September 29, 2004

North Korea and Credibility

True story: I was somewhat idly browsing the New Republic's masthead the other day, and wondered why Executive Editor J. Peter Scoblic never wrote anything, since he seemed to be a pretty accomplished journalist and all. Question answered. His new essay on Bush and North Korea is perhaps "the definitive article" on the topic. Or perhaps "a definitive article." Or maybe just "very good indeed." Whatever. Like Fred Kaplan before him, Scoblic points out that Clinton's diplomacy worked, and that by waiting four years before basically offering what Clinton offered, Bush has made a bad situation worse. But he makes a few other good points too, namely, that Clinton used the threat of force more effectively than Bush did:
Seeking peaceful solutions to crises is, of course, admirable, but Bush's tack had a crucial flaw: It ignored the symbiotic relationship between force and diplomacy--the importance of which should have been manifest in late 2002. After all, it was the credible threat of U.S. force that convinced Saddam to readmit weapons inspectors that November. But, even as Bush threatened war if Iraq did not comply with inspections, he did nothing when North Korea actually expelled iaea personnel. As one senior administration official later acknowledged to a New York Times reporter: "I admit there appears to be more than a little irony here. But Iraq was a different problem, in a different place, and we had viable military options."

That suggests we had no military options in North Korea. But in truth, the threat of force played an important role in resolving the last North Korean nuclear crisis, which was sparked in 1993 when the iaea demanded special inspections at two suspicious nuclear facilities. As negotiations over iaea access to the sites made fitful progress, the Pentagon beefed up its forces in South Korea, sending batteries of Patriot missiles, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Apache attack helicopters. That buildup encouraged the North to compromise. Robert Gallucci, who led the American negotiating team, says the threat of force was an "essential" component of Washington's strategy. "[The North Koreans] started looking at this, I'm pretty sure, and didn't like what they saw--and they shouldn't have, because we were actually doing things that would help us be in a better position to launch a strike," he says. Joel Wit, another American negotiator, learned that workers at North Korean hotels were "sleeping with guns underneath their pillows because they thought there was going to be an American attack." Indeed, President Clinton was prepared to authorize the deployment of 50,000 troops to the region, and he considered a strike on Yongbyon. Had the North Koreans begun to reprocess the spent fuel rods--thereby crossing one of the administration's "red lines"--Gallucci believes Clinton would have ordered an attack.

By contrast, there's no sign Bush has seriously considered military action. Though Powell and others insist that all options remain "on the table," Kelly acknowledged in July that the Bush team has not defined red lines of its own. Certainly, it did nothing in April 2003, when the North Koreans announced they had reprocessed their spent fuel rods. To be sure, there is the very real risk that even a targeted strike on Yongbyon would escalate into a full-scale war with horrific casualties. But, by foreclosing even the threat of force early in the crisis, Bush gave away his biggest stick. (Gallucci calls the move "plain dumb.") He also lost an opportunity. At this point, a strike would be ineffective, because it's unclear where the plutonium from the fuel rods is. It could still be at Yongbyon, but it could also be in a cave somewhere in the North Korean countryside--or on a ship bound for the United States.
While it's hard to come up with a grand unified theory for Bush's foreign policy approach, I think we can point out a few basic problems here. First, Bush tends to treat his state-centered adversaries as irrational actors, when all evidence indicates that they're anything but. Kim Jong Il, like Saddam Hussein, backed down from the threat of war. But those actors also have every incentive to maximize their bargaining position, and that goes double in the face of a hostile United States. I think there's often the assumption that Kim Jong Il wants to conquer South Korea, or control Asia, or support terrorists, or just plain wants to defy the United States for the sake of defiance. Clinton, meanwhile, seemed to have a better sense of Kim Jong Il—who he was, what he wanted, and used that to his advantage.

The second, tentative, point is that Bush doesn't understand credibility. He doesn't understand what causes other countries to take U.S. military threats seriously. Recall that Bush, along with many other neoconservatives, believed that if the war in Iraq went off quickly, other countries would simply accede to whatever demands the U.S. would make. (Indeed, the great delusion is that this is what happened in Libya.) But even ignoring the fact that the bog-down in Iraq has made us less credible abroad, diplomacy-at-gunpoint still requires an understanding of how diplomacy and military force are used in tandem. I can't be sure of this, but Bush seems to think that you either use one or the other, and that if you pull off enough military operations, diplomacy elsewhere will be a cakewalk. I'm not sure that that's how it works. (Then again, I'm not sure how it works, period.)
-- Brad Plumer 7:49 PM || ||