Taking Them at Their Word

When American officials speak, the world does listen.

When American officials speak, the world does listen.  In fact, governments pay close attention to the messages emanating from Washington.  Unfortunately, there is no wall of separation that divides messages meant for American domestic consumption (particularly in a pre-election setting) and signals that are sent to our allies and partners.

Take the problem of recruiting other nations to provide forces for Iraq. Members of Congress have burned up the airwaves in the last several weeks encouraging European and "friendly Muslim" nations to contribute troops for service in Iraq.   Administration spokesmen, however, consistently insist that the United States has an adequate number of troops on the ground in Iraq, that no additional deployments of U.S. forces are required, that the occupational authorities have all the manpower needed to ensure security for the transition.  If that is, in fact, the case, then there is no urgent need for other countries to proffer additional forces for service in Iraq.  A message meant for domestic consumption--to reassure the American public that Iraq is not turning into a quagmire that will devour additional U.S. soldiers--is handicapping our efforts to increase the number of troops on the ground in Iraq.

Similarly, misleading statements about the "coalition"--that "thirty countries" are involved--also removes any sense of urgency from U.S. statements.  Certainly, many countries have made token contributions, in part because such efforts generate positive public relations in Washington.  To argue that this is a true coalition where burdens are shared on a per capita basis among the partners is ludicrous.  As in Vietnam, the "international coalition" is an American effort (notwithstanding the British and Polish contributions). 

The fact of the matter is that the United States has sufficient resources on the ground for basic reconstruction efforts in Iraq, but nowhere near the number of personnel or the budget to attempt the grandiose efforts at reconstructing Iraqi society and the economy.  This is the clear message that should be sent out, and if other countries have an interest in a fully-recovered Iraq rejoining the community of nations rather than as an invalid, their full participation in reconstruction efforts is needed.

Korea is another interesting case.  Because of U.S. rhetoric, other powers assume that Washington will eventually act--unilaterally if necessary--to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.  What incentives, therefore, are there for China or Russia, or even Japan or South Korea, to take "unpleasant" stands vis-à-vis Pyongyang?  Everyone wants de-nuclearization, but why not let the U.S. take up the burden?

What makes this so ironic is that, of the powers that gathered in Beijing, the U.S. is the least vulnerable to North Korean blackmail.  Imagine what the reaction might have been if the United States had called the North Korean bluff, and offered a secure testing facility so that Pyongyang could make a public demonstration of its supposed nuclear capability?  What would have happened if the United States offered to North Korea the same implicit bargain it had with the Soviet Union after 1949 and China after 1964--possess nuclear weapons if you like, but use or export of those weapons will be cause for a grave response (in North Korea's case, it could be simple annihilation of the entire country). 

[Before the angry e-mails pour in, I realize that this scenario would have been highly implausible, especially because it would be very difficult to monitor with one hundred percent precision the possible export of North Korean nuclear materials.  Nonetheless, this may end up being our de facto position because, as reports come in that North Korea is rejecting any further talks, we may have to deal with the reality of a nuclear North Korea.]

My point in making this argument is that the U.S. will end up assuming the bulk of the burden for dealing with North Korea if it sends out the signals that it is prepared to do so.  Therefore we shouldn't be surprised that officials in Moscow or Beijing urge their leadership not to assume the risks of confronting Pyongyang if they expect an American surgical strike on North Korean nuclear facilities.  The United States has not really sent clear public signals that if the situation is not resolved, that the neighbors of North Korea will have to accustom themselves to a regime with several nuclear devices and a delivery capability that can threaten their own populations.  So, what are they prepared to do?  So far, it appears, precious little.

"We have enough troops in Iraq" and "we will do whatever is necessary to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons" are the messages received from Washington.  If we do not offer any qualifications, we should not be surprised that other countries are prepared to take us at our word.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.  These views represent his own personal assessment and, of course, are always subject to change down the road.