Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Bad News For North Korea’s Dear Leader?

It’s hard to know what to believe about the misnamed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  But reports are circulating that North Korean officials are attempting to purchase medical equipment for treating “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il.  That in turn suggests that his condition might be worsening.

Reports Agence France-Presse:

A South Korean newspaper has said the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is rapidly worsening and Pyongyang is trying to import expensive medical equipment through China.

The North is also seeking to bring in an emergency helicopter, the South’s largest-selling daily Chosun Ilbo reported on Friday.

Kim is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last August but there was no confirmation of the latest report. The National Intelligence Service declined to comment.

Chosun said Pyongyang’s Ponghwa Hospital is treating the 67-year-old.

It said officials of the hospital who are based in Beijing are trying to buy medical equipment which has been banned under an embargo imposed in 2006 to punish the North’s first nuclear test.

The UN resolution does not ban the import of medical equipment, only items which could be related to weapons programmes.

“Kim’s illness appears to be serious,” a North Korean source in Beijing told the newspaper.

The 67-year-old had a stroke last year and both his rotund figure and bouffant hair have thinned of late.  The world, and especially North Korea, would be a better place without him, but no one knows what would follow.

Kim apparently has annointed his 26-year-old son to succeed him, but it will take years to switch the levers of power in favor of the “Cute Leader,” as he has been nicknamed by Westerners.  (In North Korea he apparently is being referred to as “Brilliant Comrade.”)

More likely would be a collective leadership, perhaps led by Kim’s brother-in-law, with increased influence for the military.  That would probably make a negotiated settlement eliminating the North’s nuclear program even less likely.  But no one really knows.

We can only look forward to the day when this humanitarian horror of a country  disappears and North Koreans are allowed to again live as normal human beings.

Exciting! But Not True …

The Center for a New American Security is hosting an event on cybersecurity next week. Some fear-mongering in the text of the invite caught my eye:

[A] cyberattack on the United States’ telecommunications, electrical grid, or banking system could pose as serious a threat to U.S. security as an attack carried out by conventional forces.

As a statement of theoretical extremes, it’s true: The inconvenience and modest harms posed by a successful crack of our communications or data infrastructure would be more serious than an invasion by the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. But as a serious assertion about real threats, an attack by conventional forces (however unlikely) would be entirely more serious than any “cyberattack.”

This is not meant to knock the Center for a New American Security specifically, or their event, but breathless overstatement has become boilerplate in the “cybersecurity” area, and it’s driving the United States toward imbalanced responses that are likely to sacrifice our wealth, progress, and privacy.

Who Said “No Comment”?

In this morning’s Washington Post, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has some advice for the Obama administration regarding the protests in Iran:

[T]he reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a “no comment” option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment — a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo.

I just did a quick search on www.WhiteHouse.gov, and I did not find the words “no comment” as it pertains to the Iranian elections. I did, however, find two statements on the protests by President Obama:

  • Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on June 15th, President Obama said:

I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television.  I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.  And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.

and

I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation…

and

[P]articularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.

  • The following day, the president hosted South Korean President Lee  Myung-Bak. Despite the fact that they had a number of very urgent topics to discuss, President Obama took time to state that while it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations,” for the U.S. president to be “meddling in Iranian elections,” he wished to repeat his remarks from the previous day:

[W]hen I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people.

and

I do believe that something has happened in Iran where there is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past, and that there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy. How that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide. But I stand strongly with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.

So, President Obama has not been silent, and he has never said “no comment.”

Judging from the text of his op-ed, Wolfowitz seems most frustrated that the Iranian election dispute might not prove a precursor to regime change in Iran on par with the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and the ascension of Boris Yeltsin in Russia in 1991.

Wolfowitz admits that no historical analogy is perfect, but he doesn’t dwell on what really differentiates the overthrow of Marcos in 1986 and the Yeltsin countercoup of 1991 from the situation today in Iran: a pattern of trust and amicable relations on the one hand, and an equally clear pattern of suspicion and hostility on the other.

In 1986, the United States had been supporting the Filipino government for roughly 40 years. No one could have painted Aquino and her spontaneous “people power” protests as the leading edge of a regime-change operation funded and choreographed by the CIA. When Ronald Reagan’s personal emissary, Sen. Paul Laxalt, communicated with Marcos privately, the message was crystal clear: time’s up.

In a similar vein, George H.W. Bush’s close ties to Mikhail Gorbachev, painstakingly cultivated for several years, built an atmosphere of trust that extended beyond Gorbachev’s personal circle of advisers. The United States had not been engaged during the Bush adminstration — and not even during the closing days of the Reagan administration, for that matter — in attempting to overthrow the Soviet government. The collapse came from within. When the counter-counter-revolutionaries attempted to take back power, Yeltsin never feared being tarred as an agent for the West. Instead, he sought out and embraced U.S. support. And yet, the most important communications between Washington and Moscow were conducted in private.

Contrast this conduct with what the neocons have done and would have us do. The Reagan and first Bush administrations engaged in “diplomacy”: back-channel communications, moral suasion, gentle pressure. The neocons have painstakingly sought to destroy the very concept, equating “diplomacy” with “appeasement.” Having succeeded in thwarting efforts to resolve the stand-off with Iraq by peaceful means, they got their war, and now they’ve moved on. They have since drifted off to the private sector and friendly think tanks from whence they can write op-eds on what to do next.

In truth, their efforts began years ago.

Mere weeks after the United States invaded Iraq, Richard Perle said publicly of neighboring Iran and any other country who would dare to oppose the United States: “You’re next.” Behind the scenes, the Iranians are reported to have approached the Bush administration in the spring of 2003 with an offer to negotiate an end to their nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations (Nicholas Kristof posted the docs on the NYT blog).

The Bush administration’s response? “No comment.” Instead, they effectively let Richard Perle do the talking for them. Within a few years, the small circle of reformers who had been willing to reach out to the United States were gone from power, replaced by Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since then, pro-democracy advocates in Iran have had a simple message for the Americans who purport to be their saviors: butt out. Most notable among this group is Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has been outspoken in calling the elections a fraud, but has been equally clear in urging American leaders not to anoint the Iranian reform movement as America’s choice. Ebadi has praised Obama’s approach. A more outspoken, or even hostile, posture by Washington would certainly evoke a counterreaction among fiercely nationalistic Iranians.

In short, the louder the neocons become in their braying for a free and fair counting of the election results, the less likely it is to occur. In their more candid moments, a few are willing to admit that they would prefer Ahmadinejad to Mousavi.

Before the election, Daniel Pipes told an audience at the Heritage Foundation (starting at 1:29:26 in the clip), “I’m sometimes asked who I would vote for if I were enfranchised in this election, and I think I would, with due hesitance, vote for Ahmadinejad.”

The reason, Pipes explained, is that he would “prefer to have an enemy who’s forthright and blatant and obvious, who wakes people up by his outlandish statements, than a slier version of that same policy as respresented by” Mousavi. “If you get someone…who is saying the nice things that people want to hear, then there’ll be a relaxation, which would be the wrong step for us.”

Max Boot sees things in a similar light. “In an odd sort of way,” wrote Boot on Commentary blog last Sunday:

[A] win for Ahmadinejad is also a win for those of us who are seriously alarmed about Iranian capabilities and intentions. With crazy Mahmoud in office — and his patron, Ayatollah Khameini, looming in the background — it will be harder for Iranian apologists to deny the reality of this terrorist regime.

This does make sense, “in an odd sort of way” — if that is all you care about. Mousavi, for example, was instrumental in restarting Iran’s nuclear program (it had been initiated by our ally the Shah in the 1970s). It would be logical to guess, therefore, that he won’t willingly give it up.

And given that he doesn’t carry Admadinejad’s baggage, he might be more capable of convincing outside powers to normalize relations with Iran, and to allow his country to continue with a peaceful uranium enrichment program in exchange for a pledge not to weaponize. This must frighten those who refuse to countenance an Iranian nuclear program on par with that of, for example, Japan.

Perhaps that is what this loud talk is really all about?

It is possible to view President Obama as a more credible messenger, given that he opposed the Iraq war from the outset and has shown a willingness to reach out to the Iranian people. Perhaps a full-throated, morally self-righteous, public address in support of Mousavi’s supporters might have tipped the scales in the right direction.

It seems more likely, however, that Obama’s patient, measured public response to recent events is well suited to the circumstances. As the president said earlier this week, Americans are right to feel sympathy for the Iranian protesters, and we should all be free to voice our sentiments openly. But it is incumbent upon policymakers to pursue strategies that don’t backfire, or whose unintended consequences don’t dwarf the gains that we are trying to achieve. In many cases, the quiet, private back channel works well. And if we discover that there is no credible back channel to Iran available, similar to those employed in 1986 and 1991, then we’ll all know whom to blame.

Cooperating against the Censors

One of the consequences of governments attempting to crack down on dissent is increasing cooperation among groups in different countries pushing for greater liberty and human rights.  For instance, some of the most important aid for Iranian protesters is coming from Chinese dissidents.

Reports Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

The unrest unfolding in Iran is the quintessential 21st-century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing “tweets.”

The protesters’ arsenal, such as those tweets on Twitter.com, depends on the Internet or other communications channels. So the Iranian government is blocking certain Web sites and evicting foreign reporters or keeping them away from the action.

The push to remove witnesses may be the prelude to a Tehran Tiananmen. Yet a secret Internet lifeline remains, and it’s a tribute to the crazy, globalized world we live in. The lifeline was designed by Chinese computer engineers in America to evade Communist Party censorship of a repressed Chinese spiritual group, the Falun Gong.

Today, it is these Chinese supporters of Falun Gong who are the best hope for Iranians trying to reach blocked sites.

“We don’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians,” said Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist and leader in the Chinese effort, called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “But if our servers overload too much, we may have to cut down the traffic.”

Unfortunately, the struggle against government repression remains a difficult one.  But the development of a global human rights community with members willing to help each other wherever they are is an extremely positive sign.

Twitter and Iran - It’s Not About the U.S. Government

It’s fascinating to watch developments in Iran via Twitter and other social media. (Notably, when I turned on the TV last night to look for Iran news from a conventional source, there was nothing to be found - just commercials and talking heads yapping about politics.)

It was laudable that Twitter delayed a scheduled outage to late-night Tehran time in order to preserve the platform for Iranian users, but contrary to a growing belief, it wasn’t done at the behest of the State Department. It was done at the behest of Twitter users.

Twitter makes that fairly (though imperfectly) clear on its blog, saying, “the State Department does not have access to our decision making process.”

As Justin Logan notes, events in Iran are not about the United States or U.S. policy. They should not be, or appear to be, directed or aided from Washington, D.C. Any shifts in power in Iran should be produced in Iran for Iranians, with support from the people of the world - not from any outside government.

People are free to speculate that the State Department asked Twitter to deny its involvement precisely to create the necessary appearances, but without good evidence of it, assuming so just reflects a pre-commitment that governments - not people and the businesses that serve them - are the primary forces for good in the world.

Why Obama Should Stay Silent on Iran

President Obama should keep quiet on the subject of Iran’s elections. At least two pernicious tendencies are on display in the Beltway discussion on the topic. First is the common Washington impulse to “do something!” without laying out clear objectives and tactics. What, after all, is President Obama or his administration supposed to do to “support protesters” in Iran in the first place? What would be the ultimate goal of such support? Most importantly, what is the mechanism by which the support is supposed to produce the desired outcome? That we are debating how America should intervene in Iran’s domestic politics indicates the sheer grandiosity of American foreign policy thought.

The second, related tendency is that of narcissism: to make foreign countries’ domestic politics all about us. In this game, American observers anoint from afar one side the “good,” “pro-Western” team and the other the “bad,” “radical” one and urge Washington to press its thumb on the good side of the scale. But doing so would risk winding up Iranian nationalism, a very real force that binds Iranians together more tightly than their differences pull them apart.

If Iran’s government has overreached, the right response is schadenfreude. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer group of guys. Meanwhile, President Obama has a full plate of problems to deal with in his own country. Whatever government emerges from the Iranian political process, we’re going to have to deal with it. Until then, whatever President Obama’s personal prayers or wishes are for Iran, he ought to keep them to himself.

C/P The Hill Congress Blog

“United States”: Singular Noun, or Plural?

Paul Starobin, the author of an informative primer on foreign policy realism, had an interesting piece in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal on the topic of breaking up the United States.

Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition—a tradition that has been betrayed by the creeping centralization of power in Washington over the decades but may yet reassert itself as an animating spirit for the future. Consider this proposition: America of the 21st century, propelled by currents of modernity that tend to favor the little over the big, may trace a long circle back to the original small-government ideas of the American experiment. The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale—too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days. The society may find blessed new life, as paradoxical as this may sound, in a return to a smaller form.

[…]

Today’s devolutionists, of all stripes, can trace their pedigree to the “anti-federalists” who opposed the compact that came out of Philadelphia as a bad bargain that gave too much power to the center at the expense of the limbs. Some of America’s most vigorous and learned minds were in the anti-federalist camp; their ranks included Virginia’s Patrick Henry, of “give me liberty or give me death” renown. The sainted Jefferson, who was serving as a diplomat in Paris during the convention, is these days claimed by secessionists as a kindred anti-federal spirit, even if he did go on to serve two terms as president.

The anti-federalists lost their battle, but history, in certain respects, has redeemed their vision, for they anticipated how many Americans have come to feel about their nation’s seat of federal power. “This city, and the government of it, must indubitably take their tone from the character of the men, who from the nature of its situation and institution, must collect there,” the anti-federalist pamphleteer known only as the Federal Farmer wrote. “If we expect it will have any sincere attachments to simple and frugal republicanism, to that liberty and mild government, which is dear to the laborious part of a free people, we most assuredly deceive ourselves.”

Bonus points to Starobin for pointing to the same passage from George Kennan that I’ve taken to quoting.  Kennan worried whether “ ‘bigness’ in a body politic is not an evil in itself.”  As a result, he wondered “how it would be if our country, while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.”

The most obvious objection with which Starobin doesn’t deal is that you’d have a hell of a time selling this scheme on Washington, which happens to have–how to put this politely?–the means to ensure it gets what it wants.

A related objection would be the eternal political question “who gets the guns?”  What sort of armed forces would a decentralized United States possess?  Under whose control would they be?  Would we distribute nuclear weapons to each of the States in order to ensure none of them would get too skittish?

People smarter than me have argued that size isn’t an obstacle to republican government in the case of the United States.  Note, though, the first of the four premises on which the pro-size argument rests:

In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws.  Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any…

If the case for centralism rests on premises like these that are artifacts of a long-since-squandered legacy, we probably ought to reconsider the arguments against centralism.  At the very least, those of us who want a very small government ought to think hard about the viability of a situation in which a small, weak federal government administers a giant, powerful nation.