce. A tool I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about here is financial sanctions, because it’s a tool that has worked against North Korea. Another is international trade. The size of our economy and our favorable geography mean that foreign companies, countries, shippers, and ports need access to our ports. Actors that routinely fail to inspect cargo for illicit shipments, or to enforce inspection requirements imposed by U.N. Security Council resolutions, should face enhanced inspection requirements when their cargo, or cargo originating from those places, lands here. The threat of having their merchandise tied up in customs is enough to put shippers out of business, and to drive traffic away from blacklisted ports. The worst actors may be denied access to our ports and markets entirely, or face the seizure and forfeiture of their goods, ships, and aircraft.

Recently, South Korea has shown us how good alliances can magnify this economic power, by proposing a secondary trade boycott against companies doing business with North Korea. If the United States, Japan, and other allies joined this secondary boycott as an ad hoc alliance, that strategy could be a powerful disincentive to trade with North Korea.

Often, the greatest limitation on sanctioning North Korea’s trading partners is understanding who those partners are. In some cases, multinational corporations may not even know that they’re sourcing materials from North Korea. Laws like Dodd-Frank have been a step forward in tracing these supply chains, but good research by activists can do more to expose North Korean-sourced materials to public criticism and shareholder protests.

Had the United States not damaged its brand so badly with its overbroad electronic surveillance, information technology could have (and still might) become another such hub. Who, after all, supposes that Russia, China, and other countries don’t monitor electronic communications secretly, and beyond the limits of their permissive laws? Necessary reforms to surveillance here could do much to restore our status as a hub of free communication. At the same time, Europe is coming to the conclusion that it cannot continue to take an absolutist view of internet privacy when its cities are under attack by terrorists. In the end, the United States has much to gain by becoming a trusted hub of global communications. To win that trust, its laws must impose transparency and restraint on the surveillance state.

Obviously, any of these options can be pushed to the point that it does our interests more harm than good. Just as military excesses cost us allies abroad and domestic unity at home, the Snowden case also illustrates the dangers of overextending our power over electronic communications. Over-inclusive surveillance could drive Google to put its servers (literally) off-shore. If financial sanctions are overused, they could drive commerce out of the dollar system. Excessive use of trade sanctions will sap our own economic power. This brings us to the unsatisfying answer that we must balance the interests of security and freedom of commerce, which sometimes compete with each other.

II. Progressive Diplomacy

Good diplomacy and ad hoc coalitions are essential to hub-blocking strategies. If nations that share common interests in a peaceful international order put similar restrictions on bad actors, coalitions gain the power to block more hubs and deprive those hubs of any other places to go. Ad hoc coalitions like the Proliferation Security Initiative can be extremely useful in arresting the movement of dangerous people and cargo. The Global Financial Action Task Force has been just as useful at denying bad actors the use of the financial system for money laundering and proliferation. Similar coalitions could emerge to deny money, arms, and visas to persons and regimes that engage in aggression against their neighbors or their own people. I can foresee a day, not far in the future, when the practical value of these ad hoc coalitions (along with old and new military coalitions) eclipse the U.N., which will never be a force for peace as long as China and Russia hold the veto in the Security Council.

North Korea is a good illustration of how diplomacy fails when it’s done in the wrong sequence. Until very recently, we’ve approached North Korea directly, even before achieving consensus with our allies on achieving their interests, and that has not only allowed North Korea to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy against us, it has allowed Pyongyang to negotiate from the position of greatest possible strength, without an effective coalition allied against it. In other cases, we have deferred to the erratic domestic politics of South Korea.

But by going to North Korea first, we not only dealt from a weaker position, we forgot a fundamental rule of diplomacy — it only works when all the parties have a basic willingness to make the same deal. In the case of North Korea, we deceived ourselves into believing in North Korea’s willingness to disarm because North Korea occasionally vocalized one. North Korea wanted nukes all along, of course. Now, there are calls for a round of diplomacy that would give North Korea valuable security guarantees and regime-sustaining aid despite this belated recognition.

This is not to say that there is no place for diplomacy with North Korea, only that engaging in it now would be hopelessly premature and naive. Diplomacy will only work after North Korea decides that it’s more dangerous to keep its nukes than to give them up, and that will require us to pressure it to the edge of extinction. We don’t have the leverage for that today. Gaining it will require a combination of crippling financial isolation and domestic subversion. The threat of those things will cause alarm in Beijing, but if we show a willingness to use them anyway, China will also pressure North Korea to disarm rather than see another Syria erupt on its border.

III. Liberation is best left to the liberated

As a nation, we seem to have forgotten that when only force can deter or reverse aggression, it is not always wisest for America to intervene directly. We have become too restrained in supporting political resistance movements against regimes opposed to both our interests and that of their own people. Such support should be offered only to movements that agree to abide by the laws of armed conflict, share a common core of our values, would support some important U.S. interests, and could (with a reasonable amount of material assistance) restore a better and more liberal order than the existing one. Once given, such support should only be withdrawn when we can be certain that a cease-fire and a diplomatic resolution can be verified, and will protect those who have sided with us from the state’s retribution.

The most obvious examples of failure here are our passivity in Syria, and during the Green Revolution in Iran. Had we imposed and enforced the kind of tough sanctions then that forced Iran back to the bargaining table later, and had we been more vocal in supporting the opposition, Iran might not have been found the resources to crush it. Had we been more aggressive about financing and advising the opposition, and about supporting its communications strategy with broadcasting and other information operations, it could have withstood the crackdown long enough for sanctions to work.

Today, it is difficult to recall that the Syrian opposition was initially non-violent, and that when it finally took up arms, it was predominantly secular. At the right moment, a shipment of antitank rockets and light antiaircraft guns might have allowed a better government to seize control in Syria. The price of our non-interventionist policy there speaks for itself today. I suspect we’ll be paying that price for decades.

Of course, these aren’t strategies that can be switched on at a moment’s notice. They rest on a foundation of outreach toward and diplomacy with opposition leaders, long-term support for their organizations, and long-term cultivation of the relations that will be necessary to help them govern in a post-revolutionary environment. (That is, the very things we should be doing to cultivate a broad-based North Korean opposition today.) Any opposition movement derives the popular support it needs to survive from its perceived capacity to govern, and to provide for the population’s needs.

To be clear, I do not necessarily refer here to support for armed resistance — something that is both completely hypothetical and increasingly plausible today, and which tends to break out suddenly and unexpectedly in highly repressive states. For now, the U.S. and South Korea should agree to cooperate on a non-violent strategy of information operations, and quietly build a political infrastructure that could either become the foundation for a civil society in a reunified Korea, or a resistance movement that would drain the state’s resources and contest its control over North Korea’s vast, mountainous, and nearly roadless interior.

The initial objectives of our engagement strategy should be to inform the North Korean people about different systems of government, their own prospects and aspirations in the event of reunification, and how to respond to different contingencies. It should facilitate the economic empowerment of low-songbun citizens through private agriculture and light industry, occupational training, commerce, and finance, all of which will break their dependence on the state and allow them to bribe their way out of their subjugation. It should cause defense planners in Beijing to hesitate to intervene in North Korea if the potential exists for an organized resistance movement to drain their government’s domestic political support. Creating this infrastructure requires us to give North Koreans the means to communicate freely with each other, and to organize the informal people-to-people networks that will eventually evolve into a political opposition movement. Fortunately, the day when technology breaks the last barriers to freedom of information seems increasingly inevitable.

IV. Deterrence & Buying Time

Unfortunately, it’s no longer clear whether there is enough time for this strategy to work. While the Obama administration’s North Korea policy drifted for eight years, North Korea made rapid progress toward an effective nuclear arsenal. Even if pursued with equal determination, a strategy of hub-blocking, progressive diplomacy, and political subversion could take anywhere from one to five years to threaten the survival of the regime in Pyongyang, and make effective diplomacy possible.

The risky — and until now, unsustainably risky — option of limited strikes against North Korea’s WMD facilities may now be necessary to buy enough time for non-violent (or less violent) strategies to work. At a minimum, it should now be the declared policy of the United States, Japan, and South Korea that they reserve the right to intercept all North Korean missile launches. As dangerously risky as that sounds, I maintain that putting North Korea on a path to the domination of South Korea, unrestricted global nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare, and a direct North Korean nuclear threat to the United States are all much more dangerous.

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Rand Paul: You people got me all wrong about this non-interventionism stuff.

Paul’s shift may be even less credible than Clinton’s, and just as mercenary. Unfortunately for Paul, isolationism, emotional authenticity, and financial puritanism are his brand image. Without those things, he’s just Mike Huckabee with better hair. It is Paul’s misfortune that we’re re-awakening to the dreary truth that the low characters of our world won’t let us ignore them away.

I’m still waiting for someone — anyone — to advocate sustainable, plausible strategy for defeating ISIS. The only such strategy I can see is to offer the Sunnis diplomatic support for autonomy and military support for a re-awakening that would deprive ISIS of a haven. For the same reason a doctor wouldn’t treat half a tumor, this same offer has to apply to Sunnis in Syria, which might result in a regional alliance of moderate, autonomous Sunni para-states stretching from Aleppo to Mosul, liberated by Arab tribes with American-supplied weapons, and backed by U.S. air power — and not by U.S. infantry.

Only the Arabs can exterminate ISIS now, but no one has a greater interest in doing so. In due course, a backlash against the brutality of ISIS will build. Our imperative is to be ready to take advantage of that backlash.

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Between surrender and stupid: Regressing toward the mean in a post-Iraq world

As the world’s attention is focused on the disaster in Iraq, let’s take a moment to mourn the last remnants of Syria’s non-extremist, secular rebels, who are facing their final extermination in Aleppo. To Syrians who risked everything for a future worth living in, it’s academic now that Hillary Clinton privately agreed with what I said back in 2011 (last item), when I called for us to arm moderate rebels there. Clinton now says she warned that if we didn’t, extremists would devour the country and its neighbors. Indeed, it seems that for the next several years, Hezbollah will be the most progressive force in Syria.

“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said.

As she writes in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, she was an inside-the-administration advocate of doing more to help the Syrian rebellion. Now, her supporters argue, her position has been vindicated by recent events. [The Atlantic]

I hope Syria’s sacrifice will not be for nothing, and that it will be a useful lesson one day, when we have to confront the same question in North Korea. (Yes, this post will eventually turn to the question of North Korea.) I’m grateful enough for Clinton’s acknowledgment that for the moment, I’ll avoid the question of whether I really believe her.

What Clinton is saying about the uses of American power — now that the effect of withdrawing it from the world is so manifest — is also a necessary correction of our post-Bush over-correction. In retrospect, most of us would agree that invading Iraq was a terrible, costly error. And as is so often the case, however, many of us took the lessons of Iraq to extremes, and came to view American power as the real problem there, as opposed to the terrorism that found opportunities in the nationalist reaction to our invasion.

I hope that this back-backlash will cause serious reconsideration of the isolationism that has thrown the world into the greatest outbreak of malignant anarchy since 1975, just as it has discredited the idea that the direct application of U.S. force is the default solution to foreign policy problems.

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Iraq taught us the cost of excess; Syria is teaching us the cost of inaction.

In The Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead argues that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine was a favor in disguise, a wake-up call for weary Americans who’ve been wishing the world away. Unfortunately, I suspect it will take greater tragedies than this to show us the danger of withdrawing from the world. Yes, there is utility in deterring Putin, even in weakening him domestically, but it’s hard for most of us to see a border war over Russian-speaking parts of the Ukraine as a direct threat to us, particularly if Putin’s actions also drive much of Central Europe closer to the U.S. and the EU. In the end, we see Putin as the leader of a nation of bitterly declining demographics and economics, of local (rather than messianic) ambitions. Russia is a problem to be dealt with through traditional realpolitik.

The greater tragedy could be North Korea, but in North Korea, almost everything is hidden from us, and what isn’t hidden is often dismissed as farce. Another greater tragedy that has unfolded in plain (or plain enough) sight is Syria, where North Koreans recently served as “observers” for Bashar Assad’s sham reelection. As is so often the case with North Korea, this would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. This, too, will be dismissed as farce, but it shouldn’t be.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, whom President Obama personally chose for the job, and who represented our country ably, bravely, and honorably during his tour, has come out to denounce President Obama for his inaction there, and for creating in Syria the very thing so many Americans fought and died to prevent in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ROBERT FORD: In the end, Margaret, I worked from Washington on the Syria issue for two years. Events on the ground were moving and our policy was not evolving very quickly. We were constantly behind the curve, and that’s why, now, we have extremist threats to our own country. We had a young man from Florida, apparently, who was involved in a suicide bombing and there will be more problems like that, I fear. Our policy was not evolving and finally I got to a point where I could no longer defend it publicly. And as a professional career member of the U.S. diplomatic service, when I could no longer defend the policy in public, it is time for me to go. 

MARGARET WARNER: What was the biggest mistake you think the Obama administration, this government, made?

ROBERT FORD: As I said, we’ve consistently been behind the curve; that events on the ground are moving more rapidly than our policy has been adapting, and at the same time Russia and Iran have been driving this by increasing — and steadily increasing, increasing massively, especially the Iranians — their support to the Syrian regime. And the result of that has been more threats to us in this ungoverned space which Assad can’t retake. We need — and we have long needed — to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance. Had we done that, a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly the al-Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who, frankly, we have much in common with. But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaeda groups in Syria do. [PBS NewsHour]

Things in Syria have turned out pretty much as I feared they would, when I warned nearly two years ago that we should have supported moderates there, back when they were plentiful. Worse, our early failure to support the Syrian opposition has meant many lost opportunities for peace in neighboring states:

[T]he overthrow of the Assad regime is strongly in our interests.  The Assads are a proliferation threat — they have chemical weapons, they may have biological weapons, and they tried to acquire nuclear weapons from North Korea.  Assad’s collapse will further isolate Iran and increase pressure on its regime. It will isolate Hezbollah, which could make Lebanon more stable and democratic. Hamas is already betting on a rebel victory, but Syrian regime that does not actively support Hamas would mean a less radicalized, less anarchic, and more unitary Palestine. Finally, it would deny North Korea one of its most important arms clients, and we have an interest in seeing to it that another good client doesn’t replace Assad.

Instead of offering a credible response to criticisms that events have since validated, President Obama recently went to West Point to accuse advocates of a braver, more decisive foreign policy of being war-mongers. This is a silly argument that deserved to be (and was) was widely panned, even by those who usually support the President, or once did.

The argument was also an ironic one, because when the President wanted to intervene in Syria directly, I opposed it. One reason for this was that I didn’t see direct intervention as our best option. My default view — a view that the Iraq experience has reinforced — is that liberation is best left to the liberated. I’m unwilling to support direct intervention unless I’m convinced that we have no worthy or capable allies within the nation concerned, or that the danger is too great and too immediate to address in other, less costly ways.

Another reason was that I didn’t trust this administration to see the effort through. Syria was to be a war to protect the credibility of President Obama’s “red line.” But nothing would have done more harm to our nation’s credibility than to start another war without finishing it. We’ve done far too much of that already. That’s why Assad felt safe in crossing President Obama’s red line in the first place, and still does.

The President’s early inaction in Syria means that today, Syria has become what Afghanistan became in the early 1990s, and what we fought to keep Iraq from becoming in 2006. We can already see the shape of the threat that’s forming in Syria now, where the next generation of terrorists is training. One can easily imagine the shape it could take ten years from now, when they acquire some portion of Syria’s chemical or biological weapons.

The fiasco in Syria is probably the greatest security threat to the United States to have emerged in the last ten years, yet there is little political consciousness of this today, just as there was little consciousness of how, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Presidents Clinton and Bush stood by while Afghanistan fell to the forces anarchy and theocracy. For that matter, President Clinton’s North Korea policy probably polled well in the 1990s, when he allowed North Korea to go nuclear (the same could be said of George W. Bush in 2007). President Obama’s anemic support for the Iranian opposition in 2009 means we’ll face an intensifying nuclear crisis there. Each of these politically easy decisions-of-least-resistance imposed a terrible cost on our national security later. Each deserves to tarnish the legacy of the president who was responsible for it.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. The paradox for presidents is that voters reward decisions of least resistance, at least until the consequences show up. Remember the last time a President led the nation by explaining the cost of inaction? It convinced most of us in 2003. In retrospect, few of us would do that again. Almost every part of our national security establishment failed us — from the intelligence agencies, to the Army’s ham-handed pre-Petraeus search-and-destroy tactics, to a political class that voted to invade and that later turned opportunistically against the war, advocating a sudden withdrawal that would have left Al Qaeda victorious and ascendant. Perhaps the liberation of Iraq ought to have been left to the liberated, too, but by 2006, it was too late to make that decision.

One day, the political system in North Korea will also fracture. When that happens, I hope this President or his successor will learn the lesson of Syria and be prepared to support any opposition movement willing to support our interests and our values. We will not have three years to waste on paralysis-by-analysis when that opportunity presents itself. A North Korea that comes under the control of more rational and statesmanlike leaders will be an opportunity for peace and prosperity in a region with almost incalculable potential for both prosperity and crisis. A North Korea that clings to power through terror will eventually give other terrorists — perhaps terrorists trained in Syria — the means to do incalculable damage to our allies, and to our own country.

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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.

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The Syria-North Korea Axis

After watching North Korea get away with shipping anti-aircraft missiles to terrorists and its past chemical and nuclear proliferation to Syria, it’s gratifying to see people catch onto North Korea’s role in the tragedy in Syria.  There are several more op-eds and stories on this today, all of them well worth reading:

These weren’t necessarily Korea-related, but did provide useful information:

  • Congressional support for a military strike on Syria is collapsing. It’s unfortunate that we seem divided and irresolute, but it’s better that the President steers toward a new strategy, hopefully after he solicits Congress’s views and gets its support. A strike would make us feel like we’ve done something, but the only way it could slow Assad’s use of chemical weapons at this point would be to hit enough artillery to also, incidentally, help Al Qaeda. Better to attack the proliferation network that supplies the weapons to begin with. That network’s source is in Pyongyang, and the best ways to attack it don’t involve the use for military force.
  • It’s a pretty rare week when Tom Friedman writes two columns, and I agree with a majority of what he writes in both of them.

[Update: I changed the wording in the first sentence, which previously read “proliferation” to terrorists, to “shipping anti-aircraft missiles to terrorists,” because “proliferation” implies the transfer of WMD, which I don’t know to be the case (not that I’d doubt it, either).]

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Syria, the next Afghanistan?

The Flock isn’t moving that way now, but I still defend the Obama Administration’s military and diplomatic approach to the Libyan civil war.  Qaddafi was mentally unstable, mentally unstable people are dangerous, and his regime was an ideal breeding ground for extremism.  If things hadn’t changed, they’d only have continued to get worse. Better for us to have supported the more moderate elements than to have allowed the extremists to make Libya their own, as would have eventually happened (and still could).

Of course, no one would defend the non-optimal way this administration has handled other aspects of its Libya policy, including embassy security, public communications, and congressional relations.  This being an election year, the most focus is on the security and communications aspects, but in the long run, it may prove to be the least consequential of those failures — that is, for everyone but the families of those who died.  The administration’s failure to sell its no-footprint intervention to Congress and the people, on the other hand, subsequently hobbled it when a far more consequential conflict arose in Syria.

Part of this must be because this administration just doesn’t seem interested in expending capital on foreign policy, period.  Another part must have been the unintelligent, short-sighted, and opportunistic criticism of some Republicans.  In retrospect, the administration’s no-footprint strategy for overthrowing Qaddafi could prove to have served, and conserved, our nation’s interests, power, and resources more effectively than our heavy-footprint occupation of Iraq did.  And just as the anti-war opportunism of Democrats who voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has harmed America’s ability to mobilize is population for necessary interventions — whatever you think those are — Republicans’ opportunistic isolationism also done us harm by nudging this administration toward paralysis in Syria.

In the foreign policy of post-World War II America, there have been many internal conflicts in which the United States had a stake in the outcome because one of the parties espoused a statist or nihilistic world view based on envy or resentment.  Those emotions are magnetically attracted to America, and America inevitably becomes the object of their malice.  What both parties fail to recognize, at least in our national conversation, is that Syria is moving in a direction that may eventually make a direct U.S. intervention essential to our national security.  There is still a window during which we might achieve those essential goals without intervention, but it’s closing fast.  There may still be an opportunity to identify, support, and empower potential allies among the Syrian rebels.  The political conditions were more ripe for that six months ago than they are now, and six months from now, it will probably be too late.  It may already be too late.  And because one day, we’ll have the same decision to make about North Korea, I’d like to see us get things right this time.

So while Libya may yet form a relatively representative and moderate government, the administration’s indecisive approach to Syria is failing in ways that become more frightening each month.  Unlike this administration, Qatar and Saudi Arabia aren’t restrained about arming their friends, and unsurprisingly, their friends are our enemies.  Their preferential arming and funding of the most extremist elements of the Syrian rebels are turning Syria into a replay of Afghanistan in the early 1980s.  The Syrian rebels now have man-portable surface-to-air missiles.  If present trends continue, they’ll also soon have Aleppo, Damascus, very substantial stockpiles of chemical weapons, and the means to deliver them throughout the region.  At that point, would doing nothing be even worse than direct intervention?  The Syrian conflict has already begun to spread across borders.  Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are both fighting on Assad’s side.  Syria and its proxies are murdering Lebanese officials, and there are violent protests on the streets of Beirut in reaction to that.  We’re now facing the very real prospect of a regional Shiite-Sunni / Arab-Kurd conflict in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.  The conflict could spread to Jordan, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia itself.  Any of those countries, or regions within them, could come under the domination of terrorists.

It is probably too late for a grand bargain with secular elements of the opposition, in which they agree to expel or eliminate the terrorists and extremists among them.  The extremists are already too strong for that.  The best we can hope for now is to strengthen the hand of “moderate” elements — I speak in relative, not absolute terms here — just enough to maximize their influence in post-Assad Syria and prevent the complete domination of the extremists.  This may now be down to a choice between a government that looks like Hamas today or one that looks like the Taliban in the 1990s.  Finding ourselves in this unfolding nightmare might be this administration’s greatest foreign policy failure, an even greater failure than its dithering while Iran’s mullahs suppressed the Green Revolution.

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At the New Ledger: Thoughts on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Sorry for forgetting to link this yesterday.

Speaking of Europe, can anyone name one great and positive European contribution to global culture since the end of World War I? After weeks of thought, I’ve come up with just two: the Soviet composers of the 20th Century, and Legos. Sure, I guess it depends on your standards for artistic and cultural merit, but I’ve spent the last month mulling that over and coming up with a nearly blank slate. What also strikes me is the degree to which the rest of the world can’t seem to get enough of the very dumbest that American culture has to offer (and if you can stand Borat‘s more tasteless moments, you’ll see that satirized brilliantly).

It’s true, and also a cliche, that China is rising. But China’s political system and demographics are glass ceilings it might not be able break through without losing plenty of blood. What can you say about a country whose best hope for peaceful change is that the government won’t shoot so many corrupt officials that graft can’t work its gradual liberating magic?

To me, the rising power to watch is India. In every sense I can think of — economic, cultural, legal, military, industrial, demographic, geographic — India is the coiled spring that nobody’s watching, one that could also become an engine of growth and a positive political influence in other regions. Meanwhile, Americans continue to obsess over the approval of regions filled with bitterness over the irreversibility of their decline.

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Robert Mugabe Hearts Kim Jong Il’s Missile

[Updated below.]

I remember the Zimbabwe of July 1990 as a slightly behind-the-times but functioning country that managed to fix the roads, get the kids to school, grow and export food, and run some very good national parks … and little else.  What a difference 19 years of despotic oligarchy can make.  Today, North Korea’s number two, Kim Yong Nam, is in Harare as a guest of Robert Mugabe.  And how else should the leaders of two nations they have plunged into famine celebrate their alliance?  With a banquet, naturally!

Robert G. Mugabe in his speech said that Zimbabwe felt grateful to the government and people of the DPRK for having sent strong support and encouragement to his government and people in their struggle for the country’s independence and the building of a new society.

The revolutionary idea of President Kim Il Sung has always given confidence and inspiration to the Zimbabwean people in their struggle and he will always be remembered by all people along with history, he added.  [….]

Kim Yong Nam in his speech said that the DPRK and Zimbabwe are far away from each other geographically but they forged close ties of friendship long ago and have developed the cooperative relations.

He recalled that Kim Il Sung sent support and encouragement, both material and moral, to the Zimbabwean people in their struggle for national liberation and the building of a new society, regarding President Robert G. Mugabe as a close friend and comrade-in-arms.

Saying that the DPRK is opposed to all sanctions against Zimbabwe and interference in its internal affairs and supports the government and people of Zimbabwe in their efforts to achieve political stability and economic development of the country, he stressed that the DPRK would make positive efforts to boost the traditional relations of friendship and cooperation in various fields between the two countries in the future, too.  [KCNA]

What kind of “support and encouragement” Robert Mugabe possibly want from the North Koreans?  For one thing, his troops could probably use some more training in the proper gunning down of angry mobs:

The leader of the anti-Mugabe camp in the MDC has issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the DPRK President of the Presidium of Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic Republic of North Korea Mr Kim Vong Nam to leave Zimbabwe.

He indicated to Mr Kim that his visit was not welcome since the DPRK was responsible for training the fifth brigade which massacred the people of Matebeleland and Mr Sikhala indicated that his aunt was a victim in that horrendous and hellish crime against humanity.

Moreover Mr Sikhala spelled out that North Korea represents the most satanic outpost of tyranny and urged Mr Kim to go and organise elections in his country where people are languishing from unmitigated poverty and gross human rights abuses.  [Zim Telegraph]

Estimates of the numbers killed by the Fifth Brigade vary considerably.  Wikipedia, which describes the brigade’s atrocities in grisly detail, estimates the casualties at around 3,000.  This BBC report suggests that the toll is over 20,000 and alleges that North Korean officers served with the Fifth Brigade as it cut a swath through Matabeleland.  The tension from this tribal and internecine conflict was still fresh when I visited Zimbabwe, and driving at night was considered unwise.  Oddly enough, the pro-massacre point of view holds a unanimous dominance in the comments to this story.

Mugabe offered some support and encouragement of his own:

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has congratulated North Korea on its rocket launch last month and expressed hopes for even warmer bilateral ties. [Voice of America]

I certainly don’t see how anything good can come of this.

Update:   The Zimbabweans also sent a delegation to Pyongyang, which was the Zimbabwean opposition concerned.

According to the news the report, Mohadi and his delegation met with the North Korean Minister of the Interior in which they discussed, among other things, boosting exchange and co-operation between security organs between the two countries.  [The Zimbabwe Times]

What does North Korea sell that Zimbabwe could possibly need, and which North Korea isn’t barred from selling under UNSCR 1718?

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Banzai for Nuclear Japan!

Japan should consider possessing nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a neighboring threat, former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa suggested Sunday.

In a speech in Obihiro, Hokkaido, in reference to North Korea’s rocket launch earlier this month that many believe was a ballistic missile test, the hawkish lawmaker said: “It is common sense worldwide that in pure military terms, nuclear counters nuclear.”

In Sunday’s speech, Nakagawa said he believes North Korea has many Rodong medium-range missiles that could reach almost any part of Japan and also has small nuclear warheads.

“North Korea has taken a step toward a system whereby it can shoot without prior notice,” he said. “We have to discuss countermeasures.”

He added that public discussions must be promoted on what has long been considered a national taboo: whether Japan should possess nuclear weapons.  [Kyodo News via Japan Today; (ht)]

I loved what came next:

Nakagawa stepped down as finance minister in February over what appeared to be drunken behavior at an international news conference in Rome.

Those of you who dread this idea should take some comfort from the word “former,” and I’m not sure that the clownish drunken man is a likely spokesman for an orchestrated trial balloon from the Japanese government.  Even the title of the article ridicules Nakagawa.  I’m guessing that Nakagawa probably speaks for himself and plenty of unstated opinion that will mostly remain unstated for the time being.  But with America increasingly perceived as an unreliable protector in Japan recently, I can understand why some in Japan are starting to think about going nuclear, and I have very good reason to suspect that South Korea has similar ideas.

Count me as cautiously enthusiastic about a nuclear Japan.  Let’s list the pros and cons:


1.  Another Asian ally begins to shoulder more of the burden of its own defense.  Let’s hope this results in a more equal alliance in which American taxpayers aren’t subsidizing the defense of the entire region.

2.  Finally, North Korea’s shenanigans impose a strategic cost on China.

3.  Japanese possession of nukes would hollow out explicit North Korean threats, or implicit Chinese threats, of a nuclear strike against Japan.

4.  A less sanctimonious spin at the Hiroshima Peace Museum.  Of course, it would be too much to expect that the museum would place the A-bombings into the context of the Rape of Nanking or Pearl Harbor.

5.  We’re two tests away from a full and final resolution of the status of Tokdo.


1.  One more state with nuclear weapons; but in the grander scheme of things, the existence of a functionally uncontained North Korean arsenal gives relatively little cause for anyone to worry about Japan having one.

2.  An arms race has broken out, but I’d argue that China and North Korea started the arms race a decade ago, even as South Korea was disarming.  The fact that Japan is rearming restores some of the military balance.  Yes, that’s going to be a lot of expenditure on weapons, but a relatively greater percentage of that spending will be by nations other than us.  Indeed, Japan may invest more in missile defense and delivery systems that it will end up purchasing from the United States.

3.  The sneaking suspicion that they haven’t quite gotten the whole Pearl Harbor thing out of their systems.

If the goal of appeasing North Korea was to limit nuclear proliferation, that certainly hasn’t been the effect.

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The “Realism” Fad, Truth in Labeling, The Obama Doctrine, and Godot

Jeff Jacoby asks how many Democrats still believe in the moral superiority of democracy.  Nowadays, I wonder.  I frequently hear it said, especially by adherents of the fad mislabeled as “realism,” that nations have the “right” to choose their own way.  The problem with this argument is that invariably, “nations” really means a tiny clique of thugs and oligarchs with the keys to the helicopter gunships, who exercise that “right” by proxy and do the choosing for everyone else.  I’ve also wondered how happy the voluble chatterers who espouse this theory would be without their rights to speak freely.  This is just one level of hypocrisy away from the pederast mullahs who want to save the purity of their societies from the destructive urges of other people to hold hands.

The new crop of realists being stamped out of grad schools today reminds me of nothing so much as the shiny new neoconservatives of 2003 — enthusiastic ideologues who have been compressed by their philosophy’s basic truths, but who will in due course be unleashed with the excess that faddish views inevitably produce.  In the case of the neoconservatives, with whom I admittedly share many points of agreement, the excess was to go beyond the moral and pecuniary superiority of propogating personal freedom to support for “using U.S. power, including military force, to bring democracy and human rights to other countries.”  Neoconservatism has become such an ill-defined epithet that it’s fair to suspect that a straw man is being attacked here.  But to the extent that this is an accurate characterization of neoconservatism, it’s a not view I’m often inclined to join.  Indeed, I’ve wanted to remove most of our troops from South Korea and Europe for years, and I’ve been less solicitous of using force against North Korea than either William Perry or Newt Gingrich.  It would be far better to sell the Koreans and the Europeans all the arms they choose to buy, in much the way that Israel does and Taiwan doesn’t.  I believe that foreign deployments risk entanglements in foreign wars not of our choosing, and I believe we can continue to exercise as much influence as we need to through the supply of superior weapons, intelligence, air and naval superiority, command/control, and logistics.

My hopelessly out-of-vogue view derives from the old Nixon/Reagan Doctrines of helping people to either defend or win their own freedom with their own arms and blood, but with arms we provide if diplomatic means fail.  I recognize the basic impatience of Americans with foreign wars, and that freedom fighting is best left to the people who must live or die on the land they fight for.  At the same time, I recognize that some societies (Lebanon) are relatively better prepared for democracy than others (Palestine), and that the pursuit of democracy should be a gradual, Hegelian thing calibrated to a society’s maturity, education, and capacity for self-government.  I believe in the importance of diplomacy, but I recognize the pointlessness of diplomacy with nations that don’t share our values or basic interests, unless that diplomacy is backed by the alternative of political, economic, or military consequences.
I still remember when most “realists” and neoconservatives agreed on something:  like the vast majority of Americans, I supported the decision to invade Iraq based on what I thought we knew in 2003.  At the time, I was wearing a uniform myself.  I don’t regret my views, and history is gradually revealing how much better off the world might just become because of the invasion.  I also have a fairly vivid picture of what the Middle East would be like today with Saddam in power and the U.N. utterly powerless to contain him.  True, we suffered needlessly because of the misbegotten tactics of 2004 and 2005, but if you’ve studied insurgencies through history, our casualties and the time it took for us to achieve a decisive shift in popular attitudes in Iraq will — from the safe distance of time — mark Iraq as one of history’s more successful counterinsurgencies.

Ironically, I let the ex-interventionist, born-again “realist” Kenneth Pollock talk me out of the idea of helping the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam on their own, but unlike Pollock and most of the intellectuals in this town, I opposed the panicky flight for Iraq’s exits after we’d already made the decision to invade and things got hard.  Wars cannot be retracted ex-post-facto based on shifting intelligence without inviting an even greater disaster.  Unlike most war-weary intellectuals, I’ve actually served in the military and know what defeat would have done to our morale and to our standing as a nation.  Thank God George Bush made the single best decision of his otherwise dismal presidency and ignored the herd then.  Today, we and the Iraqis have a decent shot at avoiding a catastrophic defeat and catalyzing Iraq’s evolution into a habitable place.  Certainly Iraq is not approaching Jeffersonian democracy, nor was it ever realistic to expect as much.  If it can be as free as South Korea was in the 1960’s, it may eventually evolve into something as free as South Korea is today.  Just as certainly, the “realist” views that we could negotiate our way to a peaceful Iraq with Iran and Syria from a position of prostration, or that we could leave a victorious al Qaeda in possession of vast swaths of Iraq, were madness.  That view would have brought Iraq to a place somewhere between 1990’s Afghanistan and 1970’s Cambodia.  It could have been the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster since 1945.

The “realist” view of North Korea is equally unrealistic.  After all we’ve experienced in the last two decades, one self-described “realist” at Real Clear World even said this:

[T]he best way of gaining the support of the North Korean regime to stop nuclear proliferation is…by diplomacy and offering the North Koreans incentives.  [Real Clear World Blog]

Here is someone who has never heard of the al-Shifa reactor, which North Korea was building at a furious pace at the height of Agreed Framework II, as American fuel oil warmed Kim Jong Il’s clot-sodden veins.  Quite the contrary — Kim Jong Il used diplomacy to hoodwink us into relaxing the enforcement of UNSCR 1695 and 1718, thus licensing even more proliferation and letting him cross more “red lines.” The “realist” way accomplished absolutely nothing of value toward disarming North Korea, but did much to undermine international counterproliferation and the authority of the U.N. in general.  In the end, to have a “realist” view requires belief in a whole series of wishful delusions:  that Kim Jong Il can be persuaded to give up his nuclear weapons, that he proliferates because of rational incentives rather than malice, that he seeks to open his society to the world to improve the lives of his subjects, and that China means us no harm and really wants North Korea to play nicely with everyone.  It is not possible to defend any of those views against a rational interpretation of recent history.

But is Obama’s foreign policy “realist”?  Frankly, I have no idea.  What I see is a vaporous muddle without any coherent world view.  Ex-post-facto opposition to the war in Iraq seems to be the whole extent of its unanimity — all together now:  “We’re tiiiiired.”  Take the incoherence of Obama’s North Korea policy.  Just after North Korea’s missile test, Special Envoy Bosworth was telling us that we’d be back to bilateral talks with them shortly, as though nothing more was amiss than the usual kidnapping, genocide, and threats to turn Tokyo into a sea of fire.  Today, we’re hearing that bilateral talks aren’t going to happen just yet (but just give them time).  This smacks of the sort of gridlock that the Bush Administration, notwithstanding its portrayals for ideological rigidity, never quite overcame.  This is how presidencies fail to deal with crises, and the urgency of creating coherent policies (ie., “ready from Day One”) is why we give presidents-elect nearly three months of transition time from election to inauguration.

When did I realize we were in trouble?  When I heard that Obama had brought three hundred foreign policy advisors aboard his campaign, an image that smacks less of “brain trust” than “circus tent.”  Now whittle that understrength battalion down to the collection of svengalis who’ve emerged as influential figures since the transition:  liberal interventionists (Samantha Power),  Jew-baiting kooks (Chas Freeman), panda-huggers (Dennis Blair), left-wing Machiavellians (Hillary Clinton, Christopher Hill) and traditional liberal doves (Susan Rice).   Mix  them all  that together and you have scrapple,  with just as much mystery about the beast of origin.  Imagine what fun it would be — to say nothing of the pay per view revenues — to arm them with sharp pencils and letter openers, lock them in a gymnasium, and tell them that no one leaves until we have a written statement on our new Tibet policy.

The question remains:  what is the Obama doctrine?  To say that it is not the Bush Doctrine isn’t enough anymore.

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Great Ideas That Won’t Work: A Korea-Japan Alliance

For reasons I laid out here in January, pragmatism is making gradual gains on emotion in Seoul and forcing Japan and South Korea to understand that their interests have aligned:

A senior South Korean government official recently remarked that if the U.S. and North Korea speed up too much in bilateral talks, Japan could play a role in “slamming on the brakes.” He appeared to be suggesting that any bilateral negotiations bringing Washington and Pyongyang together after the North has launched a rocket next month could proceed too fast in the direction of normal diplomatic ties for the comfort of South Korea.

While is not against direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang, it feels a stop must be put to North Korea’s brinkmanship tactics, i.e. to ratcheting up tensions to speak to the U.S. direct and make diplomatic gains. And it is here, the official suggested, that Seoul-Tokyo cooperation comes in. “Japan was once considered a stumbling block to solving North Korean issues,” another South Korean official said. “But now has the most important role.” [Chosun Ilbo]

First reaction: since the beginning of the third Clinton Administration in 2006, the United States has sacrificed the interests of traditional Pacific allies to China. So where is the sinister whispering campaign about the China Lobby and its controlling interests in a cabal of ideologues who’ve penetrated the U.S. government? And while the media haven’t completely ignored China’s large-scale oppression of its subjects, Tibetan monks and landless Chinese farmers have far to go to achieve the radical chic adoration that Hamas has.

Second reaction: The problem with battling the emotion of the Korean Street is that you never know when it will roar up and smash years of intricate statesmanship. No wonder it’s so difficult for South Korea to form coherent diplomatic strategies. For the sake of apologies for what can’t be undone, the Korean Street turns away from saving the comfort women of their own time. Yet who believes that ten years from now, Koreans will be chopping off their fingers at the offices of the Hankyoreh or demanding apologies from the politicians who appeased the North’s regime at the cost of uncounted, unmourned North Korean lives? As is so often the case, Koreans shouldn’t have to look abroad to find the source of their own despair.

But they will.

And of course, the Korean Street’s obsessions extend to things that are simply inexplicable. Maybe the next baseball game should be for Tokdo, with the loser agreeing to renounce all claims forever.

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Being Loved Is Overrated

Good morning, America — the world hates you slightly less! They took a poll shortly after Obama’s election:

Views of the US showed improvements in Canada, Egypt, Ghana, India, Italy and Japan. But far more countries have predominantly negative views of America (12), than predominantly positive views (6). Most Europeans show little change and views of the US in Russia and China have grown more negative. On average, positive views have risen from 35 per cent to 40 per cent, but they are still outweighed by negative views (43%, down from 47%). [BBC]

And in other news, Europe (and South Korea, and Japan) still isn’t willing to help more in Afghanistan, which has a few more moments as “the good war” until the usual suspects start urging us to flee from that front, too. Ecuador just expelled someone from our embassy in Quito. Anne Applebaum points to a newly emerging school of “thought” — for now, emerging from a collection of cartoonish kooks in Russia and China, mostly — that the Obama presidency is a hoax by the hidden illuminati who really run America. And there’s always North Korea and Iran, for whom hatred of and tension with America are existential.

Here’s a prediction: two years from now, the world will still hate us. We will be hated as long as we are envied. We will be hated most, paradoxically, by many of those whose most ardent desire is to live here. It will take a little time for world opinion’s lowest common denominator to reconfigure its personalization of anti-Americanism around the figure of Barack Obama, which I suppose means that it will be heavily blended with some ancient old-world prejudices about our new President’s race. We’ve already seen some of this: a pro-government Iranian news agency called Obama a “house slave,” and the terrorist Ayman Zawahiri called Obama and other African-Americans who have served in our government “house negroes.”

Let me tell you a dirty secret about world public opinion. Try to research trends in the growth of global anti-Americanism, and you’ll notice something curious: perhaps because of the pollsters’ own assumptions or biases, most of the data only begin with the Iraq War. But in those relatively rare cases in which the assembled data go back to 2001, you can see that anti-Americanism really took off in Europe in 2001, before the Iraq War.


The conclusion is almost too ugly to contemplate: that European anti-Americanism became fashionable because of 9/11 and the events immediately thereafter, possibly to include the U.S. attack on the Taliban shortly thereafter. In Britain, Turkey, and Pakistan, for example, views of the U.S. declined more in the year after 9/11 than in any year since. Indeed, while it’s a popular myth that “the world rallied to our side” after 9/11, aside from a few politicians and editorialists, the evidence is the opposite: anti-Americanism rose dramatically after 9/11. In the Muslim world, a majority believed that the 9/11 attacks were “not carried out by Arabs” (so who then?). In Europe, a majority believed that the attacks were, as the expression goes, a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Anyone who was reading the opinion pages of The Guardian in those days will remember it all well enough. It is also true that anti-Americanism continued to rise through most of the Iraq War, though without acceleration, and didn’t begin to decline (modestly) until 2007, a year when more U.S. troops were sent to Iraq, but when America began to win the war. Overall, this doesn’t suggest that anti-Americanism is a function of America’s humbleness so much as the natural human tendencies toward envy, toward blaming victims, and toward taking the side of those perceived to be victors. It also suggests that Obama will eventually have to choose between the approval of those abroad who viscerally resent us and the approval of American voters. Place your bets.

I, for one, resolve to take perverse pleasure from documenting the end of the liberal illusion that Obama can make us loved again, and the greater illusion that it really matters.

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And the lions shall lie down with the lambs, and there shall be good eatin’ for the lions.

I am not one who believes that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim or Trotskyite just waiting to fling open the republic’s gates to let the barbarians in, nor have I seen credible evidence that a significant percentage of the population ever really did. On the other hand, the significant percentage of the population wearing those creepy cultish idol-worshipping shirts will find the feet of clay in due course.  I do believe that within the next several years — the number depending on how much aid we provide — the North Korean system will collapse for its own reasons and China will end up dominating what’s left.  But in an effort to prevent that, Secretary of State “Kim Jong Bill” Richardson will offer to lend them some AP and Washington Post journalists to help school a new generation of North Koreans in the practice of shameless, toadying cult-raising adulation.  They certainly perfected it this year.  I regret that I have no subscriptions to cancel.  To hear some of them, the heavens will rain manna, loaves and fishes will appear in every mailbox each morning, and pixie fairies will be waiting in our offices to pleasure us under our desks.

Some of us are going to be very disappointed when we realize that these were, after all, the droids we were looking for.

All that being said, I believe Barack Obama is a good man, of unquestionably high intelligence, who performed very credibly in the debates, and who I hope makes a great president.  I hope — that word again — but also tend to doubt, that his very election will help heal some of our racial discord here.  And like just about everyone, I like him, which is good, because I’ll be spared the use of heart medication I’d have needed if I had to watch such detestable alternatives as a John Kerry or Hillary Clinton presidency.  (I suspect “Secretary of State Richardson” will eventually have me swallowing nitro pills.)   It’s also good that Obama’s likeability probably reflects that he’s a good man, but I fear that it’s an easy likability that’s often the companion of shallowness, of comfort with all views that applies judgment to none of them.  I fear that he is just the sort of good man to do nothing while evil triumphs.  That is why Obama’s associations worry me.  How he will deal with evil in a world so filled with it, when he can’t even manage to distance itself from it?

Voters and cellmates alike must accommodate themselves of what is foregone, of course.  The people have spoken (though there was no groundswell, and more against Bush and the economic meltdown on his watch than for Obama, I suspect — “change” is a skillfully positive spin to put on a campaign that was fundamentally negative and focused toward a guy who wasn’t even running).  As I see it, either Obama performs magnificently and we’ll all be just fine or he won’t, and the pendulum will swing back in two, four, and/or six years.  Even eight years isn’t enough time to bring a spacious and productive country to ruin.  And how much worse could he be than Bush?  Would, say, Mike Huckabee have been any better?  Really, with the lone exception of his steadfast-yet-bumbling efforts in Iraq, there is a nearly unanimous absence of praise for Bush’s foreign policy.  On Iran and North Korea, particularly, he seems to have made a studied decision to pass the problems along to his successors without achieving real or meaningful disarmament.  We’ll never know whether McCain would have been much different in practice.  But the thing Bush and McCain had going for them was that they could scare the right people.

It’s worrying — isn’t it? — to recognize what even Joe Biden did in an unguarded moment:  that the predators of our world will want to “test” a president who at least seems young, naive, unschooled, and weak.  If they’re right about him, it will soon be high season for global predation, and if they’re not, then we may be headed toward a series of very dangerous miscalculations.  If Obama fumbles the first of these tests, that series will be extended.  Here is just a short list of what I fear we may now face:

  • I am convinced that Iran will test a nuclear weapon in the next four years.  No credit goes to Bush in setting Obama up for success here, and I predict that neither the United States, the U.N., or the EU will do anything effective to prevent or react to it.  The oil-rich states of the Gulf will cower in passive horror before adjusting to the new reality of Iranian hegemony.  Suddenly, hostilities between Iran and Israel seem likely.  This would be a good time to really focus on those alternative fuels.
  • If, as seems likely, China’s economy turns sharply downward and there is unemployment and discontent, its government will look for a convenient outlet for more of the “patriotic” harrumphing that served it so well against the Tibetans and during the Olympics.  I predict that Taiwan will be that outlet, and I also predict that everyone will come to the sudden realization that neither America nor Taiwan is really committed to Taiwan’s defense.  I don’t think China will go so far as to invade, but it may do something that’s more than a large naval exercise and as much as a blockade.  The result could well be one more morsel digested into the bottomless maw of one country / two systems.  This will rightly be pronounced as an important and alarming global power shift.  It will mark the beginning of a new Cold War.
  • North Korea will declare itself ready for a “new beginning” in its relations with America, which will amount to nothing more than an invitation to renegotiate past agreements in North Korea’s favor, loading them with more benefits for its loathesome regime, and erasing any prospect — to the extent any remains at all — of disarming North Korea at all.  If you need any more evidence to believe that AF 2.0 is a dead letter, then here’s the latest:  North Korea has reneged on allowing international monitors to take soil and nuclear waste samples, even at Yongbyon.  Nonetheless, Bush has given Kim Jong Bill the necessary cover to seek engagement and agreement at the absolute sacrifice of our interests and our values (and how I hope I am wrong about this).  The North Koreans will demand, and may well get, the establishment of a U.S. interests section in Pyongyang, expanded trade benefits for its military-industrial complex, and aid with few strings attached.  If Obama gets a second term, we’ll put an embassy in Pyongyang before it ends, death camps and selective starvation be damned.  The North Korean regime also continue to try to isolate South Korea, which may well hedge its bets by continuing to move toward China.
  • But in the end, North Korea’s regime will collapse on its own, an event that may come sooner if His Porcine Majesty’s gargantuan cranium continues to sputter and clot like a rice cooker with a bouffant.
  • Things will get worse — much worse — in Afghanistan, in part because of trends that have been in the making for years.  We will learn, as Boris Gromov learned years ago, that foreign powers can’t dominate Afghanistan simply by flooding it with foreign troops (as opposed to pressing a focused military effort that defends the population, and which creates space for tribal micro-diplomacy and economic development).  We will also learn the practical value of European good will — bupkes — when NATO continues its failure to contribute meaningfully to the war effort there, and when the same crowds who turned up to cheer Obama in Berlin denounce him as an imperialist for not withdrawing from Afghanistan.  The same critics on the left who declared the war in Iraq lost years ago and who call Afghanistan a necessary war today will be ready to declare Afghanistan lost and a war of choice within two years.  They will do this not because winning the war isn’t necessary, but because winning the war will be hard and unpopular.
  • There will be a major crisis between Russia and Ukraine, possibly ending with the seizure of Sevastopol.  NATO will do nothing, and that will be the effective end of NATO.
  • Iraq, however, now seems likely to survive a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces.  Neither Al Qaeda nor the Shiite militias now seems to be a real threat to the central government, whose army is over half a million strong and battle-hardened.  Clearly, they have much to learn about logistics, command, and control, and sectarian differences remain, but even Obama is saying that we’ll leave behind enough advisors to make the Iraqi security forces self sufficient, along with enough special ops to take on any concentrations of terrorists.  (If Obama doesn’t want images of Iraq reverting to chaos on our TV screens just before the next mid-term election, the Code Pink crowd is in for a big disappointment, and the far left will turn on him.)   I suspect we’re rapidly approaching the point where the presence of foreign forces on Iraqi soil does the central government more political harm than military good.  We will be able to leave Iraq with our key national security objectives achieved — Saddam and the potential WMD threat removed, Al Qaeda defeated, and the establishment of a stable government at peace with its neighbors.  But the system that stablizes there, though it will be more benign than anything in its recent history, won’t be democracy as we know it, and that doesn’t portend well for the region’s long-term future (but what does?).
  • Pakistan — take your own guess there.  This is the least predicatable and scariest situation of all.

Much of this is admittedly unfair, because much of it is based on perceptions of thugs and tyrants that may themselves be unfair.  We’ll soon know if they’re right.  If they are, plenty of voters may soom realize that a strong foreign policy isn’t such a burdensome thing after all.

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What Removing North Korea from the Terror List Means

If tomorrow’s Big Announcement from North Korea isn’t that the Great Leader has gone to the Great Meat Locker, it may well be that the North, having met with  such stunning  success at blackmailing the United States,  will throw some new tantrum at South Korea.  I would not credit the North with diplomatic genius for its success at isolating and blackmailing its enemies one at a time.  The trick isn’t new.  It seems more fair to credit us for the crashing stupidity  of letting them. 

The loss of South Korean aid, which added up to billions of dollars, must have been painful for the regime, and thus far, nothing the United States has given them has made up for that loss.  That may soon change.

1.  The regime gets bailed out again.

Two years ago, our Treasury Department nearly strangled Kim Jong Il’s  palace economy.   Today,  in exchange  for an  incomplete freeze, partial disclosure, and no disarmament at all,  we’ve thrown away  our best  economic leverage.   

The State Department, incidentally, wants you to  believe that the North still remains under a variety of U.S. sanctions  and lists a  myriad of bilateral sanctions, most of which have no real effect.  De-listing the North as a terror sponsor opens the way for a massive inflow of  international loan money  in the form of IMF,  World Bank,  and Asian Development Bank loans (executive orders 12,938 and 13,382 apply to individually designated North Korean entities — various mining and trading companies —  not the regime as a whole).  Given the North’s past history, we can be certain that not one chon of that will ever be repaid, and if the loans don’t flow soon, it’s just a matter of time before the North reverts to what always works and resorts to extortion. 

In other words, de-listing has incalculable significance where it matters — the palace economy.  Just imagine all of the centrifuges, barbed wire, cognac, and sarin they can buy now.

2.  We lose influence in Japan and upset the entire regional security framework.

The Washington Post also describes the bitterness Bush’s decision has caused in Japan:

“I think it is an act of betrayal,” said Teruaki Masumoto, a brother of one of the eight Japanese who were stolen away by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s and who the Japanese government says are still alive in North Korea. Masumoto is secretary general of the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.

“Why did the United States remove North Korea from the list when it is clear to anyone’s eyes that the North is a terrorism-assisting country?” asked Sakie Yokota, 72, whose daughter, Megumi Yokota, was 13 when she was kidnapped nearly 31 years ago and is by far the most famous of the abductees.

Struggling to explain the emotional resonance of the abductee issue for the Japanese people, a Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo earlier this year compared Megumi Yokota to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the late Nobel Prize-winning novelist who made the world aware of the network of Soviet prisons known as the gulag.

In Washington on Saturday, Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa told reporters that the U.S. decision was “extremely regrettable.” He said that “abductions amount to terrorist acts.  [Washington Post]

It’s already clear enough  that meaningfully disarming North Korea will not be a part of President Bush’s legacy, but this move will badly damage relations with out most important ally in the Pacific and  could begin a  long decline in U.S. influence in that region.  The message received by everyone in Japan is that the United States can’t be relied on, and they will feel greater pressure to build a defense that doesn’t rely on us, either.   Our decision makers have placed their own egos over  statesmanship,  our national interest, and the interests of  our friends.   

Nothing kindles an arms race quite like tossing aside the security interests of nations that has counted on you to play regional peacekeeper.  Granted, I question the returns on the cost was pay to fill that role, and I welcome the rearmament of Japan and South Korea, so long as they don’t shoot at each other.  The inevitable result of dependence on America, beyond expense to us, is that either we keep our commitments or we won’t.  Damned if we do and we get ourselves embroiled in Korean War II.  Damned if we don’t, and you can already see the seeds being sown for Taiwan to go the way of one country/two systems, which  gradually becomes Beijing’s system

Don’t you remember where power comes from, silly?

3.  Nothing is solved, but feel-good diplomacy triumphs.

You can’t help but think that it serves Bush right that Colin Powell, who stayed Bush’s hand against North Korea for the duration of his first term, has  turned around and  kicked Bush in the teeth  by endorsing Obama.  Then again, if you’re watching closely enough, Obama can seem more like a continuation of the Bush administration than Bush’s co-partisan.  It tells you something about what’s in store for us that McCain opposed Bush’s decision and Obama supported it.  Not long ago, Obama  said he’d  oppose de-listing without a strong verification mechanism.  So how strong does this sound?

Officials acknowledged that they do not have permission to visit the site of North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test or any military facilities possibly involved in the nuclear program. Experts will have access to facilities at the Yongbyon reactor site and some academic institutions; visits to additional sites will be subject to negotiations. Officials said it will be months, if not years, before questions about North Korea’s nuclear program are answered.

“This is going to be a bumpy road,” said Assistant Secretary of State Paula A. DeSutter, the chief of the verification bureau. “However, we are building a road.”

In a sign of internal tensions, DeSutter, whose office was barred from knowing the details of the deal until Friday morning, declined to dismiss complaints about it from John R. Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations and her former boss as undersecretary for arms control in Bush’s first term. “John is the epitome of a skeptical policymaker, and that’s appropriate,” she said.

Although Bolton is a well-known hawk on North Korea, other experts also have expressed concerns.

“There is a real danger that Pyongyang will pull a bait and switch now that sanctions have been lifted,” said Michael J. Green, Bush’s former top aide for Asia policy. “The credibility of this agreement really hangs on what happens next, including how we repair the damage done with Tokyo.”  [Washington Post]

We — and our allies —  can expect much more of this silky, self-gratifying cotton candy diplomacy in the future, but it’s not as if the Republicans have exactly earned the nation’s continued confidence on this  issue.  It may take an Obama presidency for the Republicans to learn to stand for something again.

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Anju Links for 2 May 2007: North Korea Denies Abducting Any S. Koreans, May Day in Kaesong, and North Koreans’ Growing Meth Problem

*   It has now been 18 days since North Korea violated all of  the denuclearization commitments to which it agreed last February.   I blame  Bill Richardson, who obviously must have said something tactless and belligerent while being led around the deck of the U.S.S. Pueblo.   It’s time for us to get serious about diplomacy and  offer some carrots.   How many of our soldiers’ lives is Catalina Island really worth?   How many times must the canonballs fly, Bill?

*   Has North Korea made the fundamental decision to rejoin the civilized world?  Not so much, I guess:

“No POWs or abductees exist in North Korea,” Choe Song-Il, the North’s deputy Red Cross chief, said in an interview with Choson Sinbo, a newspaper for pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans in Japan.

 “If South Korea broaches the issue again, we will have something to say about 83,000 North Korean POWs held in the South in the name of anti-communism at the time of signing a truce (after the 1950-53 Korean War).” [AFP, via The Nation]

North Korea claims there are no abductees, but they keep trying to escape, and those permitted brief meetings with their families sure do behave strangely.  Yet South Korea doesn’t do anything to save them, so why should we?  To a degree, it’s understandable that the State Department dropped all references to them in its annual terror report.  The Lost Nomad has a comparison of last year’s language to this year’s and some good commentary.

*   Happy May Day.   If you’re interested in the best available guess about what a North Korean worker gets paid, the Daily NK offers it.  That also goes for the workers at Kaesong:

According to wage specifications received last November for the wages of North Korean laborers in Kaesong Industrial Complex, each worker is entitled to 7,000won monthly. This includes wage and day-off allowances as well as “bonuses. On the black market, US$1 equals 3,000won, so in actual each worker receives no more than US$2 a month.

The $57 sent by South Korean enterprises for each individual worker somehow falls into the hands of North Korean authorities. For this reason, some argue that South Korean businesses should develop a system to stop the exploitation of North Korean workers by paying workers directly.

*   Want to Score Some  Crystal Meth  in Pyongyang?   The Yaggakdo Hotel is  the place [Daily NK].   

The source informed on the 30th, “Drug dealers directly approach the wealthy class who live around the borders of North Korea-China” and revealed, “People fall for the dealer’s trap and hence the number of addicted drug sellers and wealthy class is increasing.

A few North Korean tradesmen even testified that a large number of the rich living in the border regions of North Korea, have in fact dealt with drugs in one form or another. Apparantly, about 3 out of 10 rich persons in North Korea have had some experiences with drugs and most of the long-distance drivers in North Korea take drugs.

One North Korean tradesman “˜H’ revealed, “Drug dealers con North Koreans with money by saying that the “˜medicine’ clears the head and acts as an aphrodisiac by giving you strength. Then they let the buyers taste-test the drug for free. H said, “After a few times, the majority of these people become addicted and the dealer sets up a relationship to sell the drug for a long time.

How can the government contradict misinformation like that without implicitly conceding that the problem exists?

*   See also:   Ha Tae Kyung, a/k/a Young Howard, offers some thoughts on Korea’s geopolitical place in Northeast Asia and the world after regime collapse.

*   “Nothing says Saturday night like a soju-induced coma on the subway.”

*   Dog catches fire truck.

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The Worst Friend, The Best Enemy

[Update:   My worst fears are coming true.  Now the  opposition Grand National Party  is trying to soften up its North Korea policy as it braces for a summit visit from Kim Jong Il and a presidential election this year.  One possible effect is that the GNP’s own perpetual appeaser, Sohn Hak-Kyu, could become the new flavor of the month.]

One of the disadvantages of appeasing North Korea is that the North Koreans are so despised and distrusted, you can pretty much give the  left and the  foreign policy establishment exactly what they want and they still don’t dare defend you, because they know it’s just a matter of time before the North Koreans cheat and make you look silly. 

The rejectionist view doesn’t labor under that uncertainty.  Two more prominent conservatives have stepped forward with skeptical views of Agreed Framework II. 

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