Commentary Magazine


Topic: nuclear proliferation

North Korea Amnesia and Iran Engagement

Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

Read More

Who says the ayatollahs don’t have any holiday spirit? In what some might interpret as a courtesy to their Western diplomatic partners, Iran suspended the negotiations being conducted to nail down the details of the implementation of the Geneva agreement they reached with the U.S. and the P5+1 group last month until after the Christmas holidays. Though some might consider this gesture just one more delaying tactic, the Iranians are confident that the Obama administration will be just as pliable after the celebrations as before them. With the president threatening a veto of a proposed bill to toughen sanctions on Iran, the commitment of this administration to what appears to be a push for détente with Tehran is not in question. Nor is it worried much about having to defend the Geneva deal since much of the foreign-policy establishment loves the idea of more engagement and a war-weary public is disinclined to support further confrontation with the Islamist regime in spite of worries about the nuclear threat from Iran.

But in spite of the clear public-relations advantage the administration has in the debate over their approach to Iran, the news cycle has a way of exposing even the most confident narrative involving negotiations with rogue states. As often as President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other administration figures speak up about the need to try diplomacy and to avoid “breaking faith” with Iran, the example of the last tyranny that the U.S. tried to bribe to drop a nuclear program keeps popping up. As the New York Times reports today:

Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea may have begun producing fuel rods for its recently restarted nuclear reactor, a United States-based research institute said in a report published Tuesday.

The signs of new activity at North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, follow the country’s repeated assertions that it is strengthening its capabilities to produce nuclear arms. North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006, the most recent in February, has used spent fuel rods from the reactor as a source for plutonium, a key component for nuclear weapons.

The five-megawatt reactor was restarted earlier this year after a six-year hiatus. Its ability to produce plutonium again depends in part on how quickly North Korea can supply it with new fuel rods. North Korea is believed to have only 2,000 fuel rods in its inventory, a quarter of the 8,000 needed for a full load of fuel.

It bears repeating that Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran at Geneva, played the same role for the Clinton administration with North Korea. Sherman claims that there is no comparison between the two situations, but the plain fact remains that Sherman believed Pyongyang could be bribed rather than pressured into giving up its nukes and thinks the same thing now about Iran. That is why even those who are unenthusiastic about confronting Tehran think there’s little doubt that the U.S. is well down the road toward embracing containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it.

The problem with negotiating with such regimes is that the West plays by the rules but nuclear tyrannies don’t. The North Koreans never put forward an alleged moderate as the face of their government the clever way the Iranians have done with Hassan Rouhani. But they often made the same kind of promises to American negotiators like Sherman about giving up their nukes for relaxation of sanctions, the way the Iranians have now done. Despite pledges of transparency and allowing inspections, such governments can revoke their promises at the whim of leaders like Kim Jong-un or Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the absence of the rule of law, any deception is possible.

But the problem goes deeper than just a matter of a few foolish negotiators or the technical problems of keeping track of nuclear scofflaws. Integral to the story of what happened with North Korea and what may well be unfolding now with Iran is a refusal to learn from history and the inclination of Westerners to project their own beliefs onto totalitarians—be they Communists or Islamists—that view such foolishness as their diplomatic ace in the hole. Twenty years ago, the notion of a nuclear North Korea was considered science fiction by many in the foreign policy establishment. Today, it is a fact. Ten years from now we may look back on our current debate about Iran with the same incredulity that Sherman’s talks with North Korea now provoke. So long as there will be gullible diplomats whose zeal for the deal exceeds their common sense, Western governments will believe the promises of countries like North Korea and Iran.

Read Less

The Costs of Obama’s Miguided Nuke Policy

I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.

This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.

Read More

I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.

This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.

As I wrote last year when this issue surfaced, the argument in favor of nuclear reduction rests on faulty logic. We have been told time and again that one benefit of arms reduction would be the display of American leadership: other countries would be encouraged to follow our lead, and we can’t be accused (at least to the same degree) of hypocrisy when we advocate for nuclear nonproliferation abroad. This is untrue, because the U.S. has reduced its nuclear stockpile over the years and offered additional cuts, and yet China has continued over the years to increase its own stockpile and other nations have crossed the nuclear weapons threshold.

Additionally, nuclear weapons are just that–weapons. Rogue states have no “right” to those weapons just because we have them, and the U.S. has long possessed strategic advantages on the battlefield. Those advantages do not make us hypocrites; we have no moral obligation to permit those who seek to harm us to level the playing field. If we legitimize the argument for strategic parity then we would lay the groundwork for the argument that just reducing our stockpile is insufficient: if we have a thousand nukes, so should Pakistan and North Korea.

Not only does the case for cutting our stockpile ignore history, it misrepresents the concept of strategic deterrence. Once we reach a large number of nukes, could it possibly make a difference if we scrapped some of them? Well yes, actually, it could. As Georgetown’s Matthew Kroenig explains:

In an analysis of 52 countries that participated in nuclear crises from 1945 to 2001 (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), I found that the state with the greater number of warheads is over 17 times more likely to achieve its goals. In addition, there is qualitative evidence from these crises that leaders in nuclear-armed states pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe nuclear superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates directly into a geopolitical advantage. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued, “One thing Mr. Khrushchev may have in mind is that… he knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority…. He also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent… that he has to live under ours.”

Even if Russia agrees to match the president’s proposed cuts, the nuclear reductions would attenuate our advantages vis-à-vis Russia and eat into our margin of superiority against other nuclear-armed states, such as China, possibly increasing the likelihood that the United States will be challenged militarily and reducing the probability that we achieve our goals in future crises.

Which brings us to the two other weaknesses of Obama’s push for arms reduction: opportunity cost and financial cost. Russia’s nukes are far less of a threat to American interests and security than those of North Korea or Pakistan (or even China), and the same is true for those states trying to obtain nuclear weapons, such as Iran and, until recently, Syria. If the Obama administration wants Russian cooperation on the issue of nukes, it should seek not mutual reductions but instead address Russia’s enabling of Iran’s nuclear drive and protection of regimes such as that of Bashar al-Assad. If it wants to make progress on the nuclear issue while being seen to help Russia as well, it should seek not American cuts but moderation on China’s militarization or China’s support for North Korea–two troublesome nuclear states on Russia’s increasingly vulnerable eastern flank.

As for the financial cost, there is only so much money to go around. It would be costly to reduce our nuclear arsenal, which also needs costly modernization. Such modernization is much more urgent than reduction. As the Washington Post reports, we’ve been kicking the can down the road on addressing “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex,” but each delay only increases the expense of the project, which the arsenal needs “to keep it safe and reliable.” Keeping our existing nukes “safe and reliable” should take priority over dismantling part of the arsenal. The president isn’t wrong to address issues relating to our nuclear stockpile and global proliferation. He’s just focusing on the wrong ones.

Read Less

The Myth of the Moderate Mullahs

The West’s capacity for self-delusion when it comes to Iran never ceases to amaze me. Witness the ecstatic reaction to supposed centrist Hassan Rohani’s election in a rigged election. According to The Wall Street Journal: “The Obama administration and its European allies—surprised and encouraged by Hassan Rohani’s election as Iran’s next president—intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions.”

Really? Seriously? Is this on the level? Do leaders in Washington and other Western capitals still believe in the myth of “moderate mullahs” who will make a deal on Iran’s nuclear program if only we reach out to them? This flies in the face of decades of evidence that the Iranians have no intention of giving up their cherished nuclear ambitions whose realization they see (perhaps rightly, if the example of North Korea is anything to go by) as the ultimate guarantor of their revolution.

Read More

The West’s capacity for self-delusion when it comes to Iran never ceases to amaze me. Witness the ecstatic reaction to supposed centrist Hassan Rohani’s election in a rigged election. According to The Wall Street Journal: “The Obama administration and its European allies—surprised and encouraged by Hassan Rohani’s election as Iran’s next president—intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions.”

Really? Seriously? Is this on the level? Do leaders in Washington and other Western capitals still believe in the myth of “moderate mullahs” who will make a deal on Iran’s nuclear program if only we reach out to them? This flies in the face of decades of evidence that the Iranians have no intention of giving up their cherished nuclear ambitions whose realization they see (perhaps rightly, if the example of North Korea is anything to go by) as the ultimate guarantor of their revolution.

It also flies in the face of all the evidence that the real decision-maker in Iran is not the figurehead president but the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has held power since 1989. That is a long enough period that he should have dispelled any naive hopes that he is a closet reformer who has any ambition other than maintaining repression at home and expanding Iranian influence abroad at the expense of the U.S. and our moderate allies in the region.

For that matter, even if Rohani had any real power there is scant reason to think he would reach any deal with the West unless it allows Iran a tactical advantage. As Sohrab Ahmari reminds us in the Wall Street Journal: “For 16 years starting in 1989, Mr. Rohani served as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. During his tenure on the council, Mr. Rohani led the crackdown on a 1999 student uprising and helped the regime evade Western scrutiny of its nuclear-weapons program.”

Numerous other accounts note that when Rohani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, he oversaw a temporary pause in enrichment activities–but he later bragged that this had relieved pressure on Iran and allowed it to make critical advances in its nuclear program.

There is scant cause to think that Rohani’s election now will change Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons–except to make it easier by dragging the West into further fruitless negotiations that will buy time for the mullahs to produce an atomic bomb.

Read Less

No More Incentives for Iran

Incentives remain at the core of the negotiating strategy which the United States and its allies have toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear program. Tracing the Western approach is an exercise in frustration as retired diplomats and Iran’s apologists blame the United States for Iran’s failure to make a deal, even as the pot which American diplomats offer grows increasingly rich.

Too often, once a diplomatic initiative is begun, the process becomes more important than the results. Sometimes it is useful to revert to the 100,000 foot level and question basic assumptions. First, does Iranian behavior suggest that incentives work? The answer is no: Since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled the concept of “Critical Engagement” back in 1992, successive generations of European and American governments have been trying to entice Iran. Sometimes they referred to a China model, in which economic liberalization would lead (in theory) to political liberalization; at other times they suggested that returning the Iranian regime to the community of nations would lead it to become a more responsible partner; and still other times they were downright mercantilist, trying to buy Iranian compliance. While the Iranian regime was always willing to encourage a sweetening of the pot, at no time has its behavior suggested that such a strategy will work.

Read More

Incentives remain at the core of the negotiating strategy which the United States and its allies have toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear program. Tracing the Western approach is an exercise in frustration as retired diplomats and Iran’s apologists blame the United States for Iran’s failure to make a deal, even as the pot which American diplomats offer grows increasingly rich.

Too often, once a diplomatic initiative is begun, the process becomes more important than the results. Sometimes it is useful to revert to the 100,000 foot level and question basic assumptions. First, does Iranian behavior suggest that incentives work? The answer is no: Since German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel unveiled the concept of “Critical Engagement” back in 1992, successive generations of European and American governments have been trying to entice Iran. Sometimes they referred to a China model, in which economic liberalization would lead (in theory) to political liberalization; at other times they suggested that returning the Iranian regime to the community of nations would lead it to become a more responsible partner; and still other times they were downright mercantilist, trying to buy Iranian compliance. While the Iranian regime was always willing to encourage a sweetening of the pot, at no time has its behavior suggested that such a strategy will work.

Indeed, the obsessive American approach to trying to bribe Iran only humiliates the United States in the eyes of Iranian officials. The simple facts of the matter are these:

  • The Iranian nuclear program is in non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement and with multiple International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) findings and with several United Nations Security Council resolutions. There really should be no ifs, ands, or buts when it comes to American flexibility.
  • Many diplomats believe that a give-and-take should form the basis of diplomatic negotiations. It should be increasingly difficult for these diplomats to defend the process, for while the European Union and United States have offered to give and give and give some more, the Iranians have not reciprocated. Why is it that the Iranian government does not itself offer some incentives?

The simple facts are these:

  • The Iranian government has repeatedly approached talks insincerely, and has no intention of forfeiting its illicit nuclear weapons program.
  • After two decades of diplomacy, Iranian authorities know what they need to do. Countless meetings do not elucidate it for them. It is time Western diplomats underline a choice: Tehran can abandon its nuclear program, or they can face the consequences. Rather than let the Islamic Republic profit off its defiance, the most productive thing congressmen and diplomats should do is outline just exactly what those consequences will be.

Read Less

Will Obama and Hagel Learn from the Korean Crisis?

From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.

Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.

Read More

From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.

Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.

As North Korea continues its saber-rattling, it behooves American officials to consider the implications of maintaining such an ineffective policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. While conducting interviews for my forthcoming book about the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I had interviewed a former Clinton administration official who acknowledged that Clinton’s team understood the flaws in the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement but signed the agreement anyway in order to show progress and because they did not believe the regime would last long enough for the promised reactors to have to be delivered. The Clinton team was wrong, obviously, and nearly 20 years of bipartisan diplomatic failure later, North Korea may finally have a leader who could be crazy enough to unleash the worst violence not only on South Korea, but also on Japan, if not the United States.

With the North Korea crisis escalating, perhaps it is time for the Obama administration to ask if they really can afford to play footsie with the Islamic Republic and pursue a diplomatic strategy that has not only failed to deliver, but also has no promise for future delivery. Perhaps Obama and Hagel believe they can contain Iran today, but they should recognize the North Korea crisis today for what it is: a crystal ball into Iran’s future.

Read Less

U.S. Intelligence, North Korea, and Iran

This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.

Read More

This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.

It illustrates the fact that once nuclear capability is attained, the move to develop a weapon is a political decision, made in secret, detectable only after the fact. Waiting for intelligence about a decision to build a bomb, instead of focusing on nuclear weapons capability, sets the red line where the action can neither be timely detected nor effectively reversed. Earlier this month, the former IAEA deputy director stated that if Iran went the North Korea route, it could build a nuclear weapon in “a month or two.” He noted that “if you go back to the nuclear programs which have been revealed [elsewhere], they all came with a surprise,” and that Iran’s breakout would likely outpace the ability of the international community to respond.

Sanctions don’t get more crippling than the ones imposed on North Korea, but they continue to have no effect on its nuclear weapons program. Over the past year, North Korea conducted another nuclear test; displayed to the world a road-mobile ICBM; and placed a satellite in orbit using its own launch rocket. The 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment states that we “do not know [North Korea’s] nuclear doctrine,” or how it plans to employ its nuclear weapons, but the intelligence community assesses–“with low confidence”–that North Korea would only use them to preserve the regime.

As the Iranian centrifuges continue to spin, and the IAEA finds its demands for effective inspections repeatedly rejected, the P5+1 negotiates with itself, offering new flexibility while Iran engages in what Dennis Ross called last week a “rope-a-dope” strategy. Yesterday, President Obama said it would take “over a year or so” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. In light of past U.S. intelligence failures regarding Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea, one wonders what degree of confidence U.S. intelligence has in the one-year estimate: low, moderate, high, or slam dunk.

Read Less

American Military Retrenchment and Nuclear Proliferation

The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

Read More

The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

That is a powerful testament to the growing doubts around the world about American power in the Age of Obama–even if the South Koreans and others would not put it that way. Surveys show widespread global admiration for Obama, but there is growing discomfort with the “lead from behind” doctrine that has come to be associated with his administration. Those doubts are only amplified by the sequester, which Obama dreamed up and has allowed to go into effect, thereby jeopardizing our military strength, because of his unwillingness to reach agreement with Republicans over any deficit deal that does not raise taxes.

It is not just South Koreans and other Asian allies who wonder if the U.S. will be there for them as they are threatened by North Korea–or by a China that is growing increasingly assertive in trying to expand it sovereignty over various islands claimed by Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and other nations with little pushback from Washington. So, too, Middle Eastern allies worry as they see Washington failing to stop the Iranian nuclear program or to do more to stop Iran’s allies in Syria from trying to defeat a popular uprising using horrific violence.

So far those doubts are muted, but if present trends continue they will get louder over time–and we will see the world becoming a more dangerous place. Not just because American power serves to restrain our enemies but also because it restrains our allies–especially countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who could easily go nuclear if they choose. They have decided, thus far, to refrain from fielding their own nuclear arsenals because they have been sheltered under the American nuclear umbrella. But if that umbrella frays–because of nuclear cuts that Obama is trying to implement or because of a general weakening of our defense or simply a decline in our credibility–then they will do what they have to do to protect themselves and the world will become a much more dangerous place as nuclear arms races break out in the Middle East and East Asia.

Read Less

Keller Hopes for a “Liberated Obama”

In an article yesterday, placed prominently in the center of the New York Times op-ed page, Bill Keller wrote that if he were faced with only two choices — (a) Iran with a bomb, or (b) bombing Iran — he would “swallow hard” and live with a nuclear Iran.

It is not clear from his op-ed why any swallowing would be involved on his part: in his view: (1) it is “hard to believe the aim of an Iranian nuclear program is the extermination of Israel;” (2) the worry about a regional nuclear arms race is “probably an exaggerated fear;” and (3) “history suggests that nuclear weapons make even aggressive countries more cautious.” It seems like an easy choice for him.

Read More

In an article yesterday, placed prominently in the center of the New York Times op-ed page, Bill Keller wrote that if he were faced with only two choices — (a) Iran with a bomb, or (b) bombing Iran — he would “swallow hard” and live with a nuclear Iran.

It is not clear from his op-ed why any swallowing would be involved on his part: in his view: (1) it is “hard to believe the aim of an Iranian nuclear program is the extermination of Israel;” (2) the worry about a regional nuclear arms race is “probably an exaggerated fear;” and (3) “history suggests that nuclear weapons make even aggressive countries more cautious.” It seems like an easy choice for him.

Nevertheless, Keller concludes that we should “focus all of our intelligence and energy” on a third approach: cutting a deal with Iran. It is amazing no one has thought of this idea before; perhaps we should give it a try for four years.

Keller believes that “of course, [a deal] won’t happen before November,” because Republicans would point out “the abandonment of Israel” in favor of a regime “that recently beat a democracy movement bloody” —  and American voters would react negatively. But Keller hopes “a liberated Obama” would do it thereafter. Keller seems to have absorbed the message that this is Obama’s last election, and that he can be more flexible after he’s re-elected.

The tragedy of the current situation is that, because the U.S. will not set a deadline or a redline, a U.S. ally is faced with an existential decision that may have to be made sooner rather than later. Articles such as Keller’s may lead it to conclude that its own deadline is November.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.