Archive for Geopolitics

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.

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.

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).]

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.