Saturday, May 30, 2009

Is Obama getting tough in North Korea?

When I saw the headlines of the above article, “Gates: Nuclear-armed N. Korea not acceptable,” and read the Google lead, “The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Saturday at an international conference,” I was just glancing at the headlines before going off to feed the dogs.

I rolled that idea around in my mind as I worked: Shoot, if the US really forced North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, that would put a big harpoon right into the middle of Iran’s Nuclear Weapons ambitions. If the US clamped down on NK militarily, for that is what it would take barring China’s help, Iranians would be sure to elect a president who wasn’t going to get them into that kind of trouble.

As soon as I could, I rushed back to my computer and read the whole CNN article and watched the CNN videos CNN referred me to. Alas, everything I read and saw contradicted the impression I got from the CNN headline and lead-in. The US was not going to get tough with North Korea. Gates didn’t think there was anything to worry about. The North Korean missiles didn’t have the range to reach the US. There was no troop movement to indicate that NK was going to move on the South Korean and US troops at the 1953 cease-fire line.

A statement by Clinton ended up sounding amusing. She began tough, the same way the UN article did. She said North Korea had made choices and those choices would have consequences, but as she got to the point where she needed to describe those consequences she repeated that there would be consequences and then added the very weak statement, in a stuttering and stammering fashion that those consequences would be added to. Rather than back up the idea that the US might do something, the UN was invoked. The naughty North Koreans had violated a UN resolution so additional consequences will be incurred by North Korea. I couldn’t help coughing a bit at that. I watched her and she said all that with a straight face as far as I could tell. Remarkable!

Our history isn’t terribly long as national histories go, but one thing we might have learned is that weak American presidents are invariably challenged by someone. If some president is elected on a platform of playing nice, enemies are sure to think this he is a weakling and try him out in some way. As it turns out (consider this advice for those who voted for Mr. Nice) we seem to get into more violent trouble when electing a Mr. Nice then we probably would have if we had elected Mr. Tough. The bad guys want to try out the toughness of Mr. Nice. Think here of how far Nikita Khrushchev pushed the Nice President Kennedy. He was forced, much against his will and against his experience, to learn how to be tough – and he wasn’t very good at it. We came as close to a nuclear war then as we ever had.

Think also of the nice President Jimmy Carter. He was so nice that he opposed that nasty Shah of Iran, got him ousted and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Let’s not forget the nice Jimmy Carter or avoid giving him all the credit he is due for our current Iranian difficulties. The Ayatollah thanked you, or would have if he weren’t so nasty, and Ahmadinejad would too if he weren’t giving all the credit to Allah who must surely have pulled the wool over Carter’s eyes.

And now we have the nice Barack Obama as president. He is ably being assisted by the nice Mr. Gates. Mrs. Clinton isn’t quite as nice, but she is trying to be. Obama does seem to be smarter than Kennedy. I don’t know if he is smarter than Bill Clinton, but maybe he won’t be so distracted by scandals. Maybe he will be able to apply his intelligence to the challenges at hand. Both North Korea’s Kim Jon-Il and Iran’s Ahmadinejad have been challenging him. He hasn’t been over matched so far; which is good. Kim Jon-Il is ill and his successor may be one of his descendants. Will this successor carry on the policies of the Dear Leader? If he does, and he isn’t very experienced, perhaps he may not try to test Obama too much. But if he tries to prove himself as being tougher than his father and grandfather, there could be trouble.

And Ahmadinejad isn’t in a good position for testing Obama too much just yet. He has an important election coming up and there are opposition candidates that seem formidable. Some are saying that negotiating diplomatically with Obama wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. But if Ahmadinejad is reelected, he may believe that the Mahdi still has some important work for him to do before he returns. That important work might be, if we can believe Ahmadinejad’s statements, scary.

So Obama could follow in the footsteps of earlier nice Presidents and let the bad buys do whatever they liked until they actually did something to the US or its people that they couldn’t ignore. Kennedy had to keep missiles out of Cuba and Carter had to try and rescue hostages from Iran in Operation Eagle Claw in 1980. It bears repeating that neither Kennedy nor Carter were very good at this sort of thing.

If Obama intends to let North Korea stay nuclear and doesn’t mind if Iran becomes so then I wish he would instruct his cabinet to quit confusing me by trying to sound tough from time to time. Talking tough in headlines and then sounding very weak in the rest of the article may accomplish some American political goal, but it won’t help get rid of North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons. But if somehow Obama could learn to be tough up front, preemptively, before he is later forced to learn how to be tough, that would be an impressive and effective thing.

You don’t avoid war, Mr. President, by being as nice as possible. You don’t avoid it by refusing to study it. Doing those things make you see a victim to our enemies. You avoid war by being as tough as necessary and by studying war. You can’t avoid it if you don’t know what it is. And studying war may teach you that it is sometimes prudent to do a little war now in order to avoid a big one later on.

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