First Dennis Rodman, And Now This

North Korea has got to be the most bizarre country in the world.

Cut off from interaction with the rest of the world for decades, run by the military and a ’50s-era communist dictatorial regime, North Korea and its leaders seem to have a hopelessly distorted view of the world.  It releases laughable claims about its leaders and their prowess, it issues remarkably aggressive declarations about fighting with South Korea, the United States, and other purported enemies — and then its young leader will put on a big show about watching a basketball game with Dennis Rodman.  North Korea is so isolated from reality that it apparently doesn’t realize that Dennis Rodman has long since become a comical figure and punch line for his own peculiar behavior.  Entertaining an oddball, fringe figure like Rodman does nothing except leave outside observers scratching their heads.

It would all be laughable — except that North Korea has an enormous military, missile and (apparently) nuclear capabilities, and a starving population, and within days of Rodman’s visit, North Korea announces that it is withdrawing from its non-aggression agreements with South Korea and that it has the right to issue a pre-emptive nuclear strike.  Although North Korea hasn’t followed through on all of its prior threats, the provocative statements of an unbalanced regime have to be taken seriously.

It sounds weird to say it, but the reality is that any country so delusional that it thinks hosting Dennis Rodman is a way to show it is a friendly, functioning member of the world community is capable of just about anything.

Secretary Clinton Stands Down

Hillary Clinton has stepped down from President Obama’s Cabinet.  After battling health problems, she has been replaced as Secretary of State by John Kerry.

With so much of international diplomacy conducted behind closed doors, it’s very difficult to gauge the performance of any Secretary of State until the years pass and secrets become public.  In Clinton’s case, we know that the United States has managed to avoid become embroiled in any new wars during her tenure and that our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally winding down.  We also know that efforts to “reset” relations with the Russians haven’t made much progress, North Korea, Iran, and Syria remain rogue states, and Pakistan seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos.  And the Holy Grail of American diplomacy — brokering a conclusive Middle East peace deal — eluded Secretary Clinton just as it eluded every one of her predecessors.  Her legacy as Secretary of State may be dependent, in significant part, upon what historians conclude about how, if at all, her stewardship affected the takeover of the American compound in Benghazi and the killing of the Ambassador and three other Americans.

What we can also say about Secretary Clinton, however, is that she was a good soldier for the President.  She didn’t make any trouble, didn’t try to upstage him, and by all accounts worked hard at her job and developed good relations with the career diplomats at the State Department.  She didn’t seem to let her ego get in the way — and in these days of celebrity politicians, that’s saying a lot.  When John Kerry’s tenure at the State Department has ended, I wonder whether we will be able to say the same thing about him?

The Final Debate

Tonight, in Florida, President Obama and Mitt Romney have their final debate.  This debate will focus on foreign policy and — as UJ notes in his post today about the Middle East — there is a lot to talk about.

The debate will follow the same format as the first debate.  There will be six 15-minute discussion pods on topics selected by the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News.  The moderator will open each segment with a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and the moderator will guide a discussion of the topic for the remainder of the 15 minutes.  The six topics selected by Schieffer are:  “America’s role in the world,” “Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines — Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism (I and II),” and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.”  The moderator reserves the right to change the topics depending on developments, and the order of the topics also can be changed.

It will be interesting to see if there is a change in tone for tonight’s debate.  The last presidential debate was heated, with some very sharp exchanges.  Hyper-aggressive posturing by the candidates may be acceptable when domestic policy is being discussed, but foreign policy is a different arena.  Although the candidates obviously will be thinking of how their statements will affect the presidential race, they also need to be mindful of the foreign audience that will be watching the debate.  I’m sure the people of Israel, for example, will be carefully reviewing the discussion during the “Red Lines:  Israel and Iran” segment.  The candidates will need to speak clearly and be cautious in their comments and (of course!) avoid the devastating gaffe.  I’m sure both the President and Mitt Romney have been practicing the pronunciation of the names of foreign leaders.

For those of us here in America, Libya obviously has been in the spotlight.  Every day, revelations raise new questions about our security arrangements in Benghazi, our lack of a response while the attack was ongoing, and our conflicting and misleading statements after the attack ended.  Another big topic will be Afghanistan and Iraq, where so many of our sons and daughters have served for so long and so many families have suffered devastating losses.  What can we do to make sure that the gains obtained through their service are protected, while extricating ourselves from conflicts that seem never-ending?

It’s a dangerous world out there.  In addition to the rise of Islamic fanaticism and the always unsettled Middle East, there is the ongoing, hair-trigger stand-off between North and South Korea, a resurgent Russia eager to flex its geopolitical muscle, a European Union that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its fiscal irresponsibility, and tensions between China, Japan, and Taiwan about the sovereignty of islands, among many other issues.  UJ’s post notwithstanding, I don’t think President Bush can be blamed for all of these issues — and even if he could, laying blame on a President who has been out of office for four years does nothing to solve the problems.  In tonight’s debate I’ll be listening for thoughtful discussion of these issues and reasonable solutions, not finger-pointing.

Jong Turn

Kim Jong-Il, the leader of North Korea since 1994, is dead.  Official reports said he died of a heart attack, as a result of physical and mental overwork.  (The official reports aren’t a surprise; Kim Jong-Il was usually depicted, in standard totalitarian fashion, as a selfless, gifted, heroic, hard-working leader.)

The dead leader apparently will be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Un.  Not much is known about him; he is in his 20s and was appointed the successor only last year.  Whether he will continue the isolationist, mercurial policies followed by his father is anybody’s guess.  He will inherit a country that is cut off from the rest of the world and a population that has been decimated by famine and ill-advised economic policies.

There are lots of backward nations in the world, and we don’t usually care much about who leads them.  North Korea is different because its focus always has been on its military — often at the expense of its starving people — and on constant saber-rattling with South Korea and its other democratic Asian neighbors.  The fact that North Korea is largely unknown, has always been unpredictable, and has been publicly trying to develop nuclear weapons means we can’t overlook it in the face of the other challenges.

The world is a very dangerous place.  We’ll learn soon enough whether it has become more, or less, dangerous with Kim Jong-Il’s passing.

North Korea Acts Out

News stories are reporting that North Korea has fired dozens of artillery shells onto a South Korean island, killing one South Korean soldier, injuring other soldiers and civilians, and damaging houses.  South Korea returned fire.  Although the shelling has stopped for now, the two neighbors are on high alert, and the world is waiting to see if North Korea continues, or escalates, the situation.

Other countries in Asia have moved into the 21st century and focused on economic development and democratic reforms — but not North Korea.  It remains mired in the 1940s, home to a throwback totalitarian regime complete with a “glorify the leader” personality cult and ludicrous propaganda.  Its paranoid behavior on the world stage is consistently inexplicable.  It spends its scant treasure on nuclear weapons programs and other military initiatives, and all the while its poor people are starving.

You have to sympathize with South Korea.  Its neighbor is home to many suffering relatives of South Korean citizens.  No doubt South Korea hopes that the people of North Korea will overthrow their repressive government, or that reform elements in the government will emerge that allow North Korea to move toward democracy and capitalism, like China before it.  Such hopes have been dashed.  North Korea’s leader acts out his whims, he appoints his son as a successor, the son acts out his whims, and the pattern continues.  All the while South Korea waits, uneasy, its thoughts never straying too far from the unpredictable, hyper-aggressive country to the north.

The Prospect Of A Nuclear Iran

The recent disclosure about a new secret Iranian facility devoted to the Iranian nuclear program — one of several such facilities in Iran — significantly raises the stakes in our relations with that Islamic state. It seems clear that the President will focus, for the present, on getting international agreement to some form of new sanctions on Iran. The question is whether the Administration should do more, and when? Some believe that the United States’ slow response to the Iranian nuclear program, and its dithering with respect to the North Korean program, are just encouraging other rogue states to try to enter the nuclear fraternity.

I doubt that Japan and other neighbors of North Korea are happy with the North Korean nuclear program or the missile tests the North Koreans have held in the past year. Such behavior is necessarily destabilizing. With each North Korean missile test I imagine the Japanese wonder whether, this time, the rogue government of Kim Jong Il has strapped a nuclear warhead aboard in hopes that the world will show it a bit more respect.

In Iran, the risks are even higher due to the volatility of the Middle East generally, the oil reserves located there, and the disturbing nature of the Iranian regime. Shouldn’t we all be terrified by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, governed by medieval religious figures and led by a Holocaust-denying fanatic who threatens the existence of Israel with every speech? Aren’t the parallels to Hitler and Nazi Germany too obvious to be overlooked? Shouldn’t we take Mr. Ahmadinejad at his word in his vows to wipe Israel off the map, and realize that preemptive action may the only way to avoid a second Holocaust?

The crucial difference between Iran and Nazi Germany, of course, is that Hitler, due to the technological limitations of his time, could only proceed through conventional warfare to cause a war that killed millions. If the Iranians succeed in developing nuclear weapons, they need only lob a few missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other nations to cause a global conflagration. The risks of that occurring are too appalling to contemplate or to permit. Any new sanctions regime should be brief and unyielding in its insistence that Iran stop its nuclear program; in the meantime the United States should be working with Israel and our allies to devise and, if necessary, carry out espionage and military options that will prevent Iran from realizing its evident nuclear ambitions.

Inscrutable

North Korea is one of those countries that is so cut off from the outside world that it is almost impossible to know what is really going on there. As a result, when North Korea does something unexpected — like its test firing of a nuclear missile yesterday — people are left to guess about what caused North Korea to act. This article, which identifies three possible reasons for the nuclear test, is a good example.

Anyone trained in negotiation will tell you that a significant part of being a successful negotiator is knowing who you are negotiating with and understanding their motivations so that you can develop a proposal that they will find attractive. How can you do that with a country like North Korea, where outside governments don’t even know for sure who is in charge?