Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Orange Revolution Redux in the Ukraine: America Should Stay Out

Nine years after the so-called Orange Revolution against electoral fraud, opponents of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich hope to stage a repeat.  But the issue today, whether Kiev aligns economically with Europe or Russia, doesn’t much concern the U.S. 

In 2004 the Orange Revolution helped deliver the presidency to Western-favorite Viktor Yushchenko, a disastrous incompetent.  Yanukovich narrowly won the 2009 race. 

He has been negotiating over an Association Agreement with the European Union.  However, Brussels demanded political concessions, most importantly the freeing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been prosecuted by Yanukovich’s government, and refused to offer cash assistance. 

At the same time Vladimir Putin pushed Kiev to forswear the EU and join the Moscow-led Customs Union.  And Moscow brought cash to the table.  To the consternation of Brussels, last month the Yanukovich government signed an accord with Russia—though without joining the CU.

Brussels and Washington were shocked, shocked.  New German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “It is utterly scandalous how Russia used Ukraine’s economic plight for its own ends.”

Sen. John McCain visited Kiev, where he complained that “President Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe.”  Former Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky demanded “a broad range of measures, including WTO sanctions, Russian expulsion from the Group of Eight and even a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics by political leaders, unless Moscow abandons its strong-arm tactics toward Kiev.” 

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. 

After all, the EU was pushing Kiev into making political concessions and choosing Europe over Russia.  In return, the Europeans offered the prospect of economic gain through increased trade.  After Kiev said no European officials said billions in grants and loans would have been forthcoming had Ukraine signed with the EU. 

As I point out in my latest Forbes online column:

Of course, Washington goes not one hour, let alone one day, without attempting to bribe or coerce another government to do something.  The American secretary of state circles the globe constantly lecturing other nations how to behave.  Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has been the warrior state, routinely using military means to achieve its ends.  Indeed, Sen. McCain has variously supported war against Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Serbia, and Syria.

Russia is guilty of heavy-handedness?

Yes, the West offers a better, freer path.  Which is why protests have broken out over Ukraine’s abandonment of the EU.  It’s fair for Washington to wish the critics well and warn Kiev against a violent response. 

But why should Brussels or Washington meddle in the decision itself?  The Wall Street Journal insisted that the Obama administration “stand up for America’s interests and values.”  But what are they in Ukraine? 

Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland declared at the opposition rally in Kiev:  “the U.S. stands with you in your search for justice, for human dignity and security, for economic health, and the European future that you have chosen and deserve.” 

Washington should endorse justice and human dignity, which justifies support for honest elections and warnings against police brutality.  But Ukraine’s “economic health” and “European future” aren’t American values and are barely American interests.  How would Americans feel if Ukrainian politicians showed up at a Republican rally in Washington vowing to stand with protestors in the name of Ukrainian “interests and values”?

A stable, democratic Ukraine would be benefit all.  However, Russia’s activities in Ukraine do not threaten the U.S.  In contrast, bringing NATO up to Russia’s southern border could not help but be seen as threatening by Moscow—imagine the Warsaw Pact expanding to Mexico. 

The West should acknowledge legitimate Russian interests in Ukraine, while offering new incentives for Kiev to look westward.  Moreover, Europe should seek compromise with Moscow.  Ukraine has proposed creation of “a tripartite commission to handle complex issues,” including greater links between the EU and the Russian-lead CU, which might reduce Moscow’s pressure on Kiev.

If Ukraine wants to look east, so be it.  Even with Russia’s money Yanukovich’s reelection prospects are weak and Ukraine is likely to eventually join the West.  If not, the country never was the EU’s or Washington’s to lose.

Dennis Rodman May Be Crazy, But He Is Not Entirely Wrong

That Dennis Rodman is unconventional, even unbalanced, was evident when he played professional basketball.  His athletic skills won him a lucrative contract, but his behavior suggested no interest in diplomatic protocol. 

He has been much criticized for visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a brutal totalitarian dictatorship.  There are no political freedoms or civil liberties. 

Open Doors just released its latest World Watch List and the DPRK again is rated the globe’s worst religious persecutor.  The government tolerates a little more private economic activity, but that free space remains painfully small.

As I wrote in the Huffington Post:

Nevertheless, cultural and sports exchanges should be encouraged.  Americans gain a small window into the Hermit Kingdom, as well as an equally restricted opportunity to share unscripted moments with individual North Koreans.  When I visited years ago I was usually accompanied by a driver, interpreter, and handler.  But there were moments when I was alone with one or another.  And such opportunities are more frequent with larger groups which involve more local officials.

Private engagement of this kind may help influence North Koreans who might play a leadership role in the future.  The family dynasty will not last forever and may implode sooner rather than later.  It would be better for the U.S. if more North Koreans see Americans and realize that they do not match the demons of regime propaganda.

In fact, the U.S. government also would benefit from engagement.  Washington should offer to establish consular relations, creating a window into the “Hermit Kingdom” and a presence that could intercede when Americans are arrested, as is becoming more common. 

Thus, Rodman’s trips are not objectionable in the abstract.  Let his team of washed up NBA players journey to Pyongyang.  And then let the North send its team to America.

What Rodman got wrong was so shamelessly sucking up to the “young general.”  Calling Kim his friend for life, singing happy birthday to him, and seemingly endorsing the dictator and dictatorial system were grotesque. 

Rodman need not publicly denounce Kim.  But he could go about his business, quietly polite to North Korean officials and restrained when responding to American journalists.  He could simply say he went to the DPRK for sports, not politics, and then shut up—though, admittedly, that would be completely out of character for him.

The basketball great even glimpsed a small truth about l’affaire de Kenneth Bae.  The Christian missionary obviously is a man of courage and conviction.  And the government’s relentless persecution of religious believers is a human rights outrage.  There was nothing wrong with “what Kenneth Bae did,” as Rodman suggested, that justifies the former’s imprisonment.

However, Bae knew the risks he was taking.  He chose to visit the North and, apparently, violate North Korean law by engaging in evangelism.  He knew arrest and imprisonment would result if he was caught.  Unlike the hapless 85-year-old American tourist who found himself detained and accused of war crimes more than six decades ago, Bae intentionally though bravely put himself at risk. 

Thus, Rodman’s response when pressed on the issue, “that’s not my job,” was callous, not outrageous.  Still, basic decency should have caused the player to make an effort on the missionary’s behalf. 

An indirect approach likely would have been most effective.  Rodman could have cited his obvious commitment, despite significant criticism at home, to draw the U.S. and North closer together, but explained that Bae’s continued imprisonment impeded that effort.  He then could have advocated Bae’s release as a good will gesture. 

Rodman is a convenient lightening rod.  But he isn’t completely wrong. 

North Korea is a great human tragedy.  And we should hope that the next informal ambassador to the DPRK is someone less prone to inane outbursts.  Nevertheless, Dennis Rodman is (a little) better than nothing. 

Nothing New Under the Sun, Diplomacy Edition

A second-term American president begins a diplomatic opening with a long-time adversary. Neoconservatives, citing the adversary’s interpretation of the agreement, suggest that diplomacy harms US interests and tips the balance of power, perhaps irreversibly, in favor of the other party. They cultivate a sense of growing threat and a weakening America. The president responds by suggesting that those opposed to diplomacy seem to believe war is inevitable, and that they fail to appreciate that diplomacy provides an opportunity to avoid such a war, benefiting US interests. His opponents counter by accusing him of appeasement and a lack of will, calling him a “useful idiot for [enemy] propaganda.”

It’s 1988, and Ronald Reagan has just negotiated the INF treaty.

The parallel, of course, is to the current garment-rending over the interim deal negotiated between the permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran. There is absolutely no plausible interpretation of this deal that puts Iran with or closer to a nuclear weapon at the end of the six month period covered by the deal. At worst, it either puts 4-6 weeks onto the breakout time frame, or else Iran cheats and that cheating is detected, given the increased inspection schedules in the deal. As the New York Times’ account notes:

The interim agreement is, in effect, an elaborate pause button that provides a basis for pursuing a larger accord. It adds at least several weeks to the time Iran would need to acquire enough enriched uranium for a bomb if it decided to pursue a military option, but it can be reversed if either side changes its mind.

Under the interim deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, a level that is sufficient for energy production but not for a bomb. The country’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons-grade fuel, will be diluted or converted to oxide so that it cannot be readily prepared for military purposes.

Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities. The agreement does not, however, require Iran to stop enriching uranium to a low level of 3.5 percent, or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.

Increasing Iran’s more highly enriched stockpile of uranium is a necessary condition for their acquisition of a nuclear bomb. This deal either will reduce that stockpile, or the deal is off. Those are the possible outcomes.*

Objections to this interim agreement are really hard to understand on the merits. Supporters of the current Menendez-Kirk bill, which would preemptively hang more sanctions over the Iranians’ heads, insist they support diplomacy, but given that the Iranians have said repeatedly they’ll walk if the bill passes—and given that if they do walk, there are going to be a lot more calls for military strikes—that’s tough to believe. Only two Senate Republicans have yet to sign onto the bill–Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky–both of whom had supported previous sanctions legislation but are exhibiting the conservative values of caution and prudence while diplomacy (and diminution of Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium) ensues.

Then again, it is also hard to understand on the merits the neoconservative objections to the INF treaty (and to diplomacy with the Soviet Union altogether), and that turned out okay. Here’s hoping cooler heads prevail. Again.

* Some observers have worried about a nuclear facility whose location we don’t know at present. This is indeed a concern, although it is the same concern with or without the nuclear deal.

If North Korea Implodes, Its Neighbors Should Pick up the Geopolitical Pieces

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains sui generis, a communist monarchy wrapped in mystery, prone to sporadic brinkmanship and violent spasms.  The young leader’s surprise execution of his uncle suggests regime instability, which might spark new international provocations for domestic political purposes. 

The latest events have rekindled predictions of a possible North Korean collapse.  In a recent study the Rand Corporation’s Bruce Bennett argued that “There is a reasonable probability that North Korean totalitarianism will end in the foreseeable future.” 

Of course, DPRK has outlived the Soviet Union by more than two decades.  Pyongyang may continue to surprise the West with its resilience. 

The Council on Foreign Relations Doesn’t Care What You Think

Bruce Stokes has a piece up at Foreign Policy describing the disconnect between public opinion on US foreign policy and elite opinion. The point has been made many times before. Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton wrote a book arguing that there is a disconnect in that the public wants more liberal foreign policies—focusing on multilateral cooperation, protecting weak nations from one another, improving foreigners’ standards of living, and promoting democracy abroad—but elites are more realist, focused on power and dominance. Dan Drezner, on the other hand, argued that there is a disconnect, but in exactly the opposite direction: the public is more realist, focused on power and security, and cool to the liberal views and policies of America’s foreign-policy elite.

Tabling who is right and who is wrong about what the public wants, everyone making this sort of argument is at least implicitly acknowledging that the foreign-policy elite defies public preferences on foreign policy. This is pretty easy to explain. Since the United States is so safe, foreign policy isn’t salient to voters in the way that their proximate interests—getting a tax credit or transfer payment—are. Some scholars have pointed out that public opinion on foreign policy has a lot to do with voters’ identity: right-thinking sorts of people hold these sorts of foreign policy views: “I am a right-thinking person, therefore I will hold these sorts of views.” This is why you hear foreign policy elites bleating endlessly about leadership, American exceptionalism, strength, et cetera. Those concepts zap the public in ways that wonky arguments about how extended deterrence or alliance politics work don’t.

As Ben Friedman and Chris Preble recently wrote in the LA Times, the public is moving closer to the views of Cato’s defense and foreign policy scholars. A disastrous decade of foreign policy brought to them by the foreign-policy elite, combined with an economic slowdown and growing concerns about our domestic economy and politics, have created a come home, America sentiment among the public. Academic scholars, as well, have become more Cato-ish. As three academic proponents of the status quo recently admitted with alarm, “According to…most scholars who write on the future of U.S. grand strategy,” restraint’s time has come.

U.S. Leverage over Iraqis? When Did We Have That?

Today’s Wall Street Journal features a front-page story (may be paywalled) on the civil war raging in Iraq. The headline observes that the United States has minimal leverage in Iraq, and that American officials fear that they will therefore be unable to halt the war, at least not any time soon.

Despair over our supposed “lost leverage” has been building for a while. Late last month, Max Boot lamented “the tragedy of Maliki’s Iraq” and opined “Maliki needs to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign…whose central feature must be outreach to the estranged Sunnis.” “The tragedy,” Boot concluded, “is that Maliki lacks the acumen to do that–and the U.S. lacks the leverage to compel him, because of the ill-advised pullout of American forces at the end of 2011.”

Such recommendations are based on two fundamental misconceptions: 1) That Americans once had leverage over the Iraqis, and that we lost it around the time U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq; and, 2) that there is a durable political solution within reach, if only we had the gumption to go back in.

Instead, the hard fighting of brave Americans to secure Iraq’s future have been, in the inimitable Boot’s words, “squandered by politicos in Baghdad and Washington.” 

Boot ignores there was no public appetite for leaving U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011, and there is even less enthusiasm for sending them back in today. If he wants to criticize politicos in Baghdad and Washington, he must also criticize the voters who elected them. Otherwise, he is effectively howling at the moon.

Thankfully, there is intelligent, informed commentary on what is happening in Iraq, commentary that recognizes political realities in Iraq, and doesn’t succumb to fantasies about the United States’ magical democracy-making powers. I especially appreciated the New America Foundation’s Douglas Ollivant’s piece at ForeignPolicy.com. His advice to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Fight. There is no talk in Ollivant’s piece about American soldiers fighting for him.

Making a Blood Purge Pay in North Korea

North Korea long has been called the “Hermit Kingdom.”  Although the North’s isolation has eased in recent years, it still resembles “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union.  No one is sure what to make of the execution of the young leader’s uncle and one-time mentor Jang Song-taek. 

However, the latest turmoil provides an important entrepreneurial opportunity for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one of the world’s poorest nations.  Jang was denounced for having “seriously obstructed the nation’s economic affairs and the improvement of the standard of people’s living.”

No one knows the truth of this charge.  But something continues to obstruct economic development.  There may be an answer.  As I suggest in my latest American Spectator article:

Something needs to be done to spark the sort of growth in North Korea occurring elsewhere in East Asia, including China.  The answer is to turn the purge into a profit-making opportunity. Communist countries always have had a special talent for treating power struggles as public spectacles. Why not also use the ongoing purge to make some cash?

Start with T-shirts. A colleague of mine suggested “I Survived the Purge” would be a winner with tourists—as well as residents of Pyongyang, assuming anyone actually survives the purge. Other ideas include “I was Purged and All I got was this T-Shirt” and “Purge them All and Let God Sort Them Out.” 

Tourist shops could stock bobble-heads of political favorites, including winners and losers in the North’s ongoing political battles. Directed especially at the Russian market would be matryoshka dolls, with successively smaller figures fitting within the others. 

The Kim dynasty could license a special line of liquors, along the lines of Jack Daniels’ new “Sinatra Select,” named after Frank Sinatra, who favored the brand. The late Kim Jong-il was a devoted fan of Chivas Regal. Perhaps Kim fils has a special drink he relaxes with—and sips while purging and executing his enemies. 

Another opportunity is product endorsements. Kim Jong-il cornered the market on platform shoes and big sun-glasses, as well as bouffant hair styles. Kim Jong-un loves basketball.  What American boy would want to be without the special Kim Jong-un ball and hoop set?

Indeed, there’s no reason to stop with basketball products. The latter Kim could team up with his close personal friend and former NBA great Dennis Rodman to start a professional basketball league in North Korea. Imagine the Pyongyang Purge playing on an international tour. 

The North Koreans also should create board, card, and video games centered around their unique “social system,” as they called their society when I visited years ago. Who needs “Monopoly” when you can have “Show Trial”?  Combat games could feature liberation from South Korean oppression, overthrow of Japanese colonialism, and, of course, destruction of American imperialism. 

Finally, the North needs to tap into the global cultural marketplace. Who needs Hollywood, Bollywood (India), and Nollywood (Nigeria) when you could have Pollywood in Pyongyang?  (In fact, Kim Jong-il was so committed to developing a domestic movie industry that he ordered the kidnapping of foreigners to produce North Korean works.)

Obviously, these activities would only be the start of an economic revival.  But the legacy of Jang Song-taek, noted “human scum,” could live on if the Kim regime grasps the opportunity before it. With the right marketing, Jang could end up bigger than Darth Vader, an enemy of truly global proportions. And Pyongyang could profit in the process.