Commentary Magazine


Topic: Korean War

The Vietnamization of the War on ISIS?

Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

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Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

This is reminiscent of the way that Lyndon Johnson controlled air strikes on North Vietnam from the Oval Office in what has come to be seen as classic example of how trying to carefully ratchet up the use of force to “send a message” to adversaries doesn’t work in the real world. At least Johnson had good reason to limit air strikes in North Vietnam–he was worried about drawing China into the war as had occurred during the Korean War. In the case of Syria, it’s hard to see a similar imperative to limit air strikes on ISIS. If Obama is worried that the Assad regime will take advantage of U.S. attacks on ISIS, the obvious solution would be to bomb Assad’s forces too–in short, more air attacks, not fewer. But that clearly is not what the president contemplates; he seems to envision a few pinprick air strikes in Syria and a few more in Iraq.

How this is supposed to succeed in his ambitious goal of first degrading and then destroying ISIS is hard to see. His own top generals–Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff–have warned in recent days that it may be necessary to send at least a limited number of U.S. troops to work alongside friendly forces in order to enhance their combat effectiveness. Yet Obama keeps insists this will not happen. At Central Command on Wednesday, he said: “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

It’s possible that Obama can wiggle out of his seemingly firm commitment as David Ignatius suggests: by reflagging Special Operations Forces under Title 50 covert-action authority and sending them to work alongside indigenous forces under CIA command. It would be easier and more effective not to go through this subterfuge, however, so as to commit the full resources of the U.S. military to support advisers and air controllers in harm’s way.

Comparisons have been drawn to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 but in that case a large number of Special Forces teams operated openly alongside more covert officers from the CIA. That’s a good model to replicate in Iraq and Syria. But whatever the legal niceties, it is vitally important, as his own generals are signaling, for Obama to put at least a limited force of U.S. personnel on the ground where they can work alongside indigenous forces and accompany them into battle, as occurred in Afghanistan. It is important also to step up air strikes on ISIS beyond what is currently contemplated because the projected, low-level of strikes will not be enough to break the back of the most powerful terrorist movement in the world. It may in fact simply result in ISIS being able to claim a victory by posturing as the jihadists who withstood an American offensive. That would be pretty much the worst scenario imaginable–yet with his commitment to gradualism in warfare Obama is making it more likely.

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The Barbaric Cruelty of North Korea

It seems like only yesterday that gullible commentators were welcoming the ascension of Stalinist prince Kim Jong-un in North Korea and claiming he would inaugurate a new era of openness. There has since been scant evidence of change–and to the extent that there has been change, it has generally been for the worse. 

The latest sign of just how despicable this regime is? The detention of an 85-year-old American, a Korean War veteran named Merrill Newman, who was hauled off his airplane as he was about to leave the North at the end of a tour. His family has no idea why he was arrested. They don’t even know if he has received the drugs he needs to keep him alive, which they have sent via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

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It seems like only yesterday that gullible commentators were welcoming the ascension of Stalinist prince Kim Jong-un in North Korea and claiming he would inaugurate a new era of openness. There has since been scant evidence of change–and to the extent that there has been change, it has generally been for the worse. 

The latest sign of just how despicable this regime is? The detention of an 85-year-old American, a Korean War veteran named Merrill Newman, who was hauled off his airplane as he was about to leave the North at the end of a tour. His family has no idea why he was arrested. They don’t even know if he has received the drugs he needs to keep him alive, which they have sent via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. 

Even by North Korea’s barbaric standards, this is pretty cruel and shocking behavior. Moreover, it makes little sense from the standpoint of a regime that would like to encourage tourism to keep a small pittance of hard-currency earnings flowing. 

It’s impossible to say why the North Koreans detained Newman. But it’s obvious that this is yet another sign of a hard-line regime that will never voluntarily liberalize on its own, at least not under Kim Jong-un’s leadership.

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Lessons From Korea

This past Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War. The day passed quietly in South Korea, where I am spending some time–marked by a few fly-bys of South Korean F-16K jets and a low-key ceremony at the War Memorial in Seoul where President Park Geun-hye expressed her hope for lasting peace on the peninsula. It was a different story in Pyongyang where the Communist regime marked “Victory Day,” its self-serving label for the armistice, with a grandiose parade of military hardware including what were, in all probability, phony ICBMs and suitcase nukes adorned with ostentatious radioactive warning symbols. 

It’s hard to more accurately symbolize the divide between South and North–between, respectively, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic government and one that is militaristic, impoverished, and repressive. If the years since the Korean War and in particular the years since the demise of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) should have us taught anything, it is that outreach from Seoul and Washington does nothing to melt the icy hostility of the North, which must preserve a continuing state of tensions to justify the despotic rule of the Kim dynasty. Providing subsidies or diplomatic recognition to North Korea in response to its threats and provocations only brings more of the same. Yet somehow the urge to placate the North proves irresistible. 

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This past Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice which ended the Korean War. The day passed quietly in South Korea, where I am spending some time–marked by a few fly-bys of South Korean F-16K jets and a low-key ceremony at the War Memorial in Seoul where President Park Geun-hye expressed her hope for lasting peace on the peninsula. It was a different story in Pyongyang where the Communist regime marked “Victory Day,” its self-serving label for the armistice, with a grandiose parade of military hardware including what were, in all probability, phony ICBMs and suitcase nukes adorned with ostentatious radioactive warning symbols. 

It’s hard to more accurately symbolize the divide between South and North–between, respectively, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic government and one that is militaristic, impoverished, and repressive. If the years since the Korean War and in particular the years since the demise of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) should have us taught anything, it is that outreach from Seoul and Washington does nothing to melt the icy hostility of the North, which must preserve a continuing state of tensions to justify the despotic rule of the Kim dynasty. Providing subsidies or diplomatic recognition to North Korea in response to its threats and provocations only brings more of the same. Yet somehow the urge to placate the North proves irresistible. 

President Park is now offering the North a $7.3 million bribe–excuse me, humanitarian aid–to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which the North closed in April during a round of saber rattling. The industrial complex consists of South Korean owned-and-operated factories in North Korea, just north of the DMZ (from where it is visible), which employs more than 50,000 North Korean workers and generates at least $90 million in hard currency for the North. The whole thing is a giant boondoggle, run by the South as a sop to the North. Why Seoul is trying to reopen it is a mystery: if Pyongyang wants to close it and lose the benefits it derives from Kaesong, why is the South standing in the way and, in essence, demanding the right to continue subsidizing the North Korean regime?

This is to, put it mildly, counterproductive. The same might be said about Jimmy Carter’s umpteenth trip to North Korea, now being planned to free Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator and missionary who was arrested in the North and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor. This is part of a long-standing pattern with the North, which likes to lock up Westerners to entice high-profile figures such as Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter to visit. Those visits, in turn, are presented to the North Korean population as if these leading Americans are paying obeisance to the Kims–which in some respects they are, albeit unintentionally. If Carter succeeds in freeing Bae it will be a good deed, but also one that will ensure more such kidnappings in the future.

It’s well past time for South Korea and the rest of the West to stop kidding themselves about the North Korean regime. It is not going to moderate itself. The only way the situation will improve is if the North Korean regime peacefully collapses–and providing any support or outreach to the unrepentant Stalinists of the North in the meantime is counterproductive.

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Truman’s Lesson for Presidents: Imagine the Farewell Address

Today President Obama’s second term begins in earnest, with a public swearing-in ceremony and a traditional inaugural address. There is and will be much written about what Obama said and what he should have said. No doubt the president has his plans for a second term, and his inaugural address was shaped in large part by his intentions. But another way to prepare such an address is for the president to imagine what he would want to be able to say in his farewell address, or his last remarks as president.

As it happens, this past week marked the 60th anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s farewell address to the American people, as he prepared them for the transition of power from the Democratic Party’s Truman to the Republican Party’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. As is often the case, Truman offers lessons of his own for modern presidents, but because of certain historical conditions he probably has even more to say for someone like Barack Obama. Both Truman and Obama had taken over from presidents who began their term in peacetime and would go on to prosecute America’s participation in a war that necessitated major changes in the country’s approach to national security, leaving that legacy to senators who rose suddenly and unexpectedly to the White House.

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Today President Obama’s second term begins in earnest, with a public swearing-in ceremony and a traditional inaugural address. There is and will be much written about what Obama said and what he should have said. No doubt the president has his plans for a second term, and his inaugural address was shaped in large part by his intentions. But another way to prepare such an address is for the president to imagine what he would want to be able to say in his farewell address, or his last remarks as president.

As it happens, this past week marked the 60th anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s farewell address to the American people, as he prepared them for the transition of power from the Democratic Party’s Truman to the Republican Party’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. As is often the case, Truman offers lessons of his own for modern presidents, but because of certain historical conditions he probably has even more to say for someone like Barack Obama. Both Truman and Obama had taken over from presidents who began their term in peacetime and would go on to prosecute America’s participation in a war that necessitated major changes in the country’s approach to national security, leaving that legacy to senators who rose suddenly and unexpectedly to the White House.

Of course, while Truman may have even more in common with Obama’s predecessor, it is the nature of Truman’s experience in office that makes him the natural model for a certain kind of president: one who battles low approval numbers while in office, reshapes American policy in some fundamental way, especially with regard to national security, and sees himself as somewhat ahead of his time and destined to be vindicated by the history books and appreciated in hindsight. But most of all, Truman’s farewell address can serve as a guide for a course correction from Obama’s disappointing, highly partisan first term.

Truman began by explaining the responsibilities of the office, and famously reminded the public that the president “can’t pass the buck to anybody.” There is much Truman could have blamed on his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt, who made key strategic and political mistakes that Truman had to fix, and for which Truman gets far less credit than he deserves. Obama, unfortunately, has taken exactly the opposite approach, blaming his predecessor for the failure of his own economic initiatives; blaming a GOP-controlled House even though the Democrats control the Senate and the White House; passing the buck on Benghazi, and others. (Keith Koffler has a handy list of 13 problems Obama has blamed on others, especially the GOP and George W. Bush, here.)

President Obama’s excessive partisanship and relentless demonization of his opponents and their motives stand in sharp contrast to not only the behavior of most of his predecessors and the expected dignity of the office, but to Truman’s plea for unity and support for his successor, who bested Truman’s own party a few months prior:

I want all of you to realize how big a job, how hard a job, it is–not for my sake, because I am stepping out of it–but for the sake of my successor….

Regardless of your politics, whether you are Republican or Democrat, your fate is tied up with what is done here in this room. The President is President of the whole country. We must give him our support as citizens of the United States. He will have mine, and I want you to give him yours.

In matters of war and peace, Truman put special emphasis on his decision to go to war in Korea, which he called “the most important in my time as President of the United States.” Here there is another important lesson for Obama, who has derided calls for military action as the rash actions of men who have not considered the horrors of war. Obama then chose as his defense secretary a man who had served in Vietnam heroically, and whose experience, he said, has taught him the futility of armed conflict to such an extent that he made it his practice to publicly take the military option off the table so as to try and ensure it won’t even be considered, whatever the progression of crisis.

Truman also served with distinction, but didn’t believe his service required him to refuse to send others into the field. “I was a soldier in the First World War, and I know what a soldier goes through. I know well the anguish that mothers and fathers and families go through. So I knew what was ahead if we acted in Korea,” Truman said. But he also remembered what came before the Second World War, and had to allow history into his decision making process as well: “The Japanese moved into Manchuria, and free men did not act. The Fascists moved into Ethiopia, and we did not act. The Nazis marched into the Rhineland, into Austria, into Czechoslovakia, and free men were paralyzed for lack of strength and unity and will. Think about those years of weakness and indecision, and the World War II which was their evil result.”

Individual liberty and religious liberty are not to be trifled with, Truman warned. They are in large part the reason he predicted the demise of the Soviet Union and the success of the American tradition: “In the long run the strength of our free society, and our ideals, will prevail over a system that has respect for neither God nor man.” Those around the world yearning to be free, fighting against oppression and the injustice of dictatorship, must know the president of the United States is in their corner. America will win the Cold War and the battle of ideals, Truman said, but not through a policy of nonintervention born of perceived futility.

Sixty years after that speech, Obama—and any president, really—should take to heart Truman’s message, and the way history judges a leader who can honestly deliver such a farewell address.

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Is Obama Repeating Truman’s Error?

The Obama administration is signaling that, against the backdrop of genocidal rhetoric and faced with an existential threat from Iran, Israel cannot count on the United States. There is no greater sign than the wavering U.S. commitment to the Jewish state than the Obama administration’s decision to scale down considerably a forthcoming joint military exercise.

Obama may wish to express his displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he should realize that it can encourage war when enemies believe U.S. commitments to American allies are shakable. Here, the genesis of the Korean war should provide an important lesson. On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in which he laid out U.S. interests in Asia:

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The Obama administration is signaling that, against the backdrop of genocidal rhetoric and faced with an existential threat from Iran, Israel cannot count on the United States. There is no greater sign than the wavering U.S. commitment to the Jewish state than the Obama administration’s decision to scale down considerably a forthcoming joint military exercise.

Obama may wish to express his displeasure with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he should realize that it can encourage war when enemies believe U.S. commitments to American allies are shakable. Here, the genesis of the Korean war should provide an important lesson. On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in which he laid out U.S. interests in Asia:

In the first place, the defeat and the disarmament of Japan has placed upon the United States the necessity of assuming the military defense of Japan so long as that is required, both in the interest of our security and in the interests of the security of the entire Pacific area… The defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and those we will continue to hold… The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands. Our relations, our defensive relations with the Philippines are contained in agreements between us. Those agreements are being loyally carried out and will be loyally carried out… So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.

Acheson continued to advise those states not covered by the defensive perimeter to resist on their own or rely on the United Nations. “It is a mistake, I think, in considering Pacific and Far Eastern problems to become obsessed with military considerations,” he explained.

Kim Il Sung heard Acheson’s speech and interpreted his omission of South Korea (and Taiwan) from the defense perimeter as a green light to attack South Korea six months later. Had the Truman administration signaled an unshakable commitment to South Korea, it might have impacted Kim’s thinking.

Obama may not like Netanyahu, but by amplifying his antipathy into symbolic chastisement of Israel, the president may be impacting Iranian thinking in ways that will be very costly to the United States (not to mention Israel) and impossible to reverse.

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