Is Dick Cheney Right About North Korea?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Former vice president Dick Cheney has reemerged periodically from wherever he's holed up these days to snarl at the media or complain about the Obama administration's laxity when it comes to national security. Cheney's take invariably seems to be that he did it better and more successfully. Yet his actual record of prognostication over the past decade has, of course, been spectacularly wrong. This is the fellow, after all, who instructed the American public that the Iraq insurgency was in its "last throes" just as it was really getting under way, not to mention the flowers he predicted would be showered upon invading American soldiers once they liberated Baghdad, as though it would be a rerun of Paris in 1945, when an entire city went on something of a bender after being freed from Nazi tyranny. Cheney, you could say, is a master at specializing in apocalyptic predictions that are aimed at frightening everyone into doing what he wants, whether or not the actual facts merit it. Then, when the rubble starts to rain down on everyone, he says it's only because his prescriptions weren't followed closely enough.

And yet when it comes to North Korea Cheney may be on to something in telling GOP congressional leaders this week, in a phrase first given prominence by George H.W. Bush, that "we're in deep doo-doo." Cheney's point—and it is not one that can be dismissed—is that we simply don't have a clear handle on what the North's new dear—and very young—leader actually wants or intends, or, to put it another way, thinks he desires. Is he simply trying to establish his bona fides in a Stalinist system? Is he attempting to upset South Korea's economy? Or is he aiming for economic concessions from North Korea's adversaries? Or does he actually mean what he says? Is he, in fact, preparing for war with the South?

In the New York Times, Andrei Lankov, who has written a book about the North, offers what might be termed the cool and sophisticated argument. He treats everything North Korea is doing with a big yawn. Been there and done that is his take. And so he maintains that Kim Jong-un is merely taking the world for a ride on his own giant ego trip. Far from being a fruitcake, the young lad in charge of the Hermit Kingdom, we are told, is unlikely to want to "commit suicide; he is known for his love of basketball, pizza and other pleasures of being alive. The same logic applies to his advisers, old survivors in the byzantine world of North Korean politics who love expensive cars and good brandy." Fair enough.

But not dispositive. Cheney is correct to suggest that we simply can't assume that North Korea will behave rationally. Rep. Steve Southerland says that Cheney observed,

Here's a young guy we don't know very much about – have very little intel on him, so we just need to make sure that we don't assume why he's doing what he's doing because he could be doing what he's doing for any number of reasons.

If the North does miscalculate and launch a serious strike on South Korea, President Obama would presumably not hesitate to authorize a devastating strike on the North's nuclear facilities. A full-blown war could result, but only if China was prepared to cut the North loose, which is wholly improbable. The optimal scenario for all the parties is, of course, to muddle through and hope that the North's bluster is exactly that and no more.

For now, North Korea is angering its neighbors, including Japan, which has installed Patriot anti-missile battery systems in Tokyo. It's possible that debris from a North Korean missile launch may rain upon Japan. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says that North Korea is "skating very close to a dangerous line." As always, the only predictable thing about North Korea is its unpredictability. But that is no reason to become habituated to the North's posturing. Ramping up the military response to the North's provocations and trying to work more closely with China to curb them are the right responses.

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsNorth Korea

Mr. Zhou Goes to Baghdad

The Buzz

According to a popular story, when Richard Nixon asked China’s then premier Zhou Enlai about his thoughts on the French Revolution, Zhou replied that it was “too soon to tell.” The story is meant to suggest that the Chinese are far better at taking the long view of history. Unfortunately, it’s all a misunderstanding—according to Nixon’s translator for the trip, Zhou was actually referring to France’s 1968 student uprisings. Yet the Zhou of legend has found some equally farsighted friends in the neoconservative camp. A Paul Wolfowitz essay, released today in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, uses Zhou’s phrase in its title, and opens with a warning that “it may be a long time before we really know the outcome of the Iraq war.” Jeb Bush was similarly cautious in a recent tour of the Sunday talk shows:

You know, a lot of things in history change over time. I think people will respect the resolve that my brother showed, both in defending the country and the war in Iraq. But history will judge that in a more objective way than today. The war has wound down now and it's still way too early to judge what success it had in providing some degree of stability in the region.

Is this fair? Are we, as Bush implies, unable to judge the invasion’s legacy objectively because it is so recent? Is it “still way too early to judge” its impact on regional stability? Hardly. The conflict’s short-term impact on stability will have to be heavily weighted in any final assessment, regardless of whether this assessment is written today or in ten thousand years. And that impact is not in doubt. The war severely aggravated Iraq’s sectarian divisions, leading to a civil war in which tens of thousands died. Jihadists and money came from around the region; a new and especially brutal Al Qaeda affiliate sprang up. Iran, no longer troubled by the madman on its doorstep, accelerated its quest to become a regional player, worrying its southern neighbors enough that they asked the United States to attack.

The “too soon to tell” crowd leans on an odd model of historical causation. Wolfowitz draws a parallel with the Korean armistice, noting that even thirty years after its signing, few would have predicted the South’s rise into the upper echelons of the global economy or its successful democracy. Fair enough. Yet the United States didn’t go to war in Korea to foster prosperity or democracy, but to halt an aggressive Communist advance in a strategic region. That had been achieved within a year of the conflict’s beginning. The transition to democracy and prosperity happened many years later. A North Korean victory in 1950 probably would have prevented it. But that doesn’t mean American steadfastness caused it—that responsibility was always going to fall on the Southerners. Korean choices and Korean conditions over the coming decades launched the South’s rise.

Similarly, with every passing day the invasion of Iraq recedes farther into the past, and with it its causal significance for the present. Every new move Iraqi leaders make gives them a little more ownership over their nation’s fate. And the future of Iraq remains, as Charles Krauthammer wisely said, “indeterminate.” In the coming years, Iraq might become a stable democracy. It might fall back into conflict. It might become a dictatorship again. What is certain is that whatever happens, American actions in 2003 aren’t going to be the cause.

History has already weighed in on the significance of the invasion. The Bush-Wolfowitz bid to delay judgment merely shows they don’t like the answer.

TopicsSecurity RegionsIraq

State the Objective of the Iran Talks

Paul Pillar

While realizing that criticism of someone's approach to a negotiation needs to be done with some diffidence if the critic does not have direct access to either the negotiating room or either side's planning sessions, the United States and its P5+1 partners do seem to be persisting in some major errors in how they are approaching the nuclear negotiations with Iran. That's a shame, given that a deal –a good deal, from the standpoint of nuclear nonproliferation objectives—is very much attainable through well-handled negotiations.

One mistake is an apparent expectation that agreement will be reached not through hard bargaining in which the negotiators on both sides tenaciously try to extract the best possible terms for their own side, but instead through a highly asymmetric process in which there will only be some modest dickering over implementation of whatever proposal the P5+1 has put on the table. Western diplomats at the most recent round of talks expressed “puzzlement” over Iranian unwillingness to engage in the latter type of process. A pertinent question to ask about where the talks stand now is: if Tehran is serious—really serious—about reaching a deal, how should we expect their negotiators to behave? Well, Iranians are inveterate hard bargainers. If they are serious, they would behave pretty much the way they've been behaving. Maybe the expressions of puzzlement on the P5+1 side are just part of that side's own hard bargaining. Let's hope so.

One of the biggest problems in the P5+1 approach is an unwillingness to make full use of the sanctions against Iran as leverage in negotiating a nuclear agreement. In their latest proposal the P5+1 did include slightly more sanctions relief than in their previous proposal, but this still constitutes little more than tidbits in comparison with the large panoply of sanctions that have been piled onto Iran over the years. In contrast, what the P5+1 were demanding from Iran in return involved most of the curtailment of the Iranian nuclear program they are seeking, including a halt to operations at the Fordo enrichment facility. It is no surprise that the Iranians quickly declared the proposal to be unbalanced.

Using the sanctions as leverage does not mean lifting any sanctions gratis. (Although such a goodwill gesture would be helpful, it is politically infeasible in Washington.) It does mean coupling sanctions relief with curbs on the Iranian nuclear program in proposals that are not so unbalanced as to have little hope of advancing the negotiations. Intelligent use of the sanctions also does not require incorporating a lifting of all sanctions as part of one grand bargain. Partial deals—some sanctions relief for some restraint in the nuclear program—are probably more feasible for now, and would build momentum and trust for more extensive deals later on. Exactly how partial is something that would need to be determined at the negotiating table. Because neither side's concessions are infinitely divisible, deciding how big or how small to make a deal is part of the process of finding terms that each side would consider fairly balanced.

Another problem on the P5+1 side is an apparent failure to realize that an impediment to negotiating progress is a lack of confidence among the Iranians that the West wants an agreement, or at least an agreement that would leave the Iranians with anything that could be called a nuclear program. More broadly, the Iranians suspect that the West doesn't really want to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran at all.

The West and especially the United States have given the Iranians ample basis to have these suspicions. There is the inflexibility regarding sanctions relief. There is the talk about damage that sanctions inflict on Iran and in which some Westerners take pleasure, for reasons that have nothing to do with negotiating an agreement. And there is all the talk about regime change (an outcome that some in the West openly hope sanctions will hasten).

In short, the West has given the Iranians plenty of reasons to believe that they are being strung along, with negotiations continuing as the sanctions work their effects, both economic and, as some would hope, political. The Iranians fear that this is not only a losing game for them but that the game has no end. As Scott Peterson reports in the Christian Science Monitor, the Iranians are “concerned that P5+1 demands could mount – including a requirement to stop all enrichment – with only marginal sanctions relief.”

It is thus understandable that at Almaty the Iranian deputy negotiator told journalists that if Iran was to make any concessions or take any steps as confidence-building measures this had to be “part of a larger, more comprehensive plan” with a clear “final outcome.” Part of that outcome has to be acceptance by the P5+1 of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, including enrichment of uranium.

The deputy's comments point to a harmless way to help quell the well-founded Iranian suspicions that are impeding negotiating progress. The Iranians consider it important to get some positive statement in principle from the other side that Iran, like any other party to the Nonproliferation Treaty, has a right to a peaceful nuclear program. The P5+1 seem to consider any such statement as a concession to Iran that ought not to be made, if it is made at all, until some real curbs to the Iranian program are implemented. But the P5 +1 need to ask themselves—and to provide a clear answer to this question—whether they really want to reach agreement with Tehran (and as a subsidiary question, whether the real purpose of all those sanctions is the same as their ostensible purpose, which is to provide inducement to reach such an agreement). If the answer is no, then the negotiations are a charade, the Iranians really are just being strung along, and there would be no reason to expect the Iranians to take more risks and make more concessions.

If the answer is yes, then the kind of statement the Iranians are looking for would not be a concession at all. It instead would just be a joint declaration of what these negotiations are all about. Far from being a P5+1 concession, it would be an opportunity to get Iranian agreement to a general but clear statement of the need—if the P5+1 are to have the confidence needed to conclude a deal—for significant restrictions on, and exceptional monitoring of, the Iranian program.

So without precluding more extensive agreements with Iran in the future (including, but going beyond, issues about the nuclear program), the P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it.

TopicsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationWeapons Inspections RegionsIranUnited States

The Lady's Not For Turning: the Thatcher Legacy

Jacob Heilbrunn

Few figures in twentieth century history aroused as much enmity and admiration as Margaret Thatcher, who died at the age of 87. "The Lady's not for turning," she declared, and, for the most part, she was not. The high points of her tenure were breaking the 1984 National Union of Miners strike, winning the 1982 Falklands War, keeping Britain out of the Euro, and, not least, recognizing that Mikhail Gorbachev was the real thing. But then again so was the Iron Lady who snubbed the British establishment—the ultimate boys club—to climb to the top of the greasy pole.

When Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, Britain—a swan's nest in an English lake, as Shakespeare put it—had been stripped of its empire, its self-confidence. Thatcher—and Thatcherism—sought to revive what could be revived. To a large extent, Thatcher set the stage for the boom that took place under Tony Blair, though the current downturns that England is experiencing have reemboldened her critics to charge that her legacy was toxic. But Thatcher didn't just have beliefs. She had convictions. In his important new book Strange Rebels, Christian Caryl notes that Thatcher devoted great energy to studying classic texts about economics, that she loved to debate ideas, that she would, more often than not, wipe the floor with her opponents, and that it was "the force of her drive to realize her radically conservative ideas that made her unique."

She was not the greatest prime minister in British history, a claim that even she, who had fallen prey to hubris in her final years at Downing Street, probably would not have advanced. But she was the first great Tory Prime Minister since the incomparable Winston Churchill and certainly one of the most formidable. By the mid-1970s, Great Britain had become a calamitous mess. England, once a byword for gleaming efficiency, had become sunk in sloth and ennui. The miners didn't mine. Teachers didn't teach. Workers didn't work—unemployment had reached 2 million. Manufacturing output had plummeted by about 16 percent in 1980 alone.

Into this morass strode one Margaret Thatcher, determined to restore not only economic liberty but also traditional morals. Her determination impressed even her most ardent detractors. In his memoir, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens recounted that in the late 1970s, the "worst of 'Thatcherism,' as I was beginning by degrees to discover, was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right." The tough economic medicine she administered—cuts in public spending—unsettled the Tory wets. Rather than try to placate them, Thatcher mocked them at a 1980 Tory party conference, where she told them they could cut and run, but she would not.

What might she have been right about? For one thing, she went about selling state-owned enterprises such as the British Gas and British Telecom. She refused to accept that the state, and the state alone, had a responsiblity to shore up faltering businesses or to keep the population on the dole permanently. Instead, she stressed thrift and hard work. She was also interested in ideas—ideas about private enterprise, liberty, morality. She refused to accept that Great Britain was a spent force. Instead, she argued that it could become great again, partly by maintaining its distance from the European Union.

In the long sweep of the twentieth century, she, together with Ronald Reagan, exercised a decisive impact on the fortunes of the West, both in domestic and foreign policy. When it counted, she also bucked up George H.W. Bush, telling him not to "go wobbly" in facing down Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. Thatcher is perhaps best-known in America as a cold warrior who was vigilant in warning about the Soviet threat. But she was also the first to declare that she could "do business" with Mikhail Gorbachev, then a young, by Kremlin standards, reformer who ended up demolishing the Soviet system of government. One of the few to pick up on the centrality of Thatcher's stance toward the Soviet Union is the Los Angeles Times, which notes "it was Thatcher who heralded his rise as more than another new face on a failed ideology. She urged President Reagan to give Gorbachev a chance to make good on pledges to stand down from the nuclear face-off and work for a less confrontational relationship between the superpowers." Together with Reagan, she helped to wind down the cold war that both had done much to fight. It was a great act of statesmanship.

So was a Thatcher a realist? No doubt her great mistake after the Cold War ended was to oppose German reunification. Here she was stuck in the past. But once again, her concerns were rooted in a balance of power. She had fought to preserve Britain's reputation and credibility and honor in the Falklands War. So, too, she tried in vain to persuade France's Francois Mitterand that they should together oppose the rise of a new and united Germany. She failed. She never seems to have lost her antipathy toward the Germans, the notion that they were itching for a fresh try to subjugate the continent and England. She was wrong.

But her overall record suggests a fairly pragmatic record when it comes to foreign policy. Thatcher left an indelible mark not only on England, but also the rest of the world. Perhaps her true proteges now reside in Beijing, where a kind of unbridled capitalism reigns that even she could never have reintroduced to the United Kingdom. Thatcher's economic legacy is once again the subject of debate, particularly in England, where the battles over the implications of her tenure have never really ended. But no one can dispute that she made the free market, not socialism, the center of that dispute. Thatcher may be gone, but not Thatcherism.

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsUnited Kingdom

The Crisis of Theoretical Amnesia

Paul Pillar

In an essay in these spaces titled "The Crisis of Realism," Jonathan Levine makes an appeal for more, and new, realist theorizing. He won't get an argument on that from me—as someone who first developed his academic chops as an international relations theorist and still places himself in the realist camp. But Levine presents his piece as an indictment of realists as somehow being behind the times. The thread of his argument, which includes a discursion about nuclear weapons, is a bit hard to follow, but his main point seems to be that realists are stuck in a rigidly state-centric way of looking at the world that takes insufficient account of nonstate actors. His principal foil is Kenneth Waltz, who, Levine says in an overstatement, “dismissed nonstate actors as irrelevant.”

One knows something is amiss in what Levine is saying when he weaves into an indictment of realism a negative reference to the Iraq War as “what we got” from the supposed theoretical deficiency he is indicting. And Levine is not just knocking realists for not trying hard enough to stop that war; he is saying that the war flowed directly from the “Westphalian state-to-state conflict model” that he associates with realists. But the disastrous neoconservative project that was the Iraq War was one of the most unrealist foreign policy endeavors the United States has undertaken. Some of the leading realist scholars in the nation—including Waltz—were among those who explicitly opposed the war in an open letter. The Bush administration's contrived association of a state with a terrorist group was a tactic in a sales campaign that had nothing whatever to do with any realist emphasis on states as units of analysis for understanding international relations.

Realism is far more than just a habit of looking at states and not at other things. And it is not a matter of “dismissing nonstate actors as irrelevant.” The open letter against the Iraq War stated that “Al Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. than does Iraq” and added—correctly—that “War with Iraq will jeopardize the campaign against al Qaeda by diverting resources and attention from that campaign and by increasing anti-Americanism around the globe.”

Good realists do make clear distinctions between states, and state interests, and nonstate actors and phenomena. Levine fails to make this distinction when he discusses the nuclear strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction in the same paragraph with suicide terrorists and says that the former was an “early casualty” of the latter. Strategic doctrine of a state involves an entirely different set of questions from motivations of individuals, be they terrorists or anyone else. Even within nonstate groups, those who send suicide terrorists are rarely suicidal themselves.

Another of Levine's errors is a widely shared one: the tendency to overstate how much in the world of the current era is new and different from previous eras. The sense of newness is a function more of our own policy analytical vocabulary and appetite for novelty than of how the world has changed. 9/11 unquestionably opened many political and public eyes about terrorism but did not mark a sea change in terrorism itself (or in the understanding of it among those who had been studying it). The end of the Cold War changed the polarity of the global system but did not involve nearly as many other changes as are implied by our collective habit of dividing time into Cold War and post-Cold War eras. During the Cold War there was much useful writing and thinking about challenges arising from the nonstate side of things, such as in a book written in the 1970s by Graham Allison and Peter Szanton, to point to only one example.

Theory and policy analysis written in the realist tradition during the Cold War had a complexity far different from the simplistic caricature that Levine presents. Realist thinkers went in different directions, for example, regarding Waltz's view about the effects of nuclear proliferation. Although Levine describes MAD as a “sacral totem” of the Cold War, very complex bodies of doctrine were developed about nuclear strategy, too, with highly refined theory involving flexible response, escalation, counterforce strategies and the like. And during the Cold War there even was a counterpart of sorts to those realist scholars opposing the Iraq War, in the form of realist opposition to the Vietnam War (with one of the leading realist scholars of the day, Hans Morgenthau, being one of the most prominent and outspoken opponents of the war from the very beginning).

Levine longs for some new realist breakthrough equivalent to the democratic peace theory of liberal scholarship. In an oft-quoted comment, the political scientist Jack Levy described the democratic peace concept as “the closet thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations.” Note that he said “closet thing” to a law—not a law itself. Levine himself correctly describes why our expectations should be limited when he comments that because of the “vagaries of human behavior” international relations “is not physics” and “there are no laws.” So why should we expect some big new theoretical breakthrough?

There is a lot of rich realist theory on, and in, the books that is still very applicable to problems of the present even if it was originally constructed during the Cold War. One just has to get the books off the shelf and read them.

TopicsDefensePolitical TheoryMilitary StrategyNuclear ProliferationTerrorism RegionsUnited States