Thursday, November 02, 2006

Foreign Policy via the Silent Treatment

In a New York Times article, “U.S. Debates Value of North Korea Talks”, by Helene Cooper today there is more pseudo-conservative argument that we should turn our backs on the North Koreans and give them the “isolation” treatment: "behind closed doors at the White House and the State Department, some are… saying the country’s nuclear test should be answered with isolation. When it comes to North Korea, the Bush administration has always found itself pulled in two directions — confrontation versus engagement — and has generally settled on a middle course that was neither…. ‘What’s a good description? Fantasy? Dreamworld?’ said Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ‘All we’re doing with these hapless efforts at conference diplomacy is continuing to talk while North Korea continues to build nuclear weapons.'… Even after North Korea conducted a round of missile tests in July and three months later tested the nuclear device, the United States continued to call for it to return to six-nation disarmament talks…. North Korea boycotted the talks last year after the United States imposed financial penalties in September 2005 on Banco Delta Asia, a bank in Macao, accusing it of helping the North launder money and pass counterfeit $100 bills manufactured by the North Korean government….[Even NY Times reporting has recognized that this was not simply aimed at one bank so this is more one-sided reporting.] The chief American negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, worked out the deal in a seven-hour session on Tuesday with his Chinese and North Korean counterparts. As a concession to entice North Korea back to the talks, the United States agreed to discuss the financial restrictions arising from the counterfeiting issue, a gesture that has been criticized inside and outside the administration. There is 'zero chance' that the talks will persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program, said John Tkacik, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former State Department diplomat."

I find this remarkable reporting from that bastion of liberalism the New York Times. Although the article is entitled “U.S. Debates Value of North Korea Talks”, there is little in the article that evidences “debate”. Although the article does mention that Condi Rice and others think we should talk, very little is cited to flesh out their logic in comparison with at least three long quotes from pseudo-conservatives. The article, quoting prominently representatives of two right-wing “think” tanks, AEI and Heritage, along with other lengthy quotes from pseudo-cons inside the administration, gives primary emphasis to one side of the “debate”: the pseudo-conservative lunacy that somehow sanctioning N. Korea and not talking to her will…… do what? What is this silent treatment supposed to achieve?

The U.S. faces a very dangerous problem of nuclear proliferation. While the Bush 43 administration has been calling the N. Korean leaders names in public and cold-shouldering their wish for talks, the North has restarted its nuclear program, tested missiles and carried out a test of a nuclear bomb; what has Bush policy achieved? What has it got to show for itself but standing by watching nuclear proliferation? And, as Selig Harrison (see Korean Endgame) has pointed out, a nuclear N. Korea makes it much more likely that South Korea and Japan will also feel the need for nuclear weapons. The more nuclear programs that exist the more likely that someone will sell or otherwise allow terrorists to obtain a nuclear device. If we thought 9/11 was bad it will look very tiny in comparison to a nuclear device set off in New York or Washington, D.C. There is very little I can think of in this world that is more important than that we stop nuclear proliferation. How serious do the stakes have to get before these pseudo-cons decide that maybe their cold-shoulder tactic is ridiculous?

Can someone help me understand the “logic” behind this "isolate them" and don’t talk to them approach? I find it extremely difficult to come up with a single possible rationale for this tactic. It’s certainly not supported by other major players like China, Russia or South Korea; so it is not increasing international support for our policy. It can only be explained by some notion that if we place financial sanctions on the North and make it difficult for them to borrow money they will knuckle under and do what we tell them. Or, that it will destabilize the Kim Jong-il government and make it fall.

Neither of these is likely to happen so they are extremely low probability bets and, what is more, the second is not even good policy. Forcing nationalistic sovereign governments to knuckle under in public has almost never worked. The only instances I can think of were Nazi Germany’s early pressures on Austria and Czecho-Slovakia. It didn’t work in Algeria for the French, it didn’t work for either the French or U.S. in Vietnam, it hasn’t worked for 47 years in Cuba, it is not working in Iraq, etc. For a problem as serious as nuclear proliferation we should pursue policies that are more likely to work; the dangers are just too great to play Russian roulette with.

The notion that U.S. pressure and waiting will lead to N. Korea’s present government collapsing is precisely the will o’ the wisp that has led to our failure to mount any other policy toward N. Korea (see Selig Harrison’s book, Korean Endgame). Betting a regime that has already lasted 50 years will soon collapse is like drawing to an inside straight, very unlikely to succeed. The U.S., although focused obsessively and primarily on the Soviet Union in the Cold War, did not see its collapse coming. Yogi Berra’s wisdom—“Prediction is very hard, especially about the future”—is particularly applicable to these predictions.

But even if we could predict the collapse of Kim’s regime, which we cannot, can we predict that this collapse would lead to a better outcome in terms of our goal of controlling nuclear proliferation. I don’t think so. As Iraq demonstrates, though it should have been clear from what happened when the Kennedy administration toppled Diem in Vietnam, one cannot predict what the outcomes are going to be when collapse of a government leads to a power vacuum and all the pent up forces in a society are let loose. Could we guarantee that any new regime would be better? Could we guarantee what would happen to the components of North Korea’s nuclear program in a chaotic situation? Were we able to control what happened to the Soviet Union’s nuclear components when it collapsed?

Frankly, it often seems to me that these “hard-liners”, these pseudo-conservatives have a free pass to repeat what are lunatic fringe foreign policy recommendations and no one calls them to account asking them to lay out the logic of these essentially crazy positions. Their grip on the politics of fear seems to give them a free pass to say things that don’t really make much sense. Isn’t the great New York Times able to find someone at a non-right-wing organization to provide a bit more “debate” on issues of such importance to our national survival?

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