Commentary Magazine


Topic: North Korea

Obama Must Explain Why the Iran Deal Isn’t North Korea Redux

As the Obama administration rushes into a nuclear deal with Iran, it pays to remember the last time the United States struck a deal with a rogue regime in order to constrain that state’s nuclear program and the aftermath of that supposed success.

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As the Obama administration rushes into a nuclear deal with Iran, it pays to remember the last time the United States struck a deal with a rogue regime in order to constrain that state’s nuclear program and the aftermath of that supposed success.

Bill Clinton had been president barely a month when North Korea announced that it would no longer allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, followed shortly thereafter by an announcement that it would withdraw from the NPT altogether within a matter of months. If Kim Il-sung expected Washington to flinch, he was right. The State Department aimed to keep North Korea within the NPT at almost any price. Chief U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci and his aides explained in their book Going Critical, “If North Korea could walk away from the treaty’s obligations with impunity at the very moment its nuclear program appeared poised for weapons production, it would have dealt a devastating blow from which the treaty might never recover.” Unwilling to take any path that could lead to military action, Clinton’s team sought to talk Pyongyang away from nuclear defiance, no matter that talking and the inevitable concessions that followed legitimized Pyongyang’s brinkmanship.

As with President Obama relieving Iran of the burden of six United Nations Security Council resolutions which demanded a complete cessation of enrichment, Clinton’s willingness to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear compliance was itself a concession. After all, the 1953 Armistice required Pyongyang to reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to determine the purpose of suspect facilities. By making weaker frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off the hook before talks even began.

Just as Israeli (and Saudi and Emirati and Egyptian and Kuwaiti and Bahraini) leaders express frustration with the Obama administration regarding its naiveté and unwillingness to consult, so too did South Korea at the time chafe at Clinton’s arrogance. South Korean President Kim Young Sam complained to journalists that North Korea was leading America on and manipulating negotiators “to buy time.” And in a pattern that repeats today with regard to Iran, the IAEA held firmer to the demand that North Korea submit to real inspections than did Washington. The issue came to a head in September 1993 after the State Department pressured the IAEA to compromise on limited inspections.

In the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, Clinton was also wary that coercion could be a slippery slope to war. Just as President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel instructed U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf not to stand firm but rather to retreat if probed or pushed by Iran, Clinton sought to mollify Pyongyang, for example cancelling the joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise in 1994. Adding insult to injury, the Clinton administration criticized the South Korean government for being unwilling to compromise. Indeed, everything the Obama administration has done with regard to Israel over the past year—with the exception, perhaps, of the classless chickensh-t comment—was ripped right from the Clinton playbook two decades before when the White House sought to silence Seoul.

There followed months of baseless optimism in Washington, followed by disappointment quickly supplanted by denial. At one point, when it looked like Kim Il-sung’s intransigence might actually lead to war, former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and, whether cleared to or not, made concessions which diffused the situation. It was the diplomatic equivalent of Obama’s voided redlines. Nightline host Ted Koppel observed on May 18, 1994, “this administration is becoming notorious … for making threats and then backing down.”

On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il, his eldest son, took over. Negotiations progressed quickly. Gallucci and his team promised an escalating series of incentives—reactors, fuel oil, and other economic assistance. They kicked inspections of North Korea’s suspect plutonium sites years down the line.

What had begun as North Korean intransigence had netted Pyongyang billions of dollars in aid; it would go down in history as the largest reward for cheating and reneging on agreements until Obama granted Iran $11 billion in sanctions relief just for coming to the table. Columnist William Safire traced the steps of concessions on North Korea. “Mr. Clinton’s opening position was that untrustworthy North Korea must not be allowed to become a nuclear power,” he observed, but Clinton “soon trimmed that to say it must not possess nuclear bombs, and stoutly threatened sanctions if North Korea did not permit inspections of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, where the CIA and KGB agree nuclear devices have been developed. But as a result of Clinton’s Very Good Deal Indeed, IAEA inspectors are denied entry to those plants for five years.” And Sen. John McCain, for his part, lamented that Clinton “has extended carrot after carrot, concession after concession, and pursued a policy of appeasement based … on the ill-founded belief that North Koreans really just wanted to be part of the community of nations.” Again, the parallels between Clinton’s and Obama’s assumptions about the desire of enemies to reform were consistent.

Clinton wasn’t going to broker any criticism of what he believed was a legacy-defining diplomatic triumph, all the more so when the criticism came from abroad. On October 7, 1994, South Korean President Kim Young Sam blasted Clinton’s deal with the North, saying, “If the United States wants to settle with a half-baked compromise and the media wants to describe it as a good agreement, they can. But I think it would bring more danger and peril.” There was nothing wrong with trying to resolve the problem through dialogue, he acknowledged, but the South Koreans knew very well how the North operated. “We have spoken with North Korea more than 400 times. It didn’t get us anywhere. They are not sincere,” Kim said. His outburst drew Clinton’s ire. He became the Netanyahu of his day. Meanwhile, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework. Gallucci and his team were “exhilarated.” They later bragged they “had overcome numerous obstacles in the negotiations with the North; survived the intense, sometimes strained collaboration with Seoul and the International Atomic Energy Agency; and marshaled and sustained an often unwieldy international coalition in opposition to the nuclear challenge, all under close and often critical scrutiny at home.”

Today, by some estimates, North Korea is well on its way to having 100 nuclear weapons and is steadily developing the ballistic capability to deliver them. Iran’s nuclear negotiators have cited North Korea’s negotiating strategy as a model to emulate rather than an example to condemn. Meanwhile, Obama has relied on many of the same negotiators to advance his deal with Iran.

The State Department has never conducted a lessons learned exercise about what went wrong with the North Korea deal. Perhaps it’s time. Diplomatic responsibility and national security demand it.

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North Korea Evades More Sanctions While U.S. Pursues Yet More Talks

As the endgame for America’s nuclear negotiations with Iran looms, I hope that Washington is paying attention to the critical flaws in both its failed agreements with North Korea and the ineffective sanctions imposed on the country in response. I wrote in last month’s issue how Pyongyang has constantly outwitted the United States over the past two decades because the sole goal of the regime is to stay in power, and it therefore will do everything possible to buy time, hug the Americans close, undercut its commitments, and the like.

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As the endgame for America’s nuclear negotiations with Iran looms, I hope that Washington is paying attention to the critical flaws in both its failed agreements with North Korea and the ineffective sanctions imposed on the country in response. I wrote in last month’s issue how Pyongyang has constantly outwitted the United States over the past two decades because the sole goal of the regime is to stay in power, and it therefore will do everything possible to buy time, hug the Americans close, undercut its commitments, and the like.

Now comes news of yet another way that North Korea has evaded U.N.-imposed sanctions, by renaming and transferring the ownership of vessels of a shipping company targeted for illicit arms shipments. None of this should be a surprise, but it is further proof that sanctions are an imperfect tool, at best. Washington has repeatedly turned to sanctions as a way to express its displeasure with Pyongyang and in the hopes of putting enough pressure on the regime that it will eventually return to the negotiating table. With clear acquiescence, if not actual help, from China and Russia, among others, North Korea has been able to avoid serious repercussions for its actions and flout the international community.

The ingenuity of the Kim regime in finding ways around sanctions should be the primary case study for any future sanctions policy. Yet even as more information is made public about its continuing illicit activities, the Obama administration appears to be flirting with going down the primrose path of considering yet more negotiations. In this case, envoys of the White House have been holding talks with representatives from the North about having “talks about talks,” according to the Washington Post. “We want to test if they have an interest in resuming negotiations,” the Post reported an American official saying just this month. The North Koreans undoubtedly would welcome more talks, as that simply gives them more time to perfect their nuclear and ballistic-missile technology. With Washington caught in a dialogue dependency trap, unable to think outside the box and hoping against all experience for an outcome different from last time, expect more evasion and bad faith agreements in the future.

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Update the State Sponsor of Terrorism List

At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

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At the rate President Barack Obama is going, the State Sponsor of Terrorism list will be empty by the time he leaves office. Today, only Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria remain on the list, and Obama seems intent on having Secretary of State John Kerry remove Cuba within months. Nor is Cuba the only country which Obama seeks to remove. As Team Obama scrambles to find new incentives to keep Iran at the nuclear negotiating table, it’s likely that Obama will also seek Iran’s removal as part of any deal. Iranian officials have made clear they expect all sanctions to be lifted, and that includes those which kick in for being a designated state sponsor of terrorism. Does Iran support Hezbollah? Certainly. But all the discussion about Hezbollah being a Lebanese nationalist group which has weaned itself from its Iranian founders (never mind its involvement in Syria or its putsch in Beirut in 2008) set the stage for a sleight of hand.

And it is doubtful that Obama will seek to stigmatize Sudan, Darfur and Sudan’s increasing support for the Lord’s Resistance Army notwithstanding. Syria’s another call—but Obama seems to be pivoting to reconciling with Bashar al-Assad despite the brutality of the last four years. With both Khartoum and Damascus, Obama might also argue that whatever the brutality of the regimes, they have focused their repression inward and have not engaged in international terrorism. To reach such a conclusion would, of course, require cherry-picking Sudanese assistance with weapons transfers to Palestinian terrorists and Syrian-sponsored violence inside Lebanon.

Clearly, Obama is treating the State Sponsor of Terrorism list subjectively rather than objectively. To be fair, George W. Bush did likewise: The only reason why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice removed North Korea from the list in 2008 was to try to jumpstart diplomacy in the hope that she could provide Bush with a foreign-policy success. North Korea was no more deserving of removal than Iran would be: While Bush administration officials insisted that Pyongyang had ceased its support for terror in the 1980s, the Congressional Research Service was reporting continued ties between North Korea on one hand, and both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah on the other.

In an ideal world, there would be no state sponsors of terror, but simply waving the diplomatic wand to remove states from the list does not end terror. Indeed, the whole purpose of designation is not to hamper diplomacy but to aid it: When states are listed on objective grounds, it provides diplomatic leverage to get them to reform.

Perhaps, then, it would be useful for the State Department not only to review those states on the list like Cuba and Iran which Obama wants removed, but also other states or entities whose recent behavior suggests they deserve inclusion.

Turkey is a clear example. There is ample evidence that Turkey has smuggled arms to Boko Haram, and there is also conclusive evidence that Turkey has also armed radical groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates and perhaps even ISIS in Syria.

Both Turkey and Qatar also overtly support Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It may be diplomatically inconvenient to designate two U.S. allies but, then again, it should be even more inconvenient to have allies who are unrepentant sponsors of terrorist groups.

By any objective measure, Russia should also be considered a state sponsor of terrorism: Whether it is providing arms used to shoot down civilian jets, or simply providing arms to militias which indiscriminately shell civilian targets, it is clear that Russia does not abide by the rule of law.

And, of course, if the Palestinian Authority wishes to be treated as a state, one membership they deserve is designation as a terror sponsor. Despite the Oslo Accords and subsequent interim agreements, the Palestinian Authority simply has not kept its hand clean: offering salaries to convicted terrorists—men and women who fully acknowledge their role in attacks targeting civilians—is evidence enough.

While Cuba remains an autocratic, corrupt regime, it is debatable whether they still are an international terror sponsor. What is not debatable, however, is that Venezuela is. And, so long as Algeria continues to aid and support the Polisario Front almost 25 years after that Cold War relic agreed to a ceasefire with Morocco, then Algeria too deserves to be listed as a terror sponsor. Pakistan, too, for all its assistance to the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups. And North Korea’s brief interlude off the list should end so long as it continues its relationship with Hezbollah and Syria, for whom it apparently still digs tunnels and builds other underground facilities.

Let’s hope that one day there will be no need for a State Sponsor of Terrorism list. But let’s also acknowledge that that day has yet to come. Alas, a true State Sponsor of Terrorism list would not include just two or three countries, but perhaps a dozen. Diplomatic sleights-of-hand might be the bread and butter of the Obama administration and State Department more broadly, but pretending terrorism has no sponsors does not actually do anything to stop terrorism. Quite the contrary, it just convinces terror sponsors in Algiers, Ankara, Caracas, Doha, Islamabad, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Ramallah that they face no accountability for their actions.

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How to React to Algeria’s Diversion of Humanitarian Aid?

Within both the United States and Europe, foreign aid has become a feel-good operation more successful at creating jobs for bureaucrats and consultants in Washington and Brussels than in achieving real success among its targets. This shouldn’t surprise since so often the metric of success used by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is money spent rather than results achieved. A decade ago, for example, it emerged that 95 percent of the money which the United States spent to “fight” malaria in Africa was actually being spent on consultants, and only five percent was making it to Africa itself to counter Africa’s most deadly disease. Lots of malaria experts bought new cars, but it didn’t do the public health in Africa much good.

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Within both the United States and Europe, foreign aid has become a feel-good operation more successful at creating jobs for bureaucrats and consultants in Washington and Brussels than in achieving real success among its targets. This shouldn’t surprise since so often the metric of success used by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is money spent rather than results achieved. A decade ago, for example, it emerged that 95 percent of the money which the United States spent to “fight” malaria in Africa was actually being spent on consultants, and only five percent was making it to Africa itself to counter Africa’s most deadly disease. Lots of malaria experts bought new cars, but it didn’t do the public health in Africa much good.

For both the foreign or humanitarian aid industries, refugees have become a particular cash cow. The Palestinians have received more per capita in aid than any other people, but have little to show for it, except perhaps the inflated bank accounts of UNRWA officials and the tremendous mansions built by Palestinian politicians, from both Fatah and Hamas. And as for those with their hands out on behalf of their people? Let’s just say that Palestinian spokesmen like Hanan Ashrawi (a speech for whom I once handled while working at Yale University) don’t often fly economy class or stay at the Hampton Inn. The main victims of the refugee industry become the Palestinians themselves, who are used as diplomatic distractions and pawns for others’ enrichment.

Alas, the Palestinians are not alone. I have written before about the Tindouf refugees camps over which the Polisario Front and its self-styled “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” rules with an iron fist. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees remain stranded in the desert with their voluntary return to Morocco prevented so that Algeria and the Polisario can profit off them. And almost a year ago, I wrote here how the Polisario Front and its Algerian backers were diverting and smuggling humanitarian aid.

Now it seems the European Union is catching on. Last month, Le Monde reported on a new report out of Brussels which confirms what has become obvious: Algeria has been actively colluding with the Polisario Front to divert international aid, using the remaining refugees as humanitarian pawns while enriching themselves. According to Le Monde, the diversion of humanitarian aid begins in the Algerian port of Oran, but assistance gets diverted along the almost 1,000-mile route into Tindouf. It’s really no different from how the North Koreans diverted food and fuel aid in the 1990s.

Alas, just as the State Department sought to bury talk of North Korean cheating, the Pentagon actually for a time thought it wiser to classify corruption rather than eliminate it, and the United Nations sought to bury investigation into its multi-billion-dollar oil-for-food corruption scheme, the European Commission is so far keeping its full report under wraps. In every case, the bureaucratic response is without fail to excuse corruption and protect the reputations of incompetent administrators even at the expense of helping those in need.

So what to do? The European Commission should release its full report. And, with proof of Algerian and Polisario embezzlement, it should also first demand restitution and reimbursement of the diverted funds—perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars over the years—from Algeria and, second, investigate and explain the failure of checks and balances that led the criminal scheme to continue for so long. Accountability should never be a dirty word. Foreign assistance should never be an entitlement, and it should never occur into perpetuity lest as with the cases of Tindouf, North Korea, and Gaza, it becomes an obstacle to conflict resolution rather than a solution to humanitarian crises.

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The U-2 Flies Again: The Pentagon Keeps the Dragon Lady

The Pentagon has released its budget request for 2016, and among the items being digested by the D.C.-based defense community is the reprieve of the storied U-2 spy plane. First built in 1955, the U-2 is, next to the B-52 bomber, the longest-lived airplane in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory. Today’s U-2s are dramatically modified from their original version, being larger and with far more sophisticated reconnaissance capabilities. Crucially, they offer greater flexibility than satellites. Plus, on balance, they still remain cheaper to operate than drones.

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The Pentagon has released its budget request for 2016, and among the items being digested by the D.C.-based defense community is the reprieve of the storied U-2 spy plane. First built in 1955, the U-2 is, next to the B-52 bomber, the longest-lived airplane in the U.S. Air Force’s inventory. Today’s U-2s are dramatically modified from their original version, being larger and with far more sophisticated reconnaissance capabilities. Crucially, they offer greater flexibility than satellites. Plus, on balance, they still remain cheaper to operate than drones.

These capabilities are what keep the Dragon Lady in the air. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, the military is actually relying more on the U-2 today than in the past. While the Air Force flip-flopped on keeping or retiring the U-2 fleet, top commanders have testified to its usefulness in an increasingly unstable world. The head of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula asserted that the U-2 right now is the best reconnaissance platform for use along the Demilitarized Zone, something even more important given the unpredictability of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Similarly, with NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove now calling for supplying Ukrainian forces with defensive weapons in light of new Russian attacks in the east of that country, the U-2 can provide needed, real-time intelligence of Russian troop movements. The same could be said for keeping an eye on sudden developments in Libya or tracking conflict associated with groups like Boko Haram.

So, a bit of good news. Parts of the world continue to become more unstable, but for now, Washington will maintain one unique capability of keeping an eye on trouble spots. Whether that prevents more strategic surprise, let alone leads to better defense policy, is another matter, but stripping away part of our ability to know what’s going on in the world would have been a cause for alarm.

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Anti-Israel Feeling in Britain Reaching Dangerous Levels

Beyond Europe, the only country the British now dislike more than Israel is North Korea. That is the finding of a new survey by the foreign policy institute Chatham House. Even Iran is viewed more favorably than Israel. These findings come amidst a fraught debate over whether or not Britain is becoming more anti-Semitic. But because much of the British establishment and even significant sections of Britain’s Jewish community refuse to view anti-Israel feeling as synonymous with anti-Semitism, people are not taking this phenomenon nearly as seriously as they might one day wish they had.

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Beyond Europe, the only country the British now dislike more than Israel is North Korea. That is the finding of a new survey by the foreign policy institute Chatham House. Even Iran is viewed more favorably than Israel. These findings come amidst a fraught debate over whether or not Britain is becoming more anti-Semitic. But because much of the British establishment and even significant sections of Britain’s Jewish community refuse to view anti-Israel feeling as synonymous with anti-Semitism, people are not taking this phenomenon nearly as seriously as they might one day wish they had.

In all, 35 percent said they viewed Israel unfavorably, as opposed to 33 percent who felt negatively toward Iran (down from 45 percent in the previous survey), 21 percent for Saudi Arabia, 9 percent for Egypt, and 2 percent for Indonesia. These other figures are an indication of just how warped attitudes toward the Jewish state have become.

What relation, if any, this has with rising anti-Semitism is now a fiercely debated subject. Indeed, there are plenty who dispute the premise that anti-Semitism even is rising in Britain. Something of the confusion was recently expressed by Michael Portillo—formerly a senior Conservative party figure—who told the BBC that while he thought anti-Semitism had diminished in Britain, Jews were still being identified with the policies of Israel. And Israel, Portillo noted, is becoming increasingly unpopular, something which he also stressed he didn’t believe to be justified. But there we have the contradiction. People hating Jews because of an unjustified loathing of Israel is the new anti-Semitism.

Besides, mounting evidence shows direct anti-Semitism is indeed on the rise. By the middle of 2014, British Jews had witnessed a 400 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents compared to the previous year. And then there are the opinion surveys. One carried out at the beginning of this year by the European Jewish Congress found that 15 percent of young Brits approved of the idea that Jews should be forced to carry special identification and that Jewish businesses should be marked. A similar number said they needed more evidence to be convinced the Holocaust had happened. Another survey, this one commissioned by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, found that half of British people agreed with at least one of several anti-Semitic statements put before them.

There has been some recognition of this problem by the government—which has stepped up policing in Jewish areas—as well as by the media, even while no shortage of Jewish voices loudly insist that what is plainly happening in fact isn’t. But there are also other voices who would blame the Jewish state for causing this growing hostility toward British Jews. On Holocaust Memorial Day (no less) Britain’s chief rabbi was asked three times by Sky News reporter Adam Boulton whether Israeli policy was contributing to anti-Semitism in the UK. It is lost on people like Boulton that in a previous era they would have been asking the rabbi if it was not Jewish dishonesty in business, or their disloyalty to the host nation, that was in fact contributing to anti-Semitism.

Today Britain seems to be full of people who in one breath insist they oppose anti-Semitism wholeheartedly, only to then demonize Israel mercilessly in the next. One wonders if in 1930s Germany it was possible to find people who maintained they didn’t wish to see Jews mistreated, but endorsed the Nuremburg Race Laws nonetheless. During this week’s House of Lords debate on Palestinian statehood the now infamous Baroness Jenny Tonge complained that “critics” of Israel such as herself are often labelled anti-Semitic. However, the baroness swiftly proceeded to make a number of anti-Semitic assertions in the very same speech. Not only did she claim that injustices against Palestinians “sowed the seeds of Islamic fundamentalism” so putting all of us at risk, but she also urged Jewish leaders to condemn Israel so as to spare their community from suffering the same hatred Israel now receives. And what if they don’t? What if they continue to support Israel? Is the implication then that they deserve everything they get?

The more of this discourse one listens to the more apparent it becomes that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have not only become inseparably tangled, but worse still the two are perpetuating one another. As a result, 45 percent of British Jews say they fear Jews don’t have a future in Britain. Among those who say they are considering leaving is the actress Maureen Lipmann, yet some in her own community have labelled her an alarmist. Indeed, Jewish talk show host Esther Rantzen and the Guardian writer David Conn have even suggested that British Jews are being ungrateful with all their talk of anti-Semitism and thoughts of leaving.

To be sure, Britain is not France. Not yet, at least. But to avoid that, those who care must start saying unequivocally that demonization of Israel is the most dangerous form of anti-Semitism in the world today. Furthermore, it is time to recognize that Israel advocacy in Britain and Europe has failed. The only thing left to be done is to stop apologizing for Israel defending herself and to instead put those doing the attacking under the spotlight. If exposed to the full horror of Israel’s Islamist enemies, there are still many fair-minded people in Britain who could be persuaded to see things differently.

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Thinking Long Term on North Korea

Pyongyang is spluttering with predictable outrage over the sanctions announced last week by President Obama in retaliation for the hack attack on Sony, claiming it had nothing to do with the huge data breach.

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Pyongyang is spluttering with predictable outrage over the sanctions announced last week by President Obama in retaliation for the hack attack on Sony, claiming it had nothing to do with the huge data breach.

Obama is to be commended for sticking to his guns in the face of considerable skepticism that North Korea really was responsible. Suffice to say this is one of those issues where anyone who does not have access to the U.S. government’s most secret intelligence cannot opine with any degree of certainty. But I am struck by the unanimity and certainty expressed by the U.S. intelligence community in attributing the attack to North Korea, which suggests that the spooks have some highly classified clue pointing the finger of blame at Pyongyang.

In terms of how to respond, the sanctions announced last week are a good start, but only a start.

The sanctions target 10 North Korean government officials and three organizations involved in arms sales abroad. The administration should also move to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which it was prematurely removed by President Bush during his futile attempts to strike a nuclear deal with the North.

The Senate should also get into the act by passing legislation sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce, which has already passed the House, to tighten financial sanctions on the North. We constantly hear that there is little that can be done to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea any more, but that’s not true: Sanctions are much tighter on Iran than on North Korea. The Royce bill will go a considerable way toward rectifying this puzzling disparity.

In the final analysis, beyond sanctions, the real solution to the North Korean threat lies in peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. That won’t happen overnight but it is a goal that the U.S. should dedicate itself to–as urged by the noted North Korea watcher, my friend Sue Mi Terry, and more recently by my boss, Richard Haass. If President Obama truly wants the right answer not just to the cyber-attack but to other North Korean outrages, this is it: Come up with a strategy to hasten the eventual implosion of Communist North Korea, the worst human-rights violator on the planet, and the creation of a single, democratic, unified Korean state.

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Why Was North Korea Removed from the Terrorism List?

I’ve been offline for about two weeks because of work-related travel, and so I wasn’t able to chime in on the debate with regard to North Korea and its alleged hacking of Sony. But, while according to news reports, there are still questions about the degree of Pyongyang’s culpability, the incident—and revelations about the extent to which North Korea has developed it cyber-terrorism capabilities—should be cause for reflection about just why North Korea was removed from the state sponsor of terrorism list in the first place. It’s an episode I cover in my book about the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes, and it doesn’t reflect well on the George W. Bush administration in general, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in particular. But, against the backdrop of the rush to normalize relations with Cuba, lift sanctions, and remove that communist dictatorship from the state sponsor of terrorism list, it’s useful to reflect on how putting diplomatic ambition and legacy above reality really can hurt American national security.

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I’ve been offline for about two weeks because of work-related travel, and so I wasn’t able to chime in on the debate with regard to North Korea and its alleged hacking of Sony. But, while according to news reports, there are still questions about the degree of Pyongyang’s culpability, the incident—and revelations about the extent to which North Korea has developed it cyber-terrorism capabilities—should be cause for reflection about just why North Korea was removed from the state sponsor of terrorism list in the first place. It’s an episode I cover in my book about the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes, and it doesn’t reflect well on the George W. Bush administration in general, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in particular. But, against the backdrop of the rush to normalize relations with Cuba, lift sanctions, and remove that communist dictatorship from the state sponsor of terrorism list, it’s useful to reflect on how putting diplomatic ambition and legacy above reality really can hurt American national security.

At any rate, the story of North Korea’s removal from the terrorism list dates back to 2006. American forces were mired in Iraq, Bush’s popularity was plummeting, and so Rice decided to seize upon North Korea to try to secure a positive legacy for Bush. In November 2006, Rice and Christopher Hill, her point man for the Korean peninsula, offered to remove North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and the Trading with the Enemy Act, scrapping the Clinton team’s demand that North Korea provide a written guarantee that it had ceased terrorism, would acquiesce to international agreements for combating terrorism, and would address its past terrorism.

It’s useful to remember just why North Korea was on the list in the first place. First of all, there were multiple bombings in the 1980s—of a South Korean passenger plane and of a mausoleum in Burma in which multiple South Korean officials were holding a ceremony. But shouldn’t there be an expiration date on past terrorism? For the sake of argument, let’s say Rice should let bygones be bygones, and that states should fall off the terror sponsorship list after remaining clean for a period of time. Alas, North Korea never passed this test either. For purely political reasons, Rice’s State Department attested that Pyongyang had not sponsored terrorism since 1987. Information available to the U.S. government and chronicled by the Congressional Research Service, however, suggested the opposite. Sources in France, Japan, South Korea, and Israel alleged robust North Korean involvement with both Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a London-based Iranian reporter close to Iran’s reformist camp, described North Korean assistance in the design of underground Hezbollah facilities, assertions backed by a diverse array of reporting. These tunnels allowed Hezbollah to shield rockets from Israeli surveillance prior to the 2006 war and to evade Israeli strikes during it. Chung-in Moon, a professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University, has reported allegations that Hezbollah missiles included North Korean components.

North Korean efforts to aid the Tamil Tigers were more blatant. While that group was subsequently eliminated from the face of the earth by the Sri Lankan military, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported in 2000 that North Korea had supplied the Tamil Tigers with weaponry, and the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism made similar claims over the next three years. How sad it was that the State Department’s clean bill of health for North Korea was so readily contradicted by information the State Department had gathered, vetted, and compiled. Meanwhile, three times between October 2006 and March 2007, the Sri Lankan navy intercepted cargo ships flying no flag or identifying marker and found them to be carrying North Korean arms. For Rice and, by extension George W. Bush, however, diplomacy outweighed intelligence reality.

Rice’s drive to remove North Korea from the terrorism list for purely diplomatic reasons also had repercussions on allies. North Korea’s refusal to come clean about its kidnappings of Japanese citizens had long been an irritant and was also a major factor in its initial listing. It is certainly true that Pyongyang had started to come around: In 2004, the regime returned five surviving abductees of the ten it eventually admitted seizing, but the Japanese government believes that Pyongyang’s agents had actually kidnapped eighty Japanese citizens. For North Korea, why take a full step, when a half step—or even an eighth of a step—would suffice? And Pyongyang guessed right. Rice pressured Tokyo to tone down its objections and told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the White House was under no obligation to classify the kidnappings as terrorism. As so often happens in the State Department, appeasing an enemy had trumped honoring allies.

Well, with sleight of hand, Rice had removed obstacles to further normalization with North Korea. It was full speed ahead on efforts to bring a comprehensive settlement to the North Korea problem. In January 2007, Hill met with top North Korean diplomat Kim Kye Gwan. Their discussions and agreements culminated the next month in a two-phase six-party agreement, which the White House celebrated as a “very important first step.” In the first sixty-day phase, North Korea would freeze its nuclear program. A second phase—for which no time frame was set—would have North Korea disable its nuclear facilities and disclose all nuclear activities.

Hill’s triumph was, in reality, a major step down: the agreement allowed North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons. For Kim Jong-il, it was a complete victory, capped off by the repatriation of laundered money frozen in a Macau bank. John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was blunt in his condemnation of the deal, saying, “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: ‘If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded.’” True to form, however, the New York Times, praised the agreement without equivocation, famously suggesting that the State Department’s rule of thumb on any initiative should be to ask, “What would Chris Hill do?” If American policymakers took their cues from the New York Times editorial page, however, Ronald Reagan never would have pushed the Soviet Union over the precipice to economic collapse, hundreds of million more people would be living under dictatorships, and Cuba would be more the norm than the exception in the hemisphere.

Rice may have wanted a ‘Hail Mary pass’ to change Bush’s legacy, but the only thing she achieved was to soil it. As recent actions and revelations suggest, North Korea never reformed. It pocketed its concessions, and doubled down on both its terror capabilities and nuclear program. Back to Cuba: Simply pumping money into the Cuban economy and encouraging tourism does not bring change: after all, Raul Castro and the Cuban military largely control the hotels and other tourist infrastructure: the hard currency gained disproportionately will benefit Cuba’s infrastructure of terror and repression.

The lesson to be learned as Obama tried to repeat history with regard to Cuba? White-washing rogue regimes is never an American interest, and magic wands do not change the nature of rogue regimes: only regime change does. Europeans might always subordinate principle and freedom to a quick buck, but America should mean more. The United States should have the wherewithal to outlast a country like Cuba. Cuba needs America far more than America needs Cuba, and politicians in both Washington and Havana should never forget that.

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Vandalism or Terror, North Korea is Obama’s Responsibility

In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Nation,” President Obama set off a minor controversy by referring to the North Korean cyber attack on Sony Pictures as an act of “cyber vandalism” rather than one of “cyber terrorism.” That argument as well as the one about whether the president was right to criticize Sony for backing down in the face of threats of violence and further hacking are not as important as to what counter-measures the U.S. is taking today to ensure that this crime doesn’t happen again. With reports that the North Korean Internet is currently out of service, it’s not clear whether this is due to a U.S. response or the Communist regime’s own defensive actions. But no matter what we’re calling what happened to Sony, the main point to be gleaned from these events is that this is no longer a matter of a private business deciding how to deal with a crime. From the moment that the U.S. government named North Korea as the perpetrator, this issue is President Obama’s responsibility to address and decisively fix.

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In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Nation,” President Obama set off a minor controversy by referring to the North Korean cyber attack on Sony Pictures as an act of “cyber vandalism” rather than one of “cyber terrorism.” That argument as well as the one about whether the president was right to criticize Sony for backing down in the face of threats of violence and further hacking are not as important as to what counter-measures the U.S. is taking today to ensure that this crime doesn’t happen again. With reports that the North Korean Internet is currently out of service, it’s not clear whether this is due to a U.S. response or the Communist regime’s own defensive actions. But no matter what we’re calling what happened to Sony, the main point to be gleaned from these events is that this is no longer a matter of a private business deciding how to deal with a crime. From the moment that the U.S. government named North Korea as the perpetrator, this issue is President Obama’s responsibility to address and decisively fix.

Whatever one might think of what seemed, at least at first, as an act of cowardice on the part of the film company, to withdraw the movie at the heart of this story, one primary fact should be acknowledged. It is not President Obama’s job to decide what films get produced in this country or whether they will be shown in theaters, on DVD or the Internet. But it is the government’s job to protect American citizens and businesses from criminal attacks by foreign governments.

We don’t know exactly what the United States is doing to retaliate against North Korea or to forestall future attacks. Nor should we. Let us hope that whatever is going on today, President Obama should be taken at his word when he says that the U.S. will respond at a time and in a manner of its own choosing. But whatever orders have been given, the dustup over the difference “vandalism” and “terror” is one that deserves a little more attention.

Some liberals are pushing back hard against figures like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for calling for stern measures against North Korea. This has given rise to a meme in which the left has abandoned its erstwhile Hollywood allies and urged caution in any response to North Korea and heaped scorn on conservatives they say never pass up an opportunity to call for “war.”

But as some in the entertainment industry now realize, even if you didn’t like George W. Bush or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the words “national security” can take on a whole new and very important meaning if you perceive that your government isn’t defending you against a hostile foreign power.

Make no mistake about it. Though the argument over Obama’s comments can be perceived as one of semantics rather than substance, if the U.S. government treats what happened to Sony as the moral equivalent of someone drawing graffiti on their walls of their corporate headquarters rather than act of terror against a U.S. target, it is making a critical mistake.

Prior to the Internet age, acts of war or terror by foreign powers and other international actors were easily understood as consisting of physical attacks on persons and property or invasions of territory. But in our day, attacks on the United States don’t only consist of events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 atrocities. While the hacking of a corporations online presence and emails is not to be compared to those horrific events, it must also be understood that when a sovereign nation is using the tools of the Internet to interfere with an American company on American soil, then it has crossed a clear line and taken an action that truly provides a casus belli for actions by the U.S. government. In other words, no matter what you call it, it is time for the U.S. to behave in such a manner as to make North Korea fear to ever trespass again on American freedoms.

Stopping or punishing North Korea from carrying out acts of terror won’t be easy. Thanks to the diplomatic failures of the Clinton and Bush administrations, North Korea is, at the very least, a threshold nuclear power. It is also already so isolated and its economy so backward that sanctions will have even less impact on its despotic and brutal government than those on its rogue partners like Iran. But it is nevertheless the responsibility of the president and his national security team to find a way to make Pyongyang pay dearly for its chutzpah. We shouldn’t prejudge those efforts before we know what is planned or actually happening. But this isn’t Sony’s fight or event that of Hollywood. Unless the U.S. is able to hit North Korea or at least scare it enough to ensure that this never happens again, no American should feel safe.

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Can Obama Learn to Punish Tyrants Instead of Rewarding Them?

By publicly fingering North Korea as the culprit behind the Sony hack attack, the FBI has put President Obama in a quandary: What to do about this cyber-attack which has caused grave damage to the American subsidiary of a prominent Japanese company?

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By publicly fingering North Korea as the culprit behind the Sony hack attack, the FBI has put President Obama in a quandary: What to do about this cyber-attack which has caused grave damage to the American subsidiary of a prominent Japanese company?

Leaks out of the White House are that the “principals committee” composed of senior Cabinet-level officials has been meeting to formulate a response. Given the track record of this administration, that means a decision could be forthcoming in a few months, or maybe not at all. All that we’ve seen so far is President Obama’s bland statement today that Sony made a “mistake” in pulling “The Interview” from theaters, which is hardly a suitable response to a humiliating retreat in the face of North Korean aggression.

I know it’s probably expecting too much from this president, but it would be nice if just once he would act decisively instead of talking a good game and setting red lines that can be crossed with impunity. What would constitute decisive action in this case? The obvious proportional response–attack North Korea’s computer networks–isn’t very satisfying for a couple of reasons. First North Korea simply doesn’t have a lot of computer networks; it is one of the most disconnected countries on earth. Second, as someone in the government has (unwisely) leaked to the Wall Street Journal, what few networks it has are monitored for intelligence by the US.

So what does that leave? More sanctions. In 2007, recall, the North Korean regime went bonkers when the Treasury Department issued sanctions against the Banco Delta Asia, a small bank in Macao where some $25 million in North Korean assets was held. Pyongyang demanded that those sanctions be lifted and that North Korea be taken off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism before it would continue talks over its nuclear program. Under the unwise guidance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her chief North Korean negotiator, Chris Hill, President George W. Bush lifted the sanctions on Bando Delta Asia and took North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

With its attack on Sony, North Korea has shown for the umpteenth time why it deserves to be placed on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, a unilateral move that President Obama could take right now. Congress should also pass and Obama vow to sign legislation introduced by Rep. Ed Royce that would tighten general financial sanctions on the North Korean regime. There is a general perception that there isn’t much more to be done on the sanctions front, but that’s not true–North Korea still has money in foreign banks and it still relies on some dealings with the international financial system to stay afloat. Those lifelines need to be snipped pronto.

North Korea needs to understand there will be a cost for its cyber-aggression, just as Russia needs to understand there will be a cost for its physical aggression in Ukraine. That is not something this administration has been very good at–it is better at outreach to despotic regimes such as Iran and Cuba than it is to punishing them for misbehavior–but that’s a failing that Obama still has time to change if he wants to correct the general perception of foreign policy weakness that dogs his administration.

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North Korea No Funnier Than the Nazis

One of the memes that has popped up in the last day in the wake of Sony Pictures backing down to North Korean cyber terrorism is the comparison between The Interview—the film at the heart of the present controversy—and The Great DictatorCharlie Chaplin’s 1940 satire about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Actor Steve Carell and countless others have brought up the precedent of Chaplin’s classic and openly wondered about the way puny North Korea has been able to do what mighty Nazi Germany could not: intimidate Hollywood. The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor is having none of it. But in taking down the analogy, he’s wrong to dismiss North Korea as merely a basket case. It may not be Nazi Germany, but its ability to perpetrate genocide via nuclear weapons or starvation of its own people should not be dismissed. More to the point, Pyongyang’s ability use cyber warfare to compliment its nuclear capacity should require us to take it very seriously indeed.

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One of the memes that has popped up in the last day in the wake of Sony Pictures backing down to North Korean cyber terrorism is the comparison between The Interview—the film at the heart of the present controversy—and The Great DictatorCharlie Chaplin’s 1940 satire about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Actor Steve Carell and countless others have brought up the precedent of Chaplin’s classic and openly wondered about the way puny North Korea has been able to do what mighty Nazi Germany could not: intimidate Hollywood. The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor is having none of it. But in taking down the analogy, he’s wrong to dismiss North Korea as merely a basket case. It may not be Nazi Germany, but its ability to perpetrate genocide via nuclear weapons or starvation of its own people should not be dismissed. More to the point, Pyongyang’s ability use cyber warfare to compliment its nuclear capacity should require us to take it very seriously indeed.

Any analogy with anything connected to Nazi Germany is a perilous business and Taylor is not wrong to point out the many differences between the situation in 1940 and that of today. North Korea is a small, relatively isolated nation while Hitler had already begun his conquest of most of the European continent when Chaplin’s film came out. Though it was a military superpower, Germany lacked the capability to threaten the United States in any credible manner or to influence opinion or the distribution of The Great Dictator as North Korea has done with The Interview.

He also points out something that is painfully obvious. Chaplin’s movie is a widely admired classic while Sony’s blockbuster was thought to be an awful comedy. It’s also true as he notes that while Hollywood was somewhat ambivalent about taking on Hitler prior to the entry of the United States into World War Two, it’s been open season on North Korea in American popular culture for some time.

But there is one thing that the two films have in common. Neither comes anywhere close to detailing the horror of the regimes they are satirizing.

As Taylor notes, even Chaplin came to believe that the film that he worked so hard to get made and then distributed ultimately fell short of the mark. Though it is rightly considered a great work, its depiction of a faux Nazi Germany where a Jewish barber finds himself in big trouble underestimates the depth of Hitler’s hate and the peril facing the Jews. Like most observers at the time, Chaplin could not imagine the existence of the Nazi death industry. Though delightful in many respects, its juxtaposition of traditional slapstick and anti-Semitism doesn’t adequately convey the menace of the Nazis even as it made fun of them. Though the film is rightly revered for both its artistry and courage, silly and the Holocaust are two things that really don’t mix.

The same can be said for all the lame jokes that have circulated about North Korea and its appalling first family of murder. The North Korean regime is a punch line in which buffoons such as former basketball star Dennis Rodman figure. We rarely hear about its concentration camps, regime-imposed mass starvation, and bizarre kidnappings of foreign nationals, let alone the very real possibility that its mad leaders will one day try to use their arsenal. It may be, as some have written, that the main reason why North Korea is mocked so often is that it is not a market for Western films or television and thus was thought to be a country that could be tweaked with impunity. But the deadly nature of the regime is no joke. Nor is its ruthless and successful determination to have its way.

If we want a good World War Two analogy, it’s not absurd to think of the apparent North Korea blitz of the Sony Corporation and its ability to intimidate the film industry to withdraw the film with threats as a cyber Pearl Harbor. In 1940, Germany was powerless to stop American companies from doing a thing. This week, a minor power showed that it could bring a major American industry to its knees while Washington looked on impotently.

Though the artists attacking them are not to be compared, Kim Jon-un’s North Korea is no funnier than Hitler’s Germany. And the threat to the United States from its terrorist activities as well as its nuclear capability is equally lacking in humor. Even worse, while the United States eventually mobilized its manpower and industry to defeat the Nazis, it’s far from clear that there is any will or ability on the part of the U.S. to ever do the same to the maniacal regime in Pyongyang.

Instead of pooh-poohing the danger that may come from a small Communist dictatorship, Americans need to be spreading the alarm about North Korea and pondering how best to push the government to do something about it.

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Human Rights Hypocrisy Charge Doesn’t Fly

Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

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Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

China, North Korea and Iran assert that America’s brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects means that everything the U.S. has said about human rights should be ignored, vindicating them as well as lending credence to calls for prosecutions of those involved. American liberals seem to implicitly agree with them even if they disagree that U.S. behavior lets anyone else off the hook for human rights violations. But charges of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing more than tyranny talking points.

Whatever one may think of the rough treatment meted out to al-Qaeda prisoners, they were terrorists waging a brutal and bloody war against the West and the United States. As terrorists they were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention, nor do they have the same rights as citizens accused of crimes in a court of law. The torture may or may not have effective in getting them to give up vital intelligence but to compare even the nastiest things done to them to the actions of countries like China, North Korea and Iran is more than absurd.

Those tortured in those countries are not accused terrorists but ordinary citizens or dissidents striving for freedom or merely caught up in the grips of a state terrorism. When China, North Korea or Iran, or the many other countries that routinely violate human rights torture, the purpose of the activity is to preserve the ability of the state to go on oppressing people. When the CIA did it, it was part of an effort to defend the lives and the freedom of the American people and those elsewhere struggling to fend off al-Qaeda’s efforts to transform the world into an Islamist caliphate.

Do the motives of the torturers not count? Some would argue that torture is itself a crime and cannot be used under any circumstances. Even more, they say that tolerating torture gives the lie to America’s claim to be the defender of freedom. There is a certain moral logic to such a stand and, in the context of ordinary police work it can be argued that torture can never be contemplated by a just society. Yet the situation the U.S. found itself in after 9/11 was not ordinary. It was a war in which the stakes were as high as they have been in any conflict fought by Americans.

Both in the context of that perilous moment after 9/11 and the long war against Islamist terror that is still going on, the claim that keeping America’s hands clean is more important than the goal of crushing al-Qaeda and its successor groups and thereby defending the future of freedom, may be consistent but it is morally unserious. The first obligation of any democracy at war with tyranny is to defeat the enemy, not to avoid embarrassing revelations about interrogations. It is comforting to assert that victory does not require democracies to sully themselves with brutal behavior but such statements are pious hopes or retroactive pronouncements, not realistic analyses of options in the heat of battle.

By contrast, the efforts of tyrannies to oppress their peoples via torture and other human rights violations have no such justification or motive. To claim that there is no moral distinction between freedom defending itself with brutality and tyranny defending itself with similar methods is to construct a philosophical model that has not connection to real life or the necessarily ambiguous dilemmas of war. Nor should anything that was revealed this week about the CIA deter the United State or its allies from criticizing the widespread human rights violations going on around the world. No nation is perfect. But America’s willingness to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland against Islamist murderers does not make it a nation of hypocrites. That is a label best placed on those who cry out for security when under attack but then second-guess and smear as criminals those who successfully defended them.

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On Obama’s Team, Personnel Is Not Policy

Back in 2006 as North Korea was preparing a long-range missile test launch, then-Professor Ashton Carter, a Clinton administration veteran, proposed the following in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with former Defense Secretary William Perry: “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” Carter, clearly more hawkish than many Democratic appointees, appears on the verge of succeeding Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. So should conservatives be thrilled?

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Back in 2006 as North Korea was preparing a long-range missile test launch, then-Professor Ashton Carter, a Clinton administration veteran, proposed the following in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with former Defense Secretary William Perry: “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” Carter, clearly more hawkish than many Democratic appointees, appears on the verge of succeeding Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. So should conservatives be thrilled?

Not exactly. It’s true that Carter is well qualified, as Max wrote yesterday. He’s also considered brilliant and a more-than-capable bureaucrat. As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin write at Bloomberg, Carter “has been a public advocate for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a step opposed by the more dovish side of the arms-control community. When Carter was an academic, before the Obama presidency, he took a hard line on Iran, arguing that the U.S. should use diplomacy and other kinds of coercion to end the country’s enrichment of nuclear fuel.”

So Carter’s hawkishness on North Korea was not a one-time outlier. Nor was his studious and serious take on nuclear nonproliferation. There are moments when conservatives are bound to look at Obama administration nominees and grade them on a heavy curve. But Carter doesn’t even need the curve. He’s clearly a strong pick for the post on his own merits. He’s also, as Michael Crowley writes, in many ways the opposite of Hagel: “Where Hagel, a former senator, was aloof and unfamiliar with the Pentagon’s machinations, Carter was a fearsomely well-briefed manager.”

So have Republicans, as Lake and Rogin suggest in their column’s headline, found “a New Ally at the Pentagon”? It’s probably the wrong question, because the truth is, it doesn’t really matter all that much. That’s because regardless of how much we habitually lean back on it, a reliable truism is no longer true: in the Obama administration, personnel is not policy.

That’s part of what has changed since 2006–indeed since 2009, when Obama took office–and conservatives viewed Carter as a kind of best-case-scenario appointee for a liberal-Democratic administration. (Hypothetical back in 2006, of course, but very much relevant from 2009 on.) Obama came to office with scant knowledge of virtually all areas of policy, and no real experience to speak of. The hope, at least from conservatives, was that he would rely on the counsel of those who did possess the knowledge and experience Obama lacked. Instead, it turned out, he relies on the counsel of Valerie Jarrett–an unaccountable loyalist with even less relevant knowledge and experience than Obama has.

In fact, the prospective Carter nomination fits with Obama administration practice for all the wrong reasons. As Crowley writes:

“He is brilliant and driven, a policy wonk equally adept at mastering the bureaucracy,” says a former White House official. “He’s also arrogant, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

That could be a warning sign in an administration that has already burned through three defense secretaries who resented White House micromanagement of their affairs. In Carter, Obama would be choosing a strong-willed independent thinker who believed the U.S. should have left a robust residual troop force in Iraq and believes the military has been asked to swallow dangerously large budget cuts. Carter’s record on nuclear non-proliferation also suggests he could take a harder line on Iran policy than Obama favors.

That has led some to speculate that there will be a clash of ideas, or at least that this background explains why Obama seemed to go looking under every couch cushion for a possible Hagel replacement before settling on Carter. Obama’s top choices didn’t want to go near the job, for a very good reason: they’d be inheriting Obama’s mess and taking orders from his micromanaging–and maladroit, overwhelmed–inner circle.

Were Obama to let Carter be Carter, the issues raised in Crowley’s profile could produce real friction. They could also produce a policy shift. But that’s not been how Obama operates. Obama may actually like that Carter is more hawkish than he is and has support across the aisle. It feeds what I’ve termed Obama’s Team of Bystanders: the people Obama hires to carry out policies with which they disagree to give a sheen of bipartisanship and open-mindedness where there is none.

So why didn’t Obama just offer Carter the job straightaway? The most likely answer is not Carter’s intelligence, but his awareness of his own intelligence. Obama was elected with the help of a press that pushed the baseless storyline that Obama was exceptionally intelligent. The best way to try to keep up that ridiculous myth was to fill his Cabinet with people like Hagel, John Kerry, Joe Biden, etc.–people who might as well have been the inspiration for the old game show Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?

But Carter “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” That, and not his policy recommendations, is what sets up a possible conflict with Obama.

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North Korea’s Lessons for Iran Diplomacy

It has now been more than 20 years since the Clinton administration signed its supposed breakthrough nuclear agreement with North Korea. The purpose of U.S. diplomacy was to prevent North Korea from attaining nuclear-weapons capability by means of a series of incentives and verifiable safeguards. Then as now, politicians seemed to embrace the notion that a bad deal was better than no deal at all, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Negotiators from the time readily admit they realized what they were getting was a bad deal, but convinced themselves that with Communist regimes falling all around, North Korea’s time was limited. What they never fully understood in North Korea as in Iran was (and is) the importance of the ideology to the regime, and the fact that there were enough true believers among the regime leadership and special military forces to render moot any doubts the public and any reformists might have had.

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It has now been more than 20 years since the Clinton administration signed its supposed breakthrough nuclear agreement with North Korea. The purpose of U.S. diplomacy was to prevent North Korea from attaining nuclear-weapons capability by means of a series of incentives and verifiable safeguards. Then as now, politicians seemed to embrace the notion that a bad deal was better than no deal at all, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Negotiators from the time readily admit they realized what they were getting was a bad deal, but convinced themselves that with Communist regimes falling all around, North Korea’s time was limited. What they never fully understood in North Korea as in Iran was (and is) the importance of the ideology to the regime, and the fact that there were enough true believers among the regime leadership and special military forces to render moot any doubts the public and any reformists might have had.

Twenty years on, North Korea is a nuclear power, more threatening than ever. Its cheating began almost the instant it signed the Agreed Framework and subsequent agreements. Wendy Sherman, who now leads negotiations with Iran, reacted at the time to Pentagon reports of North Korean cheating by condemning the Pentagon experts for making compliance so narrow.

Fast forward two decades: Obama seeks a breakthrough with Iran to change an otherwise sorry legacy, while past and present State Department officials like Wendy Sherman, Jake Sullivan, and Bill Burns recognize that one way to get ahead personally is to break through diplomatic barriers, whether or not breaking those barriers is wise for national security.

As the Obama administration rushes to seal a bad deal with Iran, the latest news regarding North Korea should be a wake-up call. From South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency:

North Korea has launched a new submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles, military and government sources in Seoul said Sunday, raising further concerns over the North’s evolving missile and nuclear threats. The communist country “is believed to have completed construction of the new submarine after importing a Soviet-era Golf-class diesel submarine and reverse-engineering it,” a government source said on condition of anonymity. The Soviet vessel was built in 1958 and decommissioned in 1990. “The new submarine is 67 meters long with a beam of 6.6 meters, and has a dived displacement in the 3,000-ton range,” the source said.

While North Korea has yet to master the technology of actually launching ballistic missiles from submarines, this is yet one more achievement on a trajectory that Pyongyang has pursued without interruption.

Back to Iran: While the Iranian regime says that it wants nuclear power for civilian reasons, on the surface such claims make no sense: Iran doesn’t have the indigenous uranium reserves to power a civilian program of the size it says it wants (eight reactors) for more than 15 years. That Iran could power its country with gas and oil for far longer and with far less investment should raise eyebrows. So too should the fact that Iran has been working on developing both submarines and ballistic missiles, the first of which has never been on the bilateral agenda and the latter of which the State Department appears willing to turn a blind eye to in its negotiations.

While the U.S. military conducts lessons-learned exercises constantly, the State Department has never conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why its diplomacy with rogue regimes has failed. It has simply never acknowledged its mistakes and so constantly repeats them.

I’m not sure there’s anyone outside of Pyongyang who would call U.S.-North Korea diplomacy a success. Rather, it has been a colossal, multibillion-dollar disaster. That should be a wake-up call, especially as Iranian negotiators have looked to North Korea for inspiration. But, if there is any silver lining, it is the lesson which the example should provide to American diplomats, should any choose to listen.

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Obama’s Luck on the World Stage

When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

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When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

Of course, a resurgent Russia is just one of many challenges the United States now faces. Obama kept his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, only to be forced by the eruption of ISIS to re-engage at least symbolically even if not substantively. Libya—the marquee example of leading from behind—has descended into chaos. And Obama’s inaction in Syria has enabled a bad situation to grow much worse. Turkey has transformed itself into an anti-Western autocracy more intent on encouraging the growth of radical Islamism abroad than promoting peace at home. By acting more like a zoning commissioner than a world leader, Obama has managed to take Israeli-Palestinian relations to their nadir.

So how could it be that Obama is lucky?

It’s always tempting for partisans to blame events on the world stage upon the occupant of the Oval Office rather than the rogue who has free will. It is absolutely true that the world does not revolve around Washington D.C. That said, Obama’s decisions have contributed to some of the worst aspects of the current crises. Rather than see Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia as a sign of Putin’s true character, Obama sought to appease the Russian leader. Pulling the rug out from allies like Poland and the Czech Republic only encouraged Putin further by depicting the United States as desperate for a deal regardless of the cost to its allies. Undersecretary for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher completed the trifecta by acquiescing to almost every Russian demand in order to come to agreement on the START treaty, and then by downplaying if not hiding Russian cheating.

Nor would ISIS have made the advances it made in recent months had the United States maintained a residual force in Iraq or moved to strike at the radicals as they gathered strength in Syria. While Obama prized leading from behind in Libya, that decision came at the cost of failing to secure Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s arms caches, leading extremists to seize thousands of surface-to-air missiles and enabling a weapons flow which has destabilized a broad swath of the Sahel, including Mali—once ranked by Freedom House as the most free majority-Muslim country on earth.

But consider this: As bad as Vladimir Putin is, imagine that China had a ruler not only as nationalistic (it does) but as willing to use brute military force to achieve its aims (at present, China is happy to posture and build its capabilities). Why work diplomatically to take Taiwan back into its fold when they could achieve their aim in days. It would be a pretty safe bet that Obama might finger wag, but he wouldn’t do a thing. Or imagine North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un interpreted Obama’s inaction as reason to turn Seoul—well within range of North Korea’s artillery—into a sea of fire. At worst, the North Korean leader would face a press conference with Obama threatening to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations. Back in 1982, an economically failing Argentina decided to distract its public by seizing the British-held Falkland Islands. Today, the same thing could occur, only Britain is too impotent to respond and the White House—with its misguided notion of colonial guilt—might actually side with Buenos Aires. ISIS has marched across the heart of the Middle East, but it has yet to topple Jordan or Lebanon, or teach Turkey a listen or two about blowback. That might simply be a matter of time, however: King Abdullah II of Jordan is popular everywhere but within his own country, and ISIS is gaining momentum.

Simply put, the world could be far more dangerous than it is right now. That China, North Korea, Iran, Argentina, and other aggressors or potential aggressors haven’t made their move is more a matter of luck than the natural outcome of Obama’s policies.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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Time to Give Iran the Human-Rights Test

I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

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I’m not necessarily opposed to diplomacy with rogue regimes, but the idea that “it never hurts to talk,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, and Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have said is simply false. In my book, I chronicle the costs of engaging rogue regimes so at least policymakers can enter into negotiations with eyes wide open rather than simply assume their outreach is cost-free.

Whether in Clinton and Bush’s outreach to North Korea, Obama’s diplomacy with the Taliban, Reagan’s engagement with Saddam’s Iraq, or today with regard to Iran, diplomats often dispense with human rights in order to suffer no impediment in their drive to deal-making. The current flourish of nuclear deal-making, after all, had its roots in the Critical Dialogue initiated by German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel in 1993. The “critical” portion of that dialogue, European diplomats explained, was because Europe would tie tough discussion of human rights with nuclear talks and trade. Of course, it was just a matter of months before the Europeans dispensed with the critical aspect of their dialogue and nearly tripled trade. Iran took that hard currency windfall and invested it in their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama is different. Or at least he says he is. Both he and John Kerry have colored their careers with flowery rhetoric about human rights. The question is whether they consider such lip service to human rights and religious freedom merely props in their now-fulfilled quest for power.  

May 14 marked the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. Their plight is an issue I covered often in the years before I started writing for COMMENTARY. To mark the anniversary, Bahá’ís of the United States and a host of other religious organizations including the American Jewish Committee, the American Islamic Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Baptist World Alliance have sent a letter to Kerry which reads in part:

May 14 will mark the sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven members of the former ad hoc leadership group of the Bahá’ís of Iran… As governments and human rights organizations have attested, their imprisonment is for no other reason than their membership in the Bahá’í Faith and their service to the Bahá’í community… They were convicted on a number of charges, including espionage, propaganda activities against the Islamic order, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth – all of which they categorically denied… Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, over 200 Bahá’ís have been killed, the majority by execution, and thousands have been imprisoned. Bahá’ís are denied government jobs and business licenses, and are excluded from university. Their marriages are not recognized, their cemeteries are desecrated, and their holy places have been destroyed…

Mr. Secretary, the gross mistreatment of the Yaran [imprisoned Bahá’í leadership] and the severe and systematic state-sponsored persecution of the Bahá’ís is emblematic of a deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. In addition to Bahá’ís, other religious minorities, including Christians, Sufis, and Sunnis face persecution; ethnic minorities are repressed; journalists are jailed; lawyers and other human rights defenders are targeted; and executions are on the rise. We are deeply concerned about religious freedom and human rights in Iran. We ask you to call for the release of the Yaran and all prisoners of conscience in Iran, and to speak out for the fundamental rights of all citizens of Iran.

Demanding the release of the Baha’i leaders is the perfect opportunity for Kerry to determine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s sincerity and his ability to deliver, especially because both Obama and Kerry imagine Rouhani as some sort of Iranian Deng Xiaoping. But if Rouhani isn’t able to release seven Baha’i, then how can they be so sure he will be able to stand up to the supreme leader, the Principalist faction, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to deliver on a nuclear deal, even if Rouhani were sincere? It’s time for a test of Iranian intentions, and if that test results in freedom and liberty for prisoners of faith and conscience, all the better.

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Assessing John Kerry

Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

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Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

Perhaps the only success to which Kerry can point is the deal for Syria to forfeit its chemical-weapons arsenal, never mind that a cynic could see the precedent as rogue leaders getting a free shot to kill 1,400 civilians before coming in from the cold. In recent weeks, however, even that deal appears to be less than meets the eye. Last month, the Syrian regime apparently again used chemical weapons, an incident blogged about at the time and an attack subsequently acknowledged by the State Department, even if the State Department spokesman declined to assess blame.

Subsequently, the Brown Moses Blog, which tends to be the most careful and credible open source resource on Syrian chemical weapons, has posted video outlining claims of a new attack in Al-Tamanah. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says Syria has complied with the removal or disposal of Syrian chemical material, it is important to remember that is based on what Syria has declared, and there is no way of knowing whether it includes all Syrian chemical munitions. Meanwhile, the OPCW has concluded “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in the aftermath of apparent regime attacks on civilians in northern Syria. And so, while Kerry celebrates, Syrians suffocate.

Let us hope that Kerry can redeem himself. But if there’s one lesson he might learn as he assesses his tenure so far, it’s that he isn’t the center of the world and desire and rhetoric aren’t enough to win success. Perhaps he might look at his failures and recognize that many problems are more complicated than he—or the staff charged with preparing him—seems to recognize. In the meantime, while he assesses where the United States was diplomatically when he took office and where it is today, he might remember the maxim for doctors could just as easily apply to himself: First, do no harm.

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What China Really Thinks of North Korea

As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends on the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?

The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.

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As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends on the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?

The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.

While China would no doubt fiercely resent any Western intervention in what it views as its sphere of influence, it may well be the case that the Chinese are also growing weary of the Kims and the weird brand of Stalinism-meets-Medieval-absolutist-monarchy that they keep ticking over in North Korea. If the North Koreans have now become too unpredictable and are viewed by Beijing as a likely source of instability in the region, then it could well be that these contingency plans are essentially wishful thinking on the part of a China just about ready to be rid of North Korea. Indeed, ahead of a widely anticipated nuclear test by the North Koreans, the Chinese have released a statement expressing a clear tone of disapproval. It has also been reported that China refused to transfer oil supplies to the North Koreans during the first three months of this year.

The contingency plans drawn up by the Chinese include the anticipation of large numbers of refugees fleeing over the North Korean border, but also preparations for creating some kind of internment camp for North Korea’s leadership. Hardly the most friendly of moves, although it would appear that such a plan is as much driven by concerns about preventing the country’s former rulers from falling into foreign hands as by the desire to ensure that the ruling clique couldn’t continue to wage long-term civil war Assad-style.

For the moment it seems that China is simply planning to monitor its border with North Korea still more closely than it already does. Regardless of whether or not the leaking of these contingency plans was instructed from higher up, they certainly provide a window into Chinese thinking on North Korea. A collapse of North Korea’s government may not appear quite imminent, nor is it so easy to imagine outside intervention in the way that the Chinese report would seem to. What these contingency plans do expose, however, is a growing Chinese disinterest in preserving the regime ruling North Korea at the present.

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The President Sees a Different Reality in Northeast Asia

Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

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Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

More directly, however, the president seems to be ignoring that young dictator Kim Jong-un appears to be even more unpredictable and uncontrollable than his late father. Kim has purged his father’s officials, executing the former No. 2 official, who also happened to be his uncle. While the president was speaking, Kim was firing off medium-range ballistic missiles. He has already conducted a nuclear test and tested a long-range ballistic missile, in addition to breaking his one agreement with the Obama administration. Pyongyang’s rhetoric is as bellicose as ever, if not more so. I defy the president to find one knowledgeable observer outside his administration who believes America has “changed the game” with North Korea since 2009.

The same can be said for the president’s continued belief that China is somehow a partner of the United States. After meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in Brussels, the president again stated that the two sides are creating a “new model” of relations between Washington and Beijing. The new model increasingly seems to be one where China tries to revise international norms, supports destabilizing actors, and coerces its neighbors, while the United States does its best to ignore such actions. That would include such things as declaring an intrusive air defense identification zone over part of the East China Sea, violating Japan’s territorial waters, preventing the Philippines from resupplying troops on claimed territory in the South China Sea, supporting North Korea, and preventing stronger action on Iran, among others.

Diplomacy often requires saying untrue things in service of a greater cause, but no cause is helped by pretending that things are what they are not. After five years, it would be more reassuring to see the president humbled and frustrated by his lack of progress in dealing with North Korea or in making China a more constructive actor on the world stage. Assertions of a parallel reality either are boilerplate to be ignored or reveal a worrisome lack of understanding of actual trends. In either case, they also abet the continued uncertainty and sense of insecurity that is increasing risk throughout East Asia.

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