Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 9, 2009
WAR: The Eastern Goalpost?
North Korea's escalating provocations since the Taepodong rocket launch in April offer an early test of President Obama's foreign policy. But before we can judge whether Obama's policy is a success - or, for that matter, the policies of his predecessors - we need to define the realistic parameters for success in dealing with Pyongyang's Stalinist regime. I would propose a number of possible benchmarks or victory conditions one could use, but it's easier said than done to pick what a realistic goal should be. Here are the choices:
1. Total victory: the elimination of the North Korean regime (whether or not accompanied by reunification of the Korean peninsula) and/or the complete and permanent removal of the conventional, nuclear and proliferation threats posed by the regime. This strikes me as an unrealistic goal, although of course removal of the regime should remain our long-term ambition.
2. Nuclear disarmament: leaving North Korea as is, except without nuclear weapons. This has been the main stated goal of the last two administrations, at which both obviously failed, and seems to be the main stated goal of Obama as well. Expect more failure, especially after Obama's grandiose renunciation in Cairo of the right to interfere with any nation's nuclear ambitions.
3. Conventional containment: preventing the North Korean regime from initiating direct hostilities with its neighbors. By this benchmark, both the Clinton and Bush Administrations can claim success by virtue of doing lots of jaw-jaw instead of war-war with Pyongyang.
4. Total containment: not just conventional containment but preventing North Korea from sharing nuclear secrets or materials or other assets with terrorists or other rogue regimes. To me, this is the highest priority, even higher than nuclear disarmament. We lack adequate public information to judge the success of the Bush team on this score, and will lack it with Obama as well unless and until we get the ultimate bad news. That doesn't mean we know nothing, just that the public will remain in the dark about many key facts. (Broadly speaking, the movement away from open war to terrorism and proliferation as the main threats presents an ongoing problem for voters in evaluating the real successes and failures of our leadership, which to succeed must do so in secret, and which of needs must often take action on the basis of state secrets).
5. Internal reform or relief: changing the repressive nature of the North Korean regime and/or providing humanitarian relief to the population it brutalizes. A noble objective, but not likely to drive our policy when bigger stakes are in play.
6. Engagement: treating talks with the North Koreans as an end in themself. This has certainly seemed, at times, as if it was the State Department's only objective under the past three Administrations.
7. Regional Politics: under this view, the larger issue is the struggle for power with China, so our principal goal should be to make Pyongyang a bigger headache for the Chinese than it is for us. There is little evidence that Obama or his team even think in those terms, and so little reason to believe they could succeed. To be fair, Bush's record in this regard with China was spotty at best, and in his second term he largely gave up.
8. Credibility: under this view, the end state is less important than using the standoff with Pyongyang to demonstrate that America stands by its regional allies and is not easily messed with, and that we will not simply give away concessions without getting something concrete in exchange. By this standard, Obama also seems likely to repeat the abject failures of Clinton and Bush in maintaining U.S. credibility in dealing with North Korea.
The question of what reasonable objectives we might set for our North Korea policy is one on which reasonable minds can differ. The short answer is that, given its methods and worldview, the Obama Administration is likely to succeed in its dealings with North Korea only if it sets low expectations that can be met by maintaining the visible status quo modified by cosmetic accomplishments.