Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

North Korea: Dealing with a Human Rights Scourge and Security Threat

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea long has been recognized as one of the globe’s most difficult challenges.  For two decades concern over Pyongyang’s nuclear program has dominated international attention toward the Korean peninsula. 

What to do about The North Korea Problem has troubled three successive U.S. administrations.  The result is a tentative nuclear state seemingly ruled by an immature third-generation dictator willing to terrorize even his own family. 

Particularly unlucky are the residents of North Korea.  There never has been any question about the extraordinary nature of DPRK tyranny.  But the United Nations just released its own gruesome analysis. 

The finding is simple: “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed” by the DPRK.  “In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.” 

As I point out in my latest article in National Interest:

Yet the challenge facing the U.S. and other nations regarding human rights in the North is a lot like the security problem:  what to do?  The Kim dynasty has demonstrated no interest in disarming.  Nor has it ever hinted at the slightest interest in treating the North Korean people better.  Arguing that human rights should be an international priority doesn’t change matters.

Trying to convince the isolated and militaristic regime that a more pacific policy is in its interest so far hasn’t worked.  Trying to convince the same leadership that it also should dismantle the political system that it dominates is even less likely to succeed. 

However, the human rights report might be more effectively directed at another nation, the People’s Republic of China.  The PRC is North Korea’s chief enabler.  (For a time South Korea shared that title, with its bountiful subsidies as part of the Sunshine Policy.)  

The reasons are understandable if not necessarily laudable.  Washington’s push for Beijing to press the DPRK more seriously, repeated during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent China visit, founders on the PRC’s perception of its interests. 

The North is unpredictable, except for always being ever unreasonable and difficult.  Nevertheless, Beijing fears destabilizing the peninsula more than it fears North Korea nuclearizing the peninsula.

To change China’s position requires addressing that government’s concerns, particularly regarding the impact of a united Korea allied with America at a time when the U.S. appears committed to a policy of soft containment.  The DPRK’s growing reputation as a human rights outlaw might help.

Beijing obviously is sensitive to the issue, given its own human rights failings.  Nevertheless, there is no comparison between the two nations.  China also has much at stake in the global order, including its reputation, which will be tarnished if it continues to be widely seen as the only reason the Kim regime survives.

Simply bashing Pyongyang won’t be enough.  Washington needs to develop a positive package for a reform North Korean leadership: peace treaty, trade, aid, and integration.  The U.S. also should involve South Korea and Japan.

This approach should directed as much at the PRC as North Korea.  Even Chinese officials frustrated with the DPRK tend to blame the U.S. for creating the hostile threat environment which led the North to develop nuclear weapons.

The PRC still might decide the price of cooperating with America is too high.  But the allies have no better alternative approach.  The DPRK has spent recent years alternating whispers of sweet nothings with screams of blood-curdling threats, tossing in occasional missile and nuclear tests for good measure.  Nothing suggests that the younger Kim has abandoned brinkmanship as Pyongyang’s preferred policy and decided to negotiate away his nation’s most important weapon.

Some day monarchical communism will disappear from the Korean peninsula.  It will do so sooner if China uses its considerable influence—and threatens to withdraw its even more important aid—to press Pyongyang to reform.  The UN’s scathing report on DPRK human rights practices might help win Beijing’s cooperation.

On Corrupting the Constitutional Order

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to Bush the Younger and perennial libertarian antagonist, has denounced Rand Paul’s foreign policy views. That should surprise no one, but the manner in which he did so bears discussing.

Gerson’s bill of particulars is as follows:

The younger Paul has proposed defense cuts, criticized foreign aid, led opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria, raised the possibility of accepting and containing a nuclear Iran and railed against “possible targeted drone strikes against Americans on American soil.”

Each of these is its own argument, but what’s more interesting is how Gerson broadens the discussion in an attempt to paint the younger Paul in a conspiratorial light:

His libertarian foreign policy holds that America is less secure because it has been “too belligerent” and that decades of international engagement have both corrupted our constitutional order and corrupted other nations with our largess or militarism.

Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which U.S. foreign policy has gone off the deep end in recent decades. Also, with due acknowledgment of the victims of U.S. “engagement” in places from Laos to Iraq, people could also disagree about the extent to which our militarism has “corrupted other nations.” But nobody with a lofty perch like Gerson’s should dispute the idea that international engagement has corrupted our constitutional order.

You could fill a library with the volumes that demonstrate how war and preparation for war—which is what Gerson means by “engagement”—have contributed to the growth of the state and the evolution of American political, economic and legal institutions. As that last link shows, influential American legal scholars are hailing Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt as “our hero” in providing the legal case for an unchecked presidency, with James Madison playing the republican bad guy.

And it is the height of irony that Gerson holds up for ridicule the idea that our foreign policy has corrupted our constitutional order the very same week that a U.S. Senator—who is a strong partisan of the CIA—gave a 40 minute speech lambasting the Agency for spying on the legislature in the context of the latter’s investigation of the CIA’s use of torture, or if you prefer, “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Warrantless NSA spying on Americans, senior Executive Branch officials baldly lying to Congress about it with no consequences, the tortured legal reasoning that led to Guantanamo Bay, the American president claiming the power to assassinate a US citizen with no meaningful legal or legislative oversight on the grounds that he’s talked it over with his legal team, the internment of more than a hundred thousand American citizens for the crime of having had the wrong ancestors… One could go on.

The people who framed our constitution were the sort of people who opposed forming a standing army at a time when European empires were mucking around in the Western hemisphere. So whatever his disagreements with Rand Paul on foreign policy, Gerson could stand to consider—or better yet, do some reading—about how war and militarization have “corrupted our constitutional order.” It’s a bit of an open-and-shut case.

The FBI versus the Citizens

This Thursday at Cato, we’re hosting an event for a remarkable new book: Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (RSVP here). As I explain in the Washington Examiner today, it’s a story as riveting as any heist film, and far more significant:  

Forty-three years ago last Saturday, an unlikely band of antiwar activists calling themselves “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into a Bureau branch office in Media, Pennsylvania, making off with reams of classified documents. Despite a manhunt involving 200 agents at its peak, the burglars were never caught, but the files they mailed to selected journalists proved that the agency was waging a secret, unconstitutional war against American citizens.  

As a young Washington Post reporter, Medsger was the first to receive and publish selections from the files—over the protests of then-attorney general (and later Watergate felon) John Mitchell, who called the Post three times falsely claiming that publication would jeopardize national security and threaten agents’ lives. 

Four decades later, those claims echo in former NSA head Michael Hayden’s assertion that the US is “infinitely weaker” because of Snowden’s leaks. Like the apocryphal old saw suggests, if history doesn’t repeat itself, at least it rhymes.

“As if arranged by the gods of irony,” Medsger writes, the very morning Hoover learned of the break-in, then-assistant attorney general William H. Rehnquist (later Chief Justice), in testimony the FBI had helped prepare, told a Senate subcommittee that what little surveillance the government engaged in did not have a “chilling effect” on constitutional rights. Among the first documents Medsger reported weeks later, was a memo urging agents to “enhance the paranoia… get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

Ironies abound. The burglars timed the heist for March 8, 1971, when the country would be distracted by the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Medsger notes the “poetic justice” that the much-spied upon Ali would unwittingly help provide cover for exposure of FBI spying. Oddly, it’s acting attorney general Robert Bork–survivor of the “Saturday Night Massacre” and nobody’s idea of a civil libertarian)–who orders the release of key documents on the COINTELPRO program and urged the incoming attorney general to investigate the program. There’s another vignette where President Nixon speaks to an FBI Academy graduating class about “reestablishing respect for the law”–and the next evening orders Haldeman to have someone break into the Brookings Institution and steal a purloined copy of the Pentagon Papers (a zealous Chuck Colson suggested firebombing the think tank to create a distraction).  

Washington’s Inflated Sense of Security Leadership

With the Ukrainian crisis continuing to simmer, criticism of the Obama administration’s response is growing. One common refrain is that the administration has squandered its leadership role, not only in Europe, but globally. Calls are mounting for the United States to inspire and cajole its NATO allies to support a hard-line policy toward Russia. Representative Peter King (R-NY), speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, stated that Washington needs to make clear not only that “there will be firm sanctions,” but we “have to make sure the allies are working together.”

Such calls reflect wishful thinking rather than sober analysis. Although the European countries (especially those in Eastern Europe) are nervous and unhappy about the Kremlin’s decision to send troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region, the principal European powers (Germany, Italy, France and Britain) show few signs of wanting a confrontation with Moscow. Indeed, their criticisms of Putin’s military intervention have been slower to materialize and remain milder than those expressed by U.S. officials. That is not coincidental. The United States has scant economic ties with Russia; barely two percent of America’s foreign trade is with that country, and U.S. investment there is similarly modest. Imposing sanctions and risking Moscow’s retaliation would have little impact on America’s fortunes.

But Washington’s European allies have far more substantial—and vulnerable—ties. Germany, for example, gets nearly 40 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia, and that country is also a significant arena for German investment. Unsurprisingly, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been relatively circumspect in her criticism of the Kremlin’s conduct in the Ukraine crisis. She is unlikely to accord calls for NATO solidarity greater importance than the need to keep German homes warm and business operating in the cold winter months.

Europeans See Ukraine and Fear Russia? Time for Them to Take over Europe’s Defense

Had the U.S. been so foolish as to bring Ukraine into NATO, Washington would have a treaty responsibility to start World War III.  Today’s game of geopolitical chicken might have a nuclear end.

Still, the West cannot easily ignore Russia’s Crimean takeover.  It was an act of aggression against Kiev, yet a majority of Crimean residents may welcome the move.  Although secessionist sentiment has been largely dormant of late, the Western-supported putsch/street revolution against President Viktor Yanukovich inflamed pro-Russian passions in eastern Ukraine. 

Of course, Moscow intervened for its own ends.  And Putin is wrong, dangerously wrong, to use force.  But how to punish Moscow?  America’s direct stake in the controversy is essentially nil. 

Finding a Way Back From the Brink in Ukraine

Ukrainians won an important political battle by ousting the corrupt Viktor Yanukovich as president.  But replacing Yanukovich with another dubious politico will change little.

Washington also triumphed.  Without doing much—no troops, no money, few words—Americans watched protestors frustrate Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

But now Russia is attempting to win as well, intervening in Crimea.  Moscow has created a tinderbox ready to burst into flames.  The only certainty is that the U.S. should avoid being drawn into a war with Russia. 

In 2010 Yanukovich triumphed in a poll considered to be fair if not entirely clean.  His corrupt proclivities surprised no one.  However, while tarred as pro-Russian, in accepting Putin’s largesse last November Yanukovich actually refused to sign the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Still, protestors filled Maidan Square in Kiev over Yanukovich’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union.  As I point out in my latest Forbes column:  “The issue, in contrast to Kiev’s later brutal treatment of protestors, had nothing to do with democracy, human rights, or even sovereignty.”  As such, it was not America’s business, but up to the Ukrainian people.

And Ukraine is divided.  Broadly speaking, the nation’s west is nationalist and leans European while the east is Russo-friendly. 

Demonstrations quickly turned into a de facto putsch or street revolution.  Yanukovich’s ouster was a gain for Ukraine, but similar street violence could be deployed against better elected leaders in the future.

Moreover, many of those who look east and voted for Yanukovich feel cheated.  There was no fascist coup, but the government they helped elect was violently overthrown.  Some of them, especially in Crimea, prefer to shift their allegiance to Russia.

Kiev should engage disenfranchised Yanukovich backers.  Kiev also should reassure Moscow that Ukraine will not join any anti-Russian bloc, including NATO.  But if Crimeans, in particular, want to return to Russia, they should be able to do so. 

There is no important let alone vital security issue at stake for the U.S. in the specific choices Ukrainians make.  The violent protests against the Yanukovich government demonstrate that Moscow has no hope of dominating the country.  Kiev will be independent and almost certainly will look west economically. 

Russia could still play the new Great Game.  Unfortunately, rather than play Vladimir Putin upended the board by taking effective control of the Crimea. 

Yet Putin tossed aside his trump card, a planned referendum by Crimea’s residents.  A majority secession vote would have allowed him to claim the moral high ground.  However, an election conducted under foreign occupation lacks credibility.

As it stands Russia has committed acts of aggression and war. 

Even in the worst case the U.S. has no cause for military intervention.  Who controls the Crimea ain’t worth a possible nuclear confrontation.

Putin is a nasty guy, but Great Power wannabe Russia is no ideologically-driven superpower Soviet Union.  Moscow perceives its vital interests as securing regional security, not winning global domination.  Yet bringing Ukraine into NATO would have created a formal legal commitment to start World War III.

The allies should develop an out for Russia.  For instance, Moscow withdraws its forces while Kiev schedules independence referendums in Russian-leaning areas. 

If Putin refuses to draw back, Washington and Brussels have little choice but to retaliate.  The allies could impose a range of sanctions, though most steps, other than excluding Russian banks from international finance, wouldn’t have much impact. 

Tougher would be banning investment and trade, though the Europeans are unlikely to stop purchasing natural gas from Moscow.  The other problem is the tougher the response the more likely Russia would harm American interests elsewhere, including in Afghanistan, Iran, and Korea. 

The Ukrainian people deserve a better future.  But that is not within Washington’s power to bestow.  Today the U.S. should concentrate on pulling Russia back from the brink in Ukraine. 

A new cold war is in no one’s interest.  A hot war would be a global catastrophe.

A Few Steps in the Right Direction on Military Spending

Someone has begun leaking elements of the Pentagon’s FY 2015 budget, and the leakers apparently want reporters to focus on proposed cuts in the U.S. Army. The headline in the New York Times warns readers that the Army will shrink to “a pre-World War II level.”The proposal,” explains the Times, “takes into account the fiscal reality of government austerity and the political reality of a president who pledged to end two costly and exhausting land wars. A result, the officials [who leaked to the Times] argue, will be a military capable of defeating any adversary, but too small for protracted foreign occupations.”

“You have to always keep your institution prepared” for the unknown, a senior Pentagon official told the Times, “but you can’t carry a large land-war Defense Department when there is no large land war.” 

Reaction from other Beltway insiders has been predictably apoplectic, but one doubts that the American public are terribly worried about a military that might be slightly less likely to get involved in unnecessary and counterproductive nation-building missions in distant lands. The war in Afghanistan started with strong public support, as it was clearly connected to the events of 9/11. It no longer is, and Americans want out. The salespeople for the war in Iraq tried to connect that escapade to 9/11, but the Iraq war effort also lost public support when that rationale fell away, and the costs mounted into the trillions. 

In this case, at least, the public is smarter than the politicians who supposedly represent them. Americans were unenthusiastic about the Libya caper of 2011, and they effectively blocked efforts to embroil the United States in the Syrian civil war last fall. The Pentagon’s budget might finally be reflecting the reality that the American people actually want President Obama to do what he said he was going to do: focus on nation building at home.

But the news is not all good. The Pentagon apparently still intends to retain 11 aircraft carriers, possibly cutting into modernization of the Navy’s surface combatant ships. As had been reported earlier, the venerable A-10 attack aircraft is going away, but the Pentagon remains committed to the troubled F-35. The early details don’t address the possible modernization of the nuclear triad, which is sure to compete with other Air Force and Navy priorities. If the Pentagon isn’t serious about confronting those tradeoffs, the resulting infighting could get ugly.

And there is a hint of the perennial Washington Monument strategy in the details that have been leaked so far. By proposing to cut some very popular programs, Pentagon budgeteers might hope that they can scare Congress into busting the very modest budget caps currently in place. The White House presumably would accept higher taxes in exchange for a bit more spending. Republicans in Congress want domestic spending cuts to offset additional military spending. And neither side seems inclined to add to the deficit. So it is hard to see how that impasse gets broken. For now, the Pentagon’s budget apparently fits the spending cap of $496 billion negotiated late last year, but additional cuts will be needed if the sequestration provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act take effect in 2016 and beyond.

As more details dribble out today and into next week, it is important to keep everything in context. True, the Army will be smaller, declining from a post-Iraq high of 566,000 in 2011, to perhaps as few as 440,000 active-duty troops, about 40,000 fewer than the late 1990s average. But the force retains enormous capabilities across a range of contingencies. In the words of the senior Pentagon official, this “very significant-sized Army” is “going to be agile. It will be capable. It will be modern. It will be trained.”

That sounds like the kind of force that Americans want and expect. Given rapidly rising personnel costs, and the great political difficulty of reining them in, the only way to achieve actual savings may be a smaller active-duty force. That is what Ben Friedman and I suggested over three years ago, and with this latest proposal, we might actually be heading in that direction.