Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Bush and North Korea

First things first: the most important thing to understand about North Korea's pathetic missile display is not that Kim Jong Il is an idiot (he is) but that nobody should pretend that George W. Bush's foreign policy will suddenly repair itself and function properly as a result of North Korea's stunt.

Now the situation with North Korea is as weird as anything we've seen in recent memory. I'm assuming, by the way, that we're reasonably getting a straight story on the failure of the Taepodong 2 missile and so on. I'm also assuming there's a lot we still don't know. Here's Joe Cirincione of Arms Control Wonk with his take on things:
So who looks more foolish here?

A. Kim Jong-Il for staging a July 4th fireworks display that blew up in his face;

B. William Perry and Ash Carter for hyperventilating that we had to blow up this missile on the launch pad, instead of waiting for it to blow itself up 40 seconds after launch;

C. All those reporter who repeated the Pentagon palbum about how until the launch failure “we were ready to do what was necessary to defend the country,” as if the interceptors in Alaska had any chance of intercepting anything; or

D. All of the above.

You can guess my choice.

Let’s be clear what this means. The North Korean have now blown it by actually testing a system that was always worth much more as a bargaining chip than as a military capability.
Here's a take by Norimitsu Onishi and David Sanger of The New York Times (hat tip to Laura Rozen of War and Piece):
None of the launchings were announced in advance. But the first came just minutes after the space shuttle Discovery lifted off in Florida — an event the North Koreans could monitor on television. Administration officials said they could only speculate as to whether the missile launching had been timed to coincide with the shuttle launching, or with Independence Day, but outside analysts had little doubt.

"It's very in your face to do it on the Fourth of July," said Ashton B. Carter, a Harvard professor who, with former defense secretary William J. Perry, had urged the Bush administration to destroy the Taepodong missile on the launching pad, advice the administration rejected.

"Hooray if it failed," Mr. Carter said.

While the test itself was a sign of North Korea's defiance of the United States, for the administration, the outcome was as favorable as officials could have hoped for: the North's capacity was called into question, and the North's enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il, has now put himself at odds with the two countries that have provided him aid, China and South Korea. "Our hope is that the Chinese are going to be furious," said one senior American official, who declined to be identified.

Here's an article from Fred Kaplan from Slate:
If you're going to defy all your enemies and allies, you'd better come away from the gamble with added strength and leverage. Kim Jong-il emerges from the Taepodong disaster with his chips spent and a pair of deuces on the table.

Once Kim hoisted that rocket onto the launchpad, the scenario could have played out three ways. First, he could have bowed to the international pressure, drained the liquid fuel, rolled the rocket back to the warehouse, and requested direct talks with Washington in exchange for his "good-faith" measures. Bush, who has long avoided direct talks, would have been in a spot.

Second, he could have tested the missile with successful results. His friends and foes would have been furious with him, but in the end they would have had to face the fact that North Korea now had not only a nuclear bomb or two but the potential, someday, to pack a warhead on a missile and fire it wherever he wanted.

In either of those two scenarios, Kim would have come out of the game ahead.
Third, he could have tested the missile and watched it fail. That would have been the worst possible outcome, and that's what happened yesterday. It's like a bank robber who gets everyone's attention by firing his gun at the ceiling—and a little flag with the word "Bang!" pops out of the barrel. The only effect is that he's no longer taken seriously.

Yesterday, China and South Korea showed some interest in dealing with North Korea more vigorously. Today, both countries seem to be backing off and Russia is not much interested in doing much either. I suspect even four years ago the situation would have been different. But four years ago, George W. Bush still had credibility. Maybe Condi Rice can get her act together and make something happen at the UN Security Council; it would be useful to find a way to hold North Korea in check, particularly in terms of possible arms sales, even if the quality of its merchandise is not of the first order.

And Russia and China may want to ask if they want to allow the world to drift for the next thirty months or so. Yes, they're busy remaking the world's energy landscape while we're tied down in Iraq, but it's in their long term interest to start shouldering more responsibility in international affairs. As for Bush, he and his Republican friends may make a lot of noise about North Korea between now and the November election. We'll learn soon enough if there's any substance behind the noise. But I suspect that an administration that needs to repair its credibility will instead be making the mistake of undermining its credibililty even further for whatever political advantage it can gain. In 2006, we have reached a sad state of affairs.

And there is still Iran and another botched policy.

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