The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, April 6, 2009

Act, Not Overreact

Obama’s Listening. Now the World Must Heed His Call.

In the middle of his first major international tour, President Obama continues stressing that he has come “to listen and not to lecture.” Yesterday morning, he listened to something beside friendly but uneasy greetings from real and potential enemies, grumbling from petulant European leaders, and cheering from crowds. The roar of rocket engines temporarily drowned out all, as North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan.

Pyongyang had announced the missile’s launch and flight path in advance, so it was no great surprise. However, the U.S. had warned North Korea that we would view such an act as provocative and its actual occurrence resulted in the U.S. and Japan calling for an emergency session of the UN Security Council.

The UN is unlikely to produce any new resolutions, let alone any new/additional sanctions, until later this week at the earliest. Security Council members all desire a united response. Moreover, Russia and China are particularly wary of further penalizing North Korea.

As the Obama Administration continues to shape policy, the President clearly desires any response to include three broad initiatives.

First, it must be global. Hence, the immediate turn to the United Nations. Second, it must be diplomatic. The U.S. point person to date has not been the Secretary of Defense or Homeland Security nor the National Security Advisor but rather Secretary of State Clinton. Third, instead of prompting anti-missile systems and other weapons buildup, call for nuclear disarmament. “This provocation underscores the need for action . . . in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons,” Obama said.

Speaking yesterday in the Czech Republic, Obama outlined broad new programs, including immediate U.S. ratification of a ban on nuclear testing, a summit in Washington to stop the spread of nuclear material within four years, and a nuclear fuel bank to allow peaceful development of nuclear power.

Reaction from conservative circles was swift and denunciatory. Former UN Ambassador during the Bush Administration, John Bolton, now a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, led the charge in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Bolton points out the ineffectiveness of past UN resolutions and criticizes the one drafted by the U.S. and Japan for this incident as “weak.”

In the past, the U.S. has turned to the UN with ultimatums (i.e. “enact the sanctions we want or we will do far worse”). This forced the UN into irrelevancy and left any nation that disagreed nothing short of a moral obligation to enforce the resulting sanctions either feebly or not at all. This time, Obama is looking to the rest of the Security Council and asking, “So what are we going to do?” This, plus an emphasis on consensus, may give us less of what we want but will also give other nations less wiggle-room to avoid enforcement.

Bolton goes on to bewail the likelihood that Obama will return the U.S. to six-party talks. “Those talks are exactly where North Korea wants to be,” he warns.

In fact, what North Korea wants most are direct negotiations with the U.S. Six-party talks force North Korea to deal with both Japan and South Korea, its two most-despised neighbors, and places it rawest threats before its allies, Russia and China. The undercutting of diplomatic discipline that Bolton and others rue this morning came when former President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, in a moment of panic, dealt directly with Pyongyang, granting aid in exchange for an unmet promise of no further testing.

Bolton sees lack of U.S. sternness with North Korea serving to embolden Iran, especially since the latter is interested in acquiring technology from North Korea for its own fledgling nuclear program. Gordon Chang shares the same concern in this morning’s Asian Wall Street Journal.

This ignores how utterly disastrous North Korea’s missile program has been. Yesterday’s launch was a bust. Instead of delivering its third stage and payload into space, a second stage failure caused them to crash in the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, this represents the latest in a string of failures for the Taepodong-2 missile.

“It’s a setback,” deemed Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks satellite and rocket launchings.

“It’s got to be embarrassing,” agreed Geoffrey Forden, a missile expert at M.I.T.

Bolton and others insist even a launch capability suggests danger but analysts disagree.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, says North Korea does not test enough. After watching the Taepodong-2 since 1998, he now says, “We have very little confidence in the reliability of the system.”

Dr. David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, feels that a variety of problems in North Korea’s missiles and warheads means they do not “represent a true intercontinental nuclear delivery capability.”

Bolton concludes with a combination of anger and fear that the world will soon learn to bully the U.S. when lead by a President “so ready to bend his knee.”

Andrei Lankov, an Associate Professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had three main goals with this launch, none of them military. He outlines them in an op/ed piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

First, Kim wants to draw Obama’s attention away from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan by reminding him that North Korea is a serious threat with whom the U.S. must deal. The perception of such a threat is crucial for Kim to exert bargaining leverage when attempting to acquire food and fuel for his impoverished people.

Second, Kim has a commercial interest in making his missile program look successful. The sale of short- and medium-range missiles, mostly to the Middle East, as previously mentioned, is an important source of revenue for his regime.

Third, Kim needs to boost his own prestige, credibility, and support inside North Korea. With his health reported as poor, few allies, and his subjects perpetually on the edge of starvation, Kim is weaker than ever in many ways.

All this suggests that North Korea needs the U.S. more than we need fear them. Kim’s death may create a power vacuum but, in a worst-case scenario, we may reliably count upon China and others to prevent complete chaos, possibly under the auspices of the UN.

Bolton and others lament that a few days of outrage will quickly subside back to the status quo, in which Kim and North Korea continue to survive. Yet the status quo mean that Kim remains virtually powerless, able to rattle some impressively loud sabers without getting what he really wants most, so long as the U.S. and others remain disciplined and firm.

As a senior Senate official told the Washington Post, “The key here, in terms of response to the missile, is to keep our eye on the ultimate objective, which is a Korean Peninsula that is at peace and nuclear-free . . . We should not have an overreaction to this missile test, because it does us no good to have the denuclearization process set back just because of this launch attempt.”

Overreaction has been the standard reaction in Washington for so long that we no longer recognize disciplined diplomacy. This is less about how we manage North Korea and how we manage other powers, such as Russia and China, hostile nations, such as Iran and the Arab world, and our allies.

Unsurprisingly, Bolton and his ilk see the only way to do that is with a show of force against North Korea. It is still part of a totalitarian “axis of evil,” representing a clear and present danger to democracy everywhere. Their tendency to see every incident as a fight with a strong foe is exactly what led to the overreaction disasters of the recent past. Luckily, Obama has already moved beyond that paradigm.

Obama is listening but no one should confuse this with passivity. His quiet seriousness is calling on the rest of the world to act, not overreact.

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