Paul Pillar

The North Koreans of the U.S. Congress

I tend to look at some domestic political struggles through the eyes of one who primarily studies international conflict. From that perspective, I noted last month that the decision by Republicans in the House of Representatives to play chicken with the nation's credit means that strategic doctrine developed to deal with East-West brinksmanship during the Cold War is also applicable to the impasse over debt and budgets that the Republicans' game has produced. Consistent with that doctrine, I assessed that the Republicans' record of reckless fiscal and economic policies gives them a bargaining advantage. As strategists such as Thomas Schelling have pointed out, whichever side has the greater reputation for recklessness always has the advantage in a game of chicken. The bargaining so far on the debt question has supported that assessment. Nearly all of the substantive concessions have come not from the Republicans but from the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats.

Another problem of international security that the Congressional Republicans' behavior brings to mind is that of dealing with the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il. There are several similarities, beginning with the puerile nature of the behavior. Both the Kim regime and the House Republicans, like children who have not yet learned the meaning of compromise, exhibit extended fits of clenched-fist insistence on getting their respective ways.

Then there is the conundrum of how to deal with such behavior, which in each case is dangerous as well as childish, in a way that does not escalate a crisis but also does not reward extortion (or blackmail, as it is sometimes misleadingly called). The conundrum has never really been solved in the case of Kim, who has honed into an art form the technique of manufacturing a crisis with misbehavior and then threatening still more misbehavior if he is not given favors or concessions. Again, the similarity with the current budget crisis is strong, beginning with the fact that there would not have been a crisis in the first place if the Congressional Republicans had not decided to play chicken with the debt ceiling. Given how the Republicans still keep their fists clenched and say no even after a string of concessions that has made the latest Democratic plan look much more like a Republican one, the issue of rewarding extortion also appears to be very much involved.

Finally there is the willingness to court larger disaster, or maybe even deliberately to precipitate it. Among the conceivable nightmares that could come out of North Korea is the possibility that Kim would do something really rash, going beyond brinksmanship—and possibly involving nuclear weapons—that would touch off a wider conflict. In looking at likely motivations, the comparison with the House Republicans partially breaks down. If Kim did something like this it would be because he saw the status quo as having become an inevitably losing proposition, one that from the standpoint of his regime could not get any worse with one more big, reckless role of the dice. If the Republicans bring on economic and financial disaster it will be not to try to shake off a losing streak but instead to try to extend wins. As demonstrated by their inability to say yes even after gaining so many concessions, the wins that are most important to them—more important even than their cherished low tax rates for upper income brackets—are political wins at the expense of President Obama and the Democrats. And here is where the parallel with the North Korean problem resumes. The Republicans, like Kim, may see what others would regard as a disaster as playing to their advantage regarding their top priority concerns: regime survival in the case of North Korea, political gains against the Democrats in the case of the Republicans.

A recent poll of Congressional insiders by National Journal suggests how disturbingly attractive a debt default would be to Republicans, because most of them believe that Democrats would take most of the blame. Among the explanations by Republicans polled: “They own the economy.” “The president spent the money; this is the Obama economy.” “The party of the president will get the credit and the blame.”

There ought to be one big difference between the problems presented by the North Korean regime and by House Republicans. The United States is a democracy, after all. Such appallingly irresponsible legislative behavior ought to be severely punished at the next election. Ought to, but not necessarily will. And if, consistent with the politically optimistic Republican projections mentioned above, it is not punished, then there will be one more parallel with North Korea. The American electorate will be playing the same role that China has all too often played in its relationship with North Korea—that of enabling destructive behavior.