Pearl Harbor Part II?

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles, Korea

The war in Afghanistan is ugly. The conflict in Iraq is still seething. The prospect of Pakistan’s collapse is terrifying.

But the real nightmare scenario, or so the media headlines suggest, involves North Korea. Its leader is wacko. It’s adding to its nuclear arsenal. It’s making preparations for a missile launch aimed at Hawaii.

The Japanese attacked us 68 years ago. The Pentagon is bracing for Pearl Harbor, part II. This is serious stuff. The Taliban might be crazy, but they don’t have nukes and we don’t expect them to bomb Waikiki any time soon.

Never fear: the Obama administration has crafted a robust response to North Korea. We pushed through a UN resolution, with Chinese and Russian support, that ups the sanctions against Pyongyang and authorizes the naval interdiction of North Korean vessels suspected of delivering weapons or other suspicious materials. We sat down with South Korean leader Lee Myung-bak and reaffirmed our willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons if the South is attacked. We’ve beefed up our defenses in Hawaii. We’re currently tailing a North Korean ship as it heads toward Burma.

In his eagerness to show that he has the strength of will to confront a nuclear bully, President Barack Obama hopes to dispel any illusions — among conservatives here, among the leadership in North Korea — that he’s a “cut-and-run” kind of guy. He can multitask. He can talk and prepare for war at the same time. This guy can take care of pesky flies like North Korea.

I’m not sure who’s giving the president his advice on North Korea. But it’s all wrong. His show of “resolve” has only made matters worse.

Myth 1: North Korea is about to attack Hawaii : North Korea has two long-range missiles, the Taepodong-1 and the Taepodong-2. The first, likely used only for satellite launches, can maybe go 2,500 miles. But it’s never been successfully tested. The Taepondong-2 maybe could go about 3,700 miles. But it too has failed in its two tests: a quick fizzle in 2006 and a failure in the third stage this last April. Even if Pyongyang gets everything right for a possible July 4 test, it’s 4,500 miles between Pyongyang and Honolulu. As for putting a nuclear warhead on the top of it, North Korea has shown no evidence that it has the necessary miniaturization technology.

Myth #2: North Korea is a military threat : North Korea has a lot of people in uniform, and its artillery can cause horrific damage to Seoul. But North Korea spends about half a billion dollars a year on its military. South Korea alone spends 40 times that amount. And the United States spends 1,000 times more. Neither China nor Russia would support any North Korean military action. Militarily speaking, North Korea is a kamikaze country. It can inflict damage, but only in a suicide attack and only close to home.

Myth 3: We really showed them at the UN: The Security Council statement in April and the resolution in June certainly communicated international anger at North Korea’s rocket and nuclear tests. But we overreacted to the April launch. We should have treated it as a satellite launch and pressed forward with negotiations. Instead, North Korea responded to our fierce words by upping the ante and conducting a second nuclear test. The UN statement was as satisfying as hitting a problem with a baseball bat — except that the problem in this case was a hornet’s nest. The more recent resolution, meanwhile, represents a dangerous escalation: a confrontation at sea might trigger a much larger conflict.

Myth 4: Kim Jong Il is crazy and North Korea is an unpredictable rogue state: Actually, North Korean reactions have been quite predictable and, at least within the North Korean context, rational. Pyongyang was unhappy with the course of negotiations and its relative lack of priority on Obama’s to-do list. Rocket launches and nuclear tests have yielded both attention and concessions in the past, so they went with what works. And they telegraphed their moves well in advance. The leader of North Korea runs a brutal state and a mind-numbing personality cult. And North Korea’s official statements often sound like the scripts from bad horror movies. But Kim Jong Il worked out shrewd deals in the past — with the Clinton and Bush administrations, with the Kim Dae-Jung and Roh-Moo Hyun governments in South Korea, and even with Junichiro Koizumi in Japan back in 2002. If he’s mad, there’s a method in his madness.

We are retracing the same steps as 1993-1994, a path of escalation that nearly led to war. As I write in The Obama-Lee Summit: Dangerous Consensus?, “North Korea, with so little to lose, is the master of brinksmanship. It is not wise to enter into a tit-for-tat match with such a country. At this point, more important than finding common ground between the United States and South Korea is establishing common ground between North Korea and the rest of the world. By all means, Washington and Seoul should coordinate policy. But they should also keep their eyes on the prize: resolving the current crisis with North Korea without resorting to force.”

The United States should focus on nuclear nonproliferation, urges Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Wade Huntley, and make sure North Korea doesn’t cross that red line. In the meantime, Washington should continue taking steps toward nuclear abolition. “Complete nuclear abolition need not be fully achieved in order to realize the constitution of a global security order that eliminates all threats of nuclear conflict,” he writes in Dealing with North Korea’s Tests. “And as the rest of this community becomes warmer, it will become increasingly tempting for North Korea to come in out of the cold.”

It’s definitely frustrating to negotiate with North Korea. And many respected analysts have serious doubts as to whether Pyongyang will ever give up its nuclear weapons. But when we were talking seriously with North Korea, it kept its plutonium program frozen (Clinton) or began dismantling it (Bush), and its long-range missile program was still rudimentary. That beats war every time. In 1994, former President Jimmy Carter helped avert confrontation by visiting Pyongyang and working out a compromise. Maybe the Man from Plains can get on the plane again. The escalation must stop: It’s time to talk.

Iranian Elections

Several years ago, I debated George W. Bush’s foreign policy with neocon Joshua Muravchik. The conversation turned to Iran, and I pointed out that the country was a democracy, more or less. It had elections. People voted. It was better off politically than U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Sure, the ayatollahs controlled the process. But U.S. elections also deserved an asterisk or two. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Muravchik turn red with apoplexy.

The good and the bad of Iranian democracy were on display last week. Voters had a clear choice in the election. Iranian citizens mobilized behind their candidates. The candidates were able to promote their platforms.

On the other hand, it appears that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and company manipulated the election results. FPIF contributor Bernd Kaussler calls it Ahmadinejad’s Coup D’Etat. “According to U.S. intelligence sources, Ahmadinejad may have actually won the vote, though his total was inflated,” Kaussler writes. “Neither Mousavi nor Ahmadinejad might have won by a substantial enough margin to avoid a second round of voting. Thus, the government may have decided to exaggerate the figures in favor of Ahmadinejad because most supporters of the other candidates would have cast their vote for Mousavi in a second round.”

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate Ahmadinejad. He is very popular among the poor and in rural areas. And he’s no slouch intellectually. Ahmadinejad, according to Time‘s Joe Klein, was “without question, the best politician in the race. His debates against the two reformers, Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were routs. Both challengers were exemplars of the older generation — the generation that made the Islamic revolution in 1979 — and both were flummoxed by a candidate who seemed to have been trained by some Iranian equivalent of Karl Rove.”

Arrayed against this Iranian Rove was a large portion of Iran’s youth (two-thirds of Iran’s population is under 30). “In the 2009 presidential election, energized by Mousavi’s promise to liberalize the country’s social and political life, Iran’s youth effectively leveraged web-based social networking sites and messaging services to organize campaign rallies before the election, coordinate the protests that ensued, and document the police abuses at these protests,” writes FPIF contributor Patrick Quirk in Iran’s Twitter Revolution.

But we have to be careful to distinguish tweet from fact. Twitter is a great way to organize a protest quickly or to get the word out to the world. But Twitter is also a great medium for gossip. The inestimable journalist Robert Fisk is in Tehran, doing the hard work of separating fantasy from reality. As Fisk reports, Iran’s “Green Revolution” is still up against some serious odds. Nevertheless, the street protests are continuing. The ruling elite is divided. All those young revolutionaries might lose this round, but they have time on their side.

Palestine and Serbia

The Iranians could look for inspiration from the Serbians. Young people in Serbia played a key role in ousting strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who had his own track record of manipulating elections. The Serbian movement also had to be very careful about its relations with supporters outside the country, particularly the United States. Although it received some funding from the U.S. government, the student-led opposition group Otpor was by no means a U.S. puppet.

“The limited contact Otpor leaders had with U.S. officials both before and after the overthrow of Milosevic,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Serbia: 10 Years Later, “revealed to them an incredible lack of understanding of the dynamics of nonviolent action and the nature of their particular struggle. While they were willing to accept some Western funds during that period, they doggedly kept to their own agenda and priorities, rejecting offers of advice or more direct assistance.”Palestinians, meanwhile, are still waiting for their political moment. Obama’s recent speech in Cairo, with its recognition of the legitimacy of Palestinian demands, was encouraging. The more recent speech by Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu was less so. When he talked of a “Palestinian state,” he clarified that it would be “demilitarized” — without an army, the ability to control its airspace, or the freedom to make treaties.

“Netanyahu must have known that linking the words ‘Palestinian state’ and ‘demilitarized’ would pose a major obstacle to peace,” writes FPIF contributor Ira Chernus in ‘Palestinians’ without ‘Palestine.’ “But his speech, which seemed to be about protecting his nation, was first and foremost about protecting his fragile coalition and his political career.”

Land Grabs

Colonialism was all about the Global North seizing the resources and setting up plantations in the Global South. The new colonialism looks different. As FPIF contributor Alexandra Spieldoch writes in Global Land Grab, key countries in the Global South are buying up arable land to guarantee access to food.

“For example,” she writes, “Saudi Arabia has acquired land in Sudan to plant wheat, which is inefficient to grow at home. China is also buying up large tracks of land throughout Africa to produce biofuels and to produce food. India’s companies have formed a consortium to invest in corporate farming of oilseeds in Latin America, most notably Uruguay and Paraguay.”

In Peru, meanwhile, negotiations to conclude a free trade agreement with the United States led to several efforts to “improve economic competitiveness.” What that translated into, legislatively, was essentially a land grab: a set of decrees that, according to FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Trade Agreement Kills Amazon Indians, included “moves to privatize water and allow private investment in other sectors. The most controversial decree relates to forestry. Indigenous organizations warn that this ruling effectively opens up 45 million hectares to foreign investment and timber, oil, and mining exploitation.”

Outbreaks: Flu, Racism, Nukes

President Obama gave a great speech on nuclear abolition not too long ago. So why exactly is he giving the Department of Energy (DOE) a virtual blank check for its nuclear spending?

“Even in the wake of the decisions by the Congress and the Obama administration to eliminate spending for new weapons,” writes FPIF contributor Robert Alvarez in DOE’s Nuclear Millstone, “the weapons complex is still spending at rates comparable to that of the height of the nuclear arms race in the 1950s.”

The World Bank, meanwhile, has long been struggling with charges of racism in its institutional DNA. “Eleven years have passed since the 1998 Task Force quantified the impact of discrimination on black African and black American employees at the World Bank,” writes FPIF contributor Bea Edwards in Racial Discrimination at the World Bank. “Indications are that nothing has changed for the better. If anything, the situation has worsened.”

Finally, the swine flu outbreak is still with us as the WHO recently declared the virus a pandemic, the first such designation in the past 41 years. As FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo and FPIF contributor Bonnie Bricker write in A Global Health Policy Based on Science, Not Demagoguery, we can now take stock of the lessons learned during this crisis. “First, transparency, rapid dissemination of information to the public, and less inflammatory language are needed to communicate to and educate the public,” they write. “Careful discussions regarding treatment, the development of a vaccine, and the use of quarantine should be shared as part of a public discussion. Helping the public accept the harsh measure of quarantine, if necessary, will help us implement such a policy.”

FPIF, June 23, 2009

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