North Korea: The Military Option
Posted by Michael Signer
A smart, tough, and thought-provoking WaPo op-ed today by Susan Rice (a former Clinton assistant secretary of state) on the North Korea situation. Her most provocative graf:
At this late stage, the United States has three options. First, we could strike North Korea's suspected nuclear facilities or use force to change the regime. Military options must remain on the table, but all of them are problematic. U.S. intelligence on North Korea is poor. Overstretched in Iraq, the United States does not have ground forces for an invasion. South Korea and China vehemently oppose military action. Worse still, North Korea could retaliate with a nuclear or conventional strike on nearby Seoul, on our more than 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, on Japan or even on the United States.
Her point is made more powerful and problematic against the backdrop of an astonishing press conference earlier this week by President Bush. Here's how he answered a question about North Korea:
Q Good morning, Mr. President. This morning you reiterated diplomacy as the way to deal with North Korea. With all due respect, some people say that's precisely the wrong approach because diplomacy has produced nothing, while at the same time it has allowed North Korea to progress in its nuclear program.
THE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Q How do you -- what do you say to them?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, then let's see -- if it's the wrong -- if diplomacy is the wrong approach, I guess that means military. That's how I view it -- it's either diplomacy or military. And I am for the diplomacy approach. And so, for those who say that we ought to be using our military to solve the problem, I would say that, while all options are on the table, we've got -- we've got a ways to go to solve this diplomatically.
BEWARE -- if you think a dovish analysis is coming, you will be disappointed.
I don't want to be intemperate. I'm certainly not bellicose. I just want to think this through. And I would like to start from a blank slate, meaning I have no ideological investment in any prefabricated policy conclusion. I'm just interested in America's security. From this beginning point, the President's blanket statement in his press conference triggers two questions.
One: Why should the military option be off the table as a matter of policy? Why are we already committed to this binary choice?
Two: Why is the Administration getting away with gross illogic and hypocrisy in its contrary approaches to Iraq and North Korea?
Because these two questions are related, let's take them together.
The problem to many people in Iraq was that the underlying motivations of the war seemed to be much more about retrospective grievances than about prospective calculations. This was why John Kerry said last year (with a typically tortured syntax):
[I]t is critical that this president gives life to the notion that the United States of America never goes to war because we want to. We should only go to war because we have to.
All the diplomatic and journalistic evidence (rather than the WMD evidence) suggested that Iraq had actually retreated into a relatively non-bellicose stance over the last several years, and was hardly currently threatening the United States.
In talking about "wanting" to go to war, Kerry was speaking to the idea that our approach on Iraq was colored by desire: desire for revenge, desire for a fantastic, neocon guinea pig for democracy, desire for easy oil revenues.
It was for all these reasons that the Administration did exactly the opposite of what the President is urging now: they overtly and consistently chose the military rather than diplomatic option.
Now, turn to North Korea. President Bush is saying, as a matter of policy, we must choose the diplomatic rather than military option.
As I see it, there are two ways to think about this in light of Iraq, and they have to do with whether we take Iraq and North Korea separately or apart.
First, we can abandon any hope for logical consistency or ideological follow-through and instead approach the Administration's decision in Iraq as a kind of outlier.
If we ignore Iraq, and look at North Korea with (somehow) fresh eyes, then North Korea becomes a test case for whether the Bush Administration has become all dewy-eyed and Clintonian in its appreciation for the power of soft power. Then the question becomes, simply, whether or not their approach will work.
The second option is a little harder. If we instead try to view the two situations together, as part of an integrated foreign policy, then the question becomes why we shouldn't be actively considering military along with diplomatic options -- especially if, applying the same logic we used in Iraq, North Korea is more of the same type of threat Iraq presented.
Let's go back to Rice's op-ed:
Military options must remain on the table, but all of them are problematic. U.S. intelligence on North Korea is poor. Overstretched in Iraq, the United States does not have ground forces for an invasion. South Korea and China vehemently oppose military action. Worse still, North Korea could retaliate with a nuclear or conventional strike on nearby Seoul, on our more than 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, on Japan or even on the United States.
We faced similar problems (regional instability, continuing attacks on our troops) going into Iraq. But we went in anyway because of the rationales underlying what was a new American foreign policy of pre-emption.
The greatest irony is that the single greatest problem, in this crazy Catch-22 universe of the Bush Administration, is that our mismatch of rhetoric and reality in Iraq has hamstrung us for the reality in North Korea -- and so our rhetoric (with Bush looking embarrassingly weak in pleading for diplomacy with Kim Jong Il) has to play catch-up.
As a nation, we should have some consistency to our foreign policy. I know that the hallmark of realpolitik is intellectual flexibility based on context. But I thought the whole point was that this Administration had moved beyond hard power calculations.
The Bush Administration doesn't just speak for itself -- it speaks for the nation. The Administration is tangled in a web of its own making and is trying to present Iraq and North Korea as two separate cases. But they're not.