The Skeptics

Japan’s Squabble with China: Larger Implications

The Skeptics

Tensions between Japan and China mushroomed over the past three weeks because of the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain who was operating near a chain of disputed islands. The diplomatic flap was the worst quarrel between Tokyo and Beijing in several decades, and it is not yet resolved, even though Japanese officials blinked and ordered the release of the captain. Beijing demands an apology and compensation from Japan, but Japanese leaders have flatly rejected that demand.

The brouhaha has importance beyond a parochial dispute over small, obscure, and mostly uninhabited islets. For one thing, there are indications that there may be significant reservoirs of oil and natural gas in the area, which could make those spits of land and the surrounding waters extremely valuable. For another thing, Japan and other countries in East Asia are becoming nervous about China’s increasingly aggressive and expansive maritime claims throughout the region. This latest incident does nothing to soothe their nerves.

Even so, such disputes would normally be a matter of bilateral—or at most, regional—concern. But because of its security alliance with Japan, the United States could someday be drawn into that parochial spat. Washington has a treaty obligation to defend Japan in the case of an armed confrontation with another state. But there is a delicate question of how far that obligation extends when some of Japan’s territorial boundaries are murky. Would American forces have to go eyeball to eyeball with Chinese forces, if an armed conflict broke out between China and Japan over these disputed islands? The situation is far from clear.

The worrisome chance that the United States could be entangled in a conflict that has little or no relevance to America’s own interests begs the question of how many other obligations could pose similar dangers to this country. The answer is, unfortunately, quite a few. Washington has a treaty commitment to help defend more than two dozen members of NATO, including the three Baltic republics that are not only located on the border with Russia but have problematic relations with that large neighbor. Through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has an explicit obligation to help Taiwan defend itself, including, implicitly, by using U.S. forces to shield the island from a Chinese military attack, if necessary. That commitment becomes ever more troubling, since China regards Taiwan as rightfully Chinese territory—and Beijing’s economic and military power to enforce that claim grows steadily.

Perhaps the strangest conflict that could create liabilities for the United States is the ongoing dispute between Japan and South Korea over yet another set of uninhabited islets. Tensions have flared several times between those two countries regarding the issue. One wag mused about what the United States would do if the dispute ever escalated to blows between Washington’s two allies. With tongue buried firmly in his cheek, he suggested that, to be fair, we should assign the Marines stationed on Okinawa to assist Japanese forces and have the Army units stationed on the Korean Peninsula support South Korean forces in the conflict.

All joking aside, making security commitments to other countries is a serious and potentially dangerous business. Too often, U.S. officials have acted as though such commitments will never be challenged, and therefore, there is no need to worry about the potential risks they could pose. That is naive, if not delusional, thinking, and the recent flap between Japan and China should lead to a careful assessment of the possible implications of all such commitments.

TopicsRising PowersSecurity RegionsNortheast Asia

Obligatory Bob Woodward Post

The Skeptics

So Bob Woodward has a new book out, I hear? Paul Pillar and Bernard Finel have smart posts up regarding the book/Washington Post articles, so Skeptics readers might want to start there.

But I wanted to pick up on a question related to points raised by both Pillar and Finel: the interaction of doctrine and strategy. This has been a bit of a bugbear of mine for some time now, so this case allows an illustration. Pillar rightly points to the planning process within the Obama administration on Afghanistan (which was also described here by Woodward). As Pillar writes:

The doctrine of General Petraeus, backed by Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates, became a Procrustean bed into which policy on Afghanistan would be forced, with everything this entails in terms of the time and resources to be applied to the problem. This posture was a classic example of standing Clausewitz on his head and making the scope and objective of a war fit military requirements rather than making the military the servant of a politically determined objective. In this case the president ultimately imposed a compromise and the military did not get everything it wanted in the way of troops. But the rigidity involved is the prime reason we have today an objective (defeating the Afghan Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan) that is the standard kind of objective for the military doctrine involved--counterinsurgency or COIN--but is disconnected from the ostensible original purpose of the war of making Americans safe from terrorism.

The first Woodward article, linked above, illustrates how the members of the uniformed military colluded with the defense secretary to circumscribe the debate over Afghanistan:

His top three military advisers were unrelenting advocates for 40,000 more troops and an expanded mission that seemed to have no clear end. When his national security team gathered in the White House Situation Room on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2009, for its eighth strategy review session, the president erupted.

"So what's my option? You have given me one option," Obama said, directly challenging the military leadership at the table, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command.

"We were going to meet here today to talk about three options," Obama said sternly. "You agreed to go back and work those up."

Mullen protested. "I think what we've tried to do here is present a range of options."

Obama begged to differ. Two weren't even close to feasible, they all had acknowledged; the other two were variations on the 40,000.

Silence descended on the room. Finally, Mullen said, "Well, yes, sir."

Mullen later explained, "I didn't see any other path."

What did Mullen think was the unavoidable path? Get ready:

While Obama sought to build an exit plan into the strategy, the military leadership stuck to its open-ended proposal, which the Office of Management and Budget estimated would cost $889 billion over a decade. Obama brought the OMB memo to one meeting and said the expense was "not in the national interest."

And how did the military work to further limit the president’s room for maneuver?

The only distinctly new alternative offered to Obama came from outside the military hierarchy. Vice President Biden had long and loudly argued against the military's 40,000-troop request. He worked with Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to develop a "hybrid option" - combining elements of other plans - that called for only 20,000 additional troops. It would have a more limited mission of hunting down the Taliban insurgents and training the Afghan police and army to take over.

When Mullen learned of the hybrid option, he didn't want to take it to Obama. "We're not providing that," he told Cartwright, a Marine known around the White House as Obama's favorite general.

Cartwright objected. "I'm just not in the business of withholding options," he told Mullen. "I have an oath, and when asked for advice I'm going to provide it."

When word of the hybrid option reached Obama, he instructed Gates and Mullen to present it. Mullen had other ideas. He used a classified war game exercise - code-named Poignant Vision and held at the Pentagon on Oct. 14, 2009 - to support his case against the option.

Believing the game was rigged, Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, Obama's representative from the National Security Council, boycotted it. According to participants, Poignant Vision did not have the rigor of a traditional war game, in which two teams square off. This exercise was a four-hour seminar.

Mullen and Petraeus both attended, as did Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, a retired admiral who had once headed the Pentagon's war gaming agency. Blair had suggested the game, thinking it might help in assessing various troop levels.

As the exercise ended, Blair hinted at its limitations. "Well, this is a good warm-up," he said. "When is the next game?"

Blair realized that Mullen and Petraeus had no intention of taking the issue further.

The notion that President Obama is in any way “in control” of the national security portfolio has been seriously called into question. The 28 percent of Americans who believe that civilian control of the military is bad for the United States should sleep soundly. The military appears to have it over on the president.

(Photo by Bektour)

TopicsPoliticsSecurity RegionsAfghanistanUnited States

Maliki Didn't Get the Memo re: the Surge

The Skeptics

Spencer Ackerman and Pat Lang both pick up on this Leila Fadel story in the Washington Post:

Hundreds of police officers, formerly members of an American-backed Sunni paramilitary force, will be stripped of their ranks in the Sunni Arab province of Anbar, tribal leaders and Anbar police said Sunday.


"This committee in the Ministry of Interior is sectarian," said Ahmed Abu Risha, the head of the Awakening and a tribal leader in Anbar. "When you dismiss those who fought al-Qaeda in the streets, this is support for al-Qaeda. What I expect are dire consequences."

Tribal leaders and police officers in Anbar warned that the move could destabilize the province as a political deadlock continues more than six months after national parliamentary elections. They accused the Interior Ministry of demoting them and promoting unqualified outsiders in their stead.

Ackerman gets it mainly wrong when he implies that the U.S. embassy can/should lean on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reinstate the Sunni police. He seems to think that the U.S. government still has enormous leverage over Maliki, and that the Obama administration can somehow heal sectarianism in Iraq.

Lang gets it right. Americans don't have such power. The worst case (a total collapse, full-scale civil war, Iraq as a puppet state of Tehran, etc.) is unlikely, but the rosy best-case scenario spun by COIN advocates simply isn't accurate. Sectarianism persists in Iraq, and it likely will for a long time. The surge didn't solve this problem. Maybe Maliki didn't get that memo?

More to the point, whenever I see stories from Iraq about continued Sunni vs. Shia tension and hostility (and Kurd vs. Arab, too), I am reminded of this infamous comment going back to, appropriately enough, April Fool's Day 2003:

there’s been a certain amount of...pop sociology in America that somehow the Shi’a can’t get along with the Sunni [in Iraq]...There’s almost no evidence of that at all.  -- Bill Kristol on WHYY/NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.


TopicsCounterinsurgencyDefenseFailed StatesGrand StrategyHumanitarian InterventionMilitary StrategyPeacekeepingPost-Conflict RegionsPersian Gulf

To Better Afghanistan, Boot the Contractors

The Skeptics

Last August, I discussed Afghanistan-Pakistan policy on the blog Jezebel. During my interview I mentioned that upwards of 35% of development aid to Afghanistan is redirected back to Washington through consultancy fees and other circuitous measures. Low and behold, the problem has not gone away, despite ample evidence that contracting graft and corruption hurts the very people we claim we want to help and protect.

This is an issue I write at length about in the Christian Science Monitor, with my friend, Joe Storm. We conclude that to better Afghanistan, it's time to boot the contractors.

In an April 2008 hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, an NGO committed to ending poverty through humanitarian development, said,

"In another case development aid dollars literally went up in smoke. An Afghan NGO described a project to deliver roofing timbers to people in Afghanistan’s Central Highlands. The agency overseeing the project based in Geneva took 20 percent of the $30 million assessed for administrative costs and then subcontracted to a Washington-based NGO that took another 20 percent which in turn subcontracted to an Afghan NGO that took another 20 percent."

This is typical. During my trip last spring to Afghanistan, both pro- and anti-government Afghans as well as expats mentioned the now notorious Chemonics International, a Washington, D.C.-based development contracting company. It won the bid for the $145 million program - known as Rebuilding Agricultural Markets Program, or RAMP - that ran from 2003 to 2006. The company then subcontracted the training and construction work to other Americans who turned around and subcontracted the job to Afghan companies. Of course, at each level of the process, the subcontractors deducted costs for salaries, office expenses and security. Unsurprisingly, only a small percentage of the original contract money actually reached farmers and other intended recipients.

Development contracting is essentially government-sponsored stabilization and reconstruction efforts outsourced to private contractors. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the government’s main distributor of development contracts. But according to one report,

"Several interviewees critiqued USAID’s current contracting system, including its unrealistic objectives, the excessive cost of private contractors, and the multiple tiers of subcontractors. Many contractors are widely regarded as inefficient, absorbing a huge volume of funds in consultant costs and profits while providing work that is of variable quality, relevance, and impact, and all done with very little transparency (Case study 2)."

If all this wasn't enough, Matt Waldman, the former head of policy for Oxfam International in Kabul and the author of several highly-detailed papers on the failures of aid in Afghanistan, says that a lot of foreign aid money is allocated at the top in Afghanistan, but is siphoned off before it reaches Afghans at the bottom. One article detailing Mr. Waldman's findings states that,

"much of the aid money goes to foreign companies who then subcontract as many as five times with each subcontractor in turn looking for between 10% and 20% or more profit before any work is done on the project. The biggest donor in Afghanistan is the US, whose overseas aid department USAID channels nearly half of its aid budget for Afghanistan to five large US contractors."

Mr. Waldman's findings confirms the statistic that I provided above: "40% - Share of international aid budget returned to aid countries in corporate profit and consultant salaries - more than $6bn since 2001." And Jean Mazurelle, the World Bank director in Kabul, estimates that 35 to 40 percent of all international aid sent to Afghanistan is "badly spent."

Finally, a senior employee of a USAID contractor said, “So you have contract after subcontract after subcontract, which just kills everything. Multiple contracts, then an Afghan guy digging the road—why not straight hire the Afghan?”

Taken together, it appears that foreign aid in Afghanistan is still plagued by pervasive mismanagement, poor oversight, and inadequate on-the-ground coordination.


Woodward’s Outrages

The Skeptics

Two things in Bob Woodward’s article on the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy-making are supposed to outrage us.

First, the President thinks that “we can absorb a terrorist attack,” as we absorbed 9/11. Our friends at Heritage and AEI want us to believe that this empirically sound observation means that the president doesn’t care about preventing terrorist attacks. But of course that’s not what he said or meant. Suggesting otherwise is just a cheap talking point.

The argument that we did not absorb 9/11 attacks because the terrorists managed to kill a lot of people is also unconvincing. The “we” here is the United States, and it does no disservice to the dead to admit that their loss did not ruin the national economy. We absorb terrorism in the same sense that we annually absorb the deaths of 15,000 plus murder victims.

What’s truly outrageous is the notion that the only valid response to terrorism is cowering in fear at home and endless warfare abroad. Somehow, for much of the right, crediting our enemies with the ability to wreck our society is required, and it is verboten to say that we are something other than a pathetic, brittle nation that cannot manage adversity. (For more on that “something other,” read the book I recently co-edited.)

The second source of outrage is that, in the course of considering the virtues of expanding the war in Afghanistan, the president worried about alienating his democratic base. The outrage comes from the myth that politics can stop at the waters edge and the argument that it should. I believe neither.

The golden era of bipartisan foreign policy never existed. There are examples of politicians, especially unsuccessful ones, who fit this mold. But because elected officials need to please voters, and voters sometimes care about foreign policy, electoral concerns are bound to drive foreign policy decisions. You can’t get the politics out of politics.

Those outraged that the president worried about his supporters’ reaction to the war’s expansion should reflect on what it would take to have leaders that don’t worry about such things. Should we leave foreign policy to a civil service of D.C. foreign policy mandarins or the Joint Chiefs of Staff? The drafters of the constitution were on to something when they submitted war to popular check.

Plenty of bad ideas, including invading Iraq, gain popularity if enough elites sell them, but the solution is better politics, not none. Iraq became a disaster for Republicans because Democrats harnessed its failure for political gain. The trouble was not partisanship. The problem was that the Republicans’ political read was short-sighted.

I have no idea what the best domestic political strategy is for Obama in Afghanistan. But it’s good to hear that that he doubts open-ended nation-building is the ticket. I hope he panders to his base more and gets out.

TopicsPoliticsSecurity RegionsUnited States

An Inevitable Persian Gulf Arms Race

The Skeptics

Earlier this month, there was a flurry of major news stories about an impending U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which could total $60 billion. Now, the Financial Times reports that the smaller Gulf states are joining the military feeding frenzy. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors could purchase as much as $123 billion in new armaments. The focus of the buy is on advanced fighter jets, sophisticated radars, and missile defense systems.

The motive for this rush to upgrade defenses—especially air defenses—is not hard to discern. It is an implicit recognition that, sooner or later, Iran is likely to emerge as a nuclear-weapons power with credible short-and medium-range delivery systems. There has long been pervasive skepticism in the region (and, indeed, in much of the world) that the current U.S.-led strategy of imposing ever-tighter economic sanctions on Tehran will succeed in forcing the clerical government to abandon its nuclear program. The other scenario—Israeli and/or U.S. air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities—is generally viewed as more likely a bluff rather than a real option. Moreover, even if such a strike took place, most experts believe that it would merely delay, not prevent, Iran’s emergence as a member of the global nuclear-weapons club.

Consequently, the Gulf states are preparing for the day when they have to deal with a nuclear-armed neighbor. The robust arms purchase is their primary insurance policy against Iranian adventurism. Leaders in the region do not have to accept the improbable “crazy mullahs” thesis so popular in hawkish circles in the United States and Israel to want to boost their countries’ deterrent capabilities. Even a perfectly rational Iranian regime might be tempted to become more assertive once it possessed a nuclear arsenal. And there are plenty of disputes involving Iran and its various neighbors to generate opportunities for saber rattling by Tehran. From the standpoint of the Gulf states, an extensive arms purchase is a reasonable hedging strategy—however expensive it might prove to be. It’s not as though those regimes lack the money.

Given the prospect of even a conventional arms race, the Iranian government should reconsider the thrust of its current strategy. A nuclear arsenal would probably provide deterrence against any lingering U.S. delusions about mounting a forcible regime-change campaign as Washington did in Iraq. But it may give Tehran less clout with respect to its neighbors than Iranian leaders might think. Even worse, the current drive for a nuclear capability could trigger a nuclear as well as a conventional arms race in the region. There is certainly no guarantee that Iran and Israel would enjoy a long-term nuclear duopoly.

If Washington had not persisted in its ill-advised policy of trying to isolate Iran for the past three decades, U.S. officials might be able to convey to the clerical regime the reality that its nuclear program was not likely to enhance either Iran’s security or the country’s overall position in the region. It is more likely to raise tensions while not significantly altering the balance of power. While such a message might not cause Iranian leaders to abandon the nuclear program, it might at least impel them to stop the effort one screwdriver’s turn away from deploying an operational arsenal.

That would not be an ideal outcome, but it would be far better than the likely destination of the current course. Unfortunately, given the terrible state of the U.S.-Iranian relationship, there is little chance that such a compromise can be achieved. That means that a major Persian Gulf arms race, and all the potential instability it implies, is just getting underway.

TopicsSecurity RegionsPersian Gulf

Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint

The Skeptics

My colleague Benjamin Friedman and I have a new Cato Institute Policy Analysis out today titled “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint.” In the study we argue for $1.2 trillion in cuts to U.S. military spending over the next 10 years in conjunction with a move toward military restraint. That, we argue, would not only save us money, but keep us out of trouble that actually harms our security.

Our op-ed in today’s Politico, “Drop the Pretension to Supremacy,” explains these cuts and outlines the major points of the paper. Unfortunately, Politico decided to scrap our title and go with the one above, which implies that we are against military supremacy over all rivals. We do not make that argument. We point out the in paper that our recommended cuts would not endanger supremacy:

As for our potential great power rivals—Russia and China—we would have no good reason to fight a war with either in the foreseeable future if we did not guarantee the security of their neighbors. Both lag far behind us in military capability. That would remain the case even with the reductions proposed here. As it stands today, the United States spends about five times more on defense than those states collectively. We account for nearly 50 percent of all military spending; our allies and potential strategic partners contribute much of the rest.

More from the op-ed:

Despite Obama's professed concern about the huge budget deficit, the president has taken no meaningful steps to rein in military spending. Citing the need for austerity, Pentagon officials have a goal of 1 percent real growth in the Defense Department budget over the next decade. Not exactly a revolution of fiscal discipline.


If our military had less to do, the Pentagon could spend less — at least $1.22 trillion less over the next 10 years, according to a Cato Institute report released Tuesday.

Washington confuses what it wants from its military (global primacy or hegemony) with what it needs (safety).

Policymakers exaggerate the capability of existing enemies and invent new ones by defining traditional foreign troubles — geopolitical competition among states and instability within them, for example — as major U.S. security threats. In nearly all cases, they are not.

Read the rest of the op-ed here. The study can be found here.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

Monterrey: The Latest Casualty in Mexico's Drug War

The Skeptics

The vibrant city of Monterrey is the latest victim in Mexico’s drug-related violence that has already claimed more than 28,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon launched his military-led offensive against the various drug cartels in December 2006. It is a development that is causing great alarm among Mexico’s political and economic elite. Americans living in Mexico are now directly feeling the impact as well.

Affluent Americans living in Monterrey became extremely worried in late August that they were in danger after a gun battle erupted in front of the American School Foundation, which many children of American as well as Mexican business executives attend. The firefight took place between bodyguards working for the Mexican beverage company Femsa SAB de CV and cartel attackers, who were apparently attempting to kidnap young relatives of a high-level company employee. In the course of the ensuing battle, two bodyguards were killed and two others captured. Flying bullets caused students in the school to scramble for shelter in the school cafeteria.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Charles Pascual then cautioned employees of the Monterrey consulate to keep their children home, “while we assess the risks and what measures can be taken to reduce it (sic.)” Pascual gave that recommendation even though there was no hard evidence that the children of consular personnel had been targeted.Following the incident, the U.S. consulate in Monterrey also posted an advisory on its website, directed to Americans living in the area. “The sharp increase in kidnapping incidents in the Monterrey area, and this event in particular, present a very high risk to the families of U.S. citizens,” the message read.

Three days later, the State Department escalated its warnings and issued a stunning edict. “U.S. government personnel from the consulate general are not permitted to keep their minor dependents in Monterrey,” a U.S. Embassy spokesman stated. “As of September 10, no minor dependents, no children of U.S. government employees will be permitted in Monterrey.” That was the kind of restriction, designating the Monterrey consulate a “partially unaccompanied post” for U.S. diplomats, is normally imposed only in war zones and other extremely high-risk areas. It underscored just how seriously the State Department took the surge in fighting and the extent of the kidnapping danger.

Caterpillar, a major employer in Mexico, instructed its executives with children to leave Monterrey in September, following the move by the State Department regarding diplomatic personnel. Jim Dugan, Caterpillar’s chief spokesman, explained the reasons in an e-mail to the Wall Street Journal. “Based on recent guidance from the State Department,” the e-mail read, “Caterpillar has informed expat employees in some regions of Mexico (including Monterrey) that they and their families should repatriate as soon as possible.” Other U.S. firms have not gone quite that far, but they are urging their American employees to consider leaving the area.

Some Mexican business leaders are following suit. An executive at leading cement producer Cemex SAB, headquartered in Monterrey, stated that at least 20 families from his circle of friends and acquaintances had left. “It’s a rush for the exits,” he said. That development is disturbingly similar to what began to occur in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, two front-line cities in Mexico’s bloody drug war, two or three years earlier. But the economic impact of such an exodus from Monterrey would be vastly greater than the meltdown of those two cities. Monterrey is Mexico’s industrial heart, and in many respects, its economic heart. “Mexico can’t afford to lose Monterrey” to the cartels, one expert warned.

What is happening in Monterrey is doubly depressing given how peaceful that city was just a few years ago. An international consulting group in early 2005 even named Monterrey the safest city in all of Latin America.

Those days are long gone. How far Monterrey has descended into the abyss of drug violence became evident in July 2010 when authorities uncovered a dump site east of the city. Excavations soon revealed that there were at least 51 bodies–some intact and others in pieces–buried at the site. That made the Monterrey dumping ground the second biggest mass grave uncovered in Mexico’s drug wars. It appeared that most of the victims had been executed in groups, their bodies dumped into newly dug pits, and in most cases then set on fire.

The awful discovery underscored—as if any further evidence was needed—that Monterrey was now a major battlefield in the armed conflicts involving the drug gangs, with the struggle being especially intense between the powerful Gulf cartel and its former allies, the Zetas.

When the mayor of Santiago, a prosperous suburb, was abducted and murdered in August, the frustration of Monterrey’s commercial community boiled over. Business leaders took out full-page ads in several major local and national newspapers calling on President Calderon to send more troops into Monterrey and the surrounding state of Nuevo Leon, specifically three army divisions and a division of marines. “Enough Already!” the ads proclaimed. The reinforcements requested would create a military presence even larger than that in the state of Chihuahau, which because of Ciudad Juarez is seen by everyone as the main theater in the drug war. Such a request indicates the level of panic emerging in Mexico’s principal economic metropolis.

The turmoil in our southern neighbor grows worse by the month. And yet our leaders remain preoccupied with lesser security problems in far more distant lands. The Obama administration needs to adjust its foreign policy priorities–and fast.

TopicsCivil SocietyFailed States RegionsMexico

North Korea and Benign Neglect

The Skeptics

 The Hermit Kingdom of North Korea remains an enigmatic curiosity. A major Communist party conference planned for early September has yet to occur and no one knows why. Earlier Pyongyang suggested its willingness to return to the ever-futile six-party talks, yet the prospect of concessions from the North seems even less likely than before. What to do?

For all of its 62 years of existence—except during the 1950-53 Korean War—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been a paragon of stability. Only two men have ruled, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. After the elder Kim dispatched his rivals during the 1950s control from the top has been essentially absolute. The DPRK became a totalitarian communist monarchy.

For most of that time the North was only a conventional, though potent, military power. The North Korean threat declined significantly as Seoul raced past Pyongyang in economic strength and diplomatic reach. Today the DPRK is a mere shadow of its neighbor in most measures of international power.

However, for nearly two decades North Korea has been ostentatiously developing nuclear weapons. While the numbers and capabilities of its arsenal remain limited, Pyongyang must be counted as a nuclear state. Neither negotiations nor sanctions have had any discernible impact on the North’s course. Obvious regional discomfort at the prospect of North possessing nuclear weapons was eased slightly by the recognition that the regime matched malevolence with stability. Kim Jong Il obviously enjoyed his Swedish blondes—if not virgins—in this world and appeared to have no desire to trigger a war which he would lose.

Yet stability may now be in increasingly short supply in Pyongyang. Two years ago Kim reportedly suffered a stroke. His brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, emerged as Kim’s most important subordinate—a position recently formalized when Jang was appointed deputy chairman of the Military Defense Commission, which has superseded the Korean Workers’ Party as the fount of power.

Moreover, Kim apparently has anointed his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his heir apparent. It took Kim Il Sung many years to move Jong Il into position to assume control on the former’s death. Kim Jong Il’s stroke apparently convinced the Dear Leader that he had to rush the process with Jong-un, thought to be 27 or 28 years old. The September KWP meeting likely was called to formalize the planned transition.

The process is proving to be anything but smooth, however. A botched currency conversion reportedly led to the execution of the official responsible. Recent personnel shifts have been colored by the suspicious deaths of high-level officials—reportedly due to car accidents and heart attacks. Equally odd was the reported retirement for reason of age of another top Kim confidante in a gerontocratic regime dominated by officials older than the 68-year-old Dear Leader.

Now the conclave of the Korean Workers’ Party has been postponed with no explanation. The last KWP conference occurred three decades ago and affirmed Kim Jong Il’s position. The most obvious reason to hold a meeting now is to formalize Kim Jong-un’s planned ascension. North Korean media reported that the meeting was set for early September and delegates were seen arriving in Pyongyang.

But nothing has happened. A secret conference is inconceivable; the regime routinely uses such events as a propaganda spectacle. So something almost certainly has gone wrong.

Speculation includes health problems for Kim Jong Il, high-level dissension, and the impact of recent flooding. The cause of the delay could be relatively benign. However, few believe that Kim Jong-un will rule unless his father stays healthy for many more years. Too many officials have been waiting too long for their turn to voluntarily turn over control to another Kim, especially another one whose only claim to power is his parentage. Even Jang Song-taek, reportedly tasked with aiding the younger Kim’s rise, might decide that he deserves the prize if Kim Jong Il passes away prematurely. And there are other family members waiting in the wings to potentially play a disruptive role: Kim Jong Il’s half brother; Kim’s current wife; Kim Jong-un’s brother and half brother; Kim Jong Il’s unacknowledged but presumed influential illegitimate offspring.

Leadership uncertainty understandably increases allied nervousness about the North’s possession of nuclear weapons. But potential political turmoil in Pyongyang requires putting the issue on the back burner.

Given the frustrating course of years of international negotiations over the North’s nuclear program, there is little reason to expect another round of six-party talks to deliver a different result. Kim Jong Il reportedly has said that without nuclear weapons no one would pay attention to his country. That observation remains no less true today.

Moreover, an unhealthy Kim seeking to develop support for passing power to his son is unlikely to antagonize domestic interests, most obviously the military, which back the nuclear program. The military plays a key role in the regime and will have even more influence during a leadership transition. Kim is unlikely to face down his generals to satisfy the West.

Kim’s immediate successor (or successors) is even less likely to do so. Whoever follows him will lack his authority and will need months if not years to consolidate power. Indeed, the regime could end up with a collective leadership or a bitter and even violent struggle among different factions allying with their favorite generals. In none of these cases is anyone likely to negotiate away the North Korean nuclear arsenal.

Unfortunately, there are few other options for denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. War is an awful, and likely disastrous, strategy. Sanctions have failed and even stricter restrictions are unlikely to have much impact unless China enforces them. The United States, South Korea and Japan should prepare for a world in which the North is accepted, de facto if not de jure, as a nuclear power.

But they should not let Beijing off of the hook. Washington should work with Seoul and Tokyo to develop an offer for a “grand bargain,” a package of diplomatic and economic benefits should the North agree to abandon its nuclear weapons program and accept international inspections. Then the allies should present the proposal to the Chinese government and request the latter’s support.

If Beijing agrees—and indicates its willingness to use its influence on the DPRK—then another round of six-party talks would be worth holding. If not, the United States should adopt a policy of benign neglect. Any North Korean military action against American forces, or sale of nuclear materials to a terrorist organization, would be met with ruinous retaliation. Otherwise, Washington would busy itself elsewhere, leaving developments on the peninsula up to South Korea which, after all, has far more at stake in developments north of the DMZ. Once the leadership transition in North Korea is complete, the United States could take another look at more active engagement.

What’s going on in Pyongyang? Few people outside—and probably even inside—North Korea’s capital have any idea. America has little to gain from continuing to press forward on nuclear negotiations. Instead, Washington should back away, leaving policy on the Korean peninsula largely up to the South Koreans.


(Photo by Kristoferb)

TopicsAutocracyNuclear ProliferationRogue States RegionsChinaRussiaJapanNorth KoreaSouth Korea

New START a Step Closer?

The Skeptics

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved out of committee the New START Treaty by a vote of 14 to 4. All 11 Democrats voted in favor, along with three Republicans, Richard Lugar, Bob Corker, and Johnny Isakson. Prospects for ratification in the full Senate remain up in the air. It seems unlikely that the treaty will be ratified before the congressional recess, or the November elections. But a lame-duck session will be necessary to deal with other unfinished business, and odds are good that the treaty will be considered then.

I've weighed in elsewhere that the treaty makes sense and should be ratified. I don't expect it to revolutionize our relations with the Russians, for good or ill, and I don't expect it will have a huge impact on the number of nuclear weapons in the world. Arsenals are coming down, and will continue to come down, with or without the treaty. The verification provisions alone seem worthwhile enough to merit ratification.

The politics are curious to me, however. I simply can't believe that any senate race in the upcoming elections will turn on whether sitting senator X or challenger Y will vote in favor or against ratification. Polling shows that Americans are overwhelmingly focused on domestic concerns; foreign policy is unlikely to be a major factor in any race. The one foreign policy that most concerns people is the ongoing and deepening war in Afghanistan, and even that isn't likely to move senate or congressional elections. Arms control treaties seem like something out of the Cold War; not a pressing concern for Americans worried about jobs, health care, taxes, and American troops being shot at and killed in central Asia.

If senators are not driven primarily by political considerations on this issue, does that make ratification more or less likely? I honestly don't know. But I'll be watching some notable swing votes, including a number of senators who will be retiring this term, to see what signals they are sending. Ratification is likely to be a close-run thing, and may turn on just one or two individuals voting their conscience.

TopicsArms ControlDefenseInternational LawGrand StrategyGreat PowersIntelligenceNuclear ProliferationWeapons InspectionsWMD