The U.S. is threatened with a number of challenging military situations: Iran’s recalcitrant regime; a muted but not defeated Hamas; an increasingly hot war in Afghanistan; and, of course, the North Koreans. And though style has certainly changed in the Obama administration, the substance of policy often has not.
In the hardest case, North Korea, the alternatives are shockingly constant: confrontation or capitulation. They may be dressed up in talks or in “humanitarian gestures” — everyone who believes that former President Clinton’s actions, noble though they may be, were not drenched in symbolism and thereby “political,” raise your hand — but there is an unerring constant. Either we will stand up to an aggressive, repressive, brutal regime, or we will negotiate and capitulate, at least partly, to its demands.
Kim Jong Il is well aware of the current state of our nation. He understands that we are spread frightfully thin, that our social policy appears to be transforming and that we are facing the greatest recession since the Great Depression. And we have a president who seeks to court leaders around the world, regardless of their willingness to unleash fear, terror and chaos among their people.
On top of that, the North Korean leader has always been an eccentric character who delights in attention. If there were any time to make a bold move against the U.S., it would be now. After all, he’s not going to live forever.
Though the parallel isn’t exact, the North Korea situation bears some similarity to another nuclear threat from a brutal regime helmed by an enigmatic leader. This one came in October 1962.
Nikita Khrushchev had bullied John F. Kennedy at their earlier summit, and needed to advance the Soviet standing in the world after an inconclusive Berlin crisis and the humiliation of having the U.S. attack them at the Bay of Pigs. Khrushchev acted from weakness. He knew all about the missile gap with which Kennedy had hammered the Republicans during the presidential campaign, and he knew it was heavily in America’s favor. That, together with missile bases that surrounded Soviet territory, gave the U.S. a decided nuclear advantage.
Today, the U.S. possesses several similarly key advantages, including ever more effective missile defenses and advanced military technology. North Korea is surrounded by the seas, a U.S. preserve. Just over its borders and a short distance across those seas are South Korea and Japan, countries much richer and more populous than North Korea — and also major U.S. allies.
Against this, the North Koreans can only rage and brandish the only weapon that could confer asymmetric advantage: a nuclear weapon, preferably one tied to an intermediate- or intercontinental-range missile.
The lesson of recent history — Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, as well as the nuclear agreements with India — is that only a nuclear capability suffices to immunize a country from U.S. attack. It may even, in the case of India, justify special treatment. This is what the North Koreans covet.
Might the North Koreans, like Khrushchev, undertake a gambit to redress the balance of power with the U.S.? When the Soviets did that in 1962, they were met with a determined response, but also a flexible approach to negotiation — Kennedy agreed to dismantle several obsolete missile bases in Turkey, and basically pledged never to invade Cuba in return for the Soviet withdrawal of missiles.
Does the Obama administration have the combination of toughness and shrewdness to pull off something similar? One hopes so, but there is not much evidence to support the case.
Yes, Bob Gates has seemingly brought order to the Pentagon, but his cuts to defense spending include reductions to the very missile defenses that would thwart North Korean attacks on the U.S. and our allies. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gotten high marks so far, but she recently failed to induce India to participate in talks on global warming.
Factor in the dizzying array of “czars,” ambassadors-at-large and other sets of “experts” and “advisers,” and it makes you think that maybe the president’s lack of management experience might be an issue in crunch time. Certainly, this administration has not charted a course that has been met with any initial success — unless one counts producing a photo op for an aged, ailing dictator as success.
No one wants war on the Korean peninsula, but neither can the U.S. stand for an outright defeat. What is a minor threat to us is a major one for our Japanese and South Korean allies, and we must stand with them in defusing the situation.
The Obama administration is going to have to be creative and forceful to orchestrate the kind of diplomacy needed. There has not been a single foreign policy triumph to date, unless you want to count the fortitude, expertise and marksmanship of Navy SEALs on the high seas — something to celebrate, but not the product of Obama’s foreign policy team.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il waits, schemes and plans. For what is unknowable, but if he opts for the “big surprise,” as Khrushchev did four and a half decades ago, we could all be in for the ride of our lives.
Armstrong Williams is a political commentator and the host of the nightly XM Satellite Radio program “The Armstrong Williams Show.”