Where’s the Consistency?


Over at Democracy Arsenal, Michael Signer thinks through the logic of the Bush administration’s approach to North Korea and wonders why we aren’t considering military options against Kim Jong Il in the same way that we did during Saddam Hussein. Now I don’t at all agree with Signer that we always need to have “some consistency to our foreign policy”—I’m perfectly happy with taking countries and crises on a case-by-case basis, and would warn against getting caught up in one single approach to every problem.

Nevertheless, it’s a decent question: why is the military option off the table with respect to North Korea? Certainly there’s concern about the country’s 500 artillery tubes pointed at Seoul. Kim Jong Il could wreak havoc in the region if he wanted to. But it’s often forgotten that in 1994, when North Korea was wavering on IAEA access to two of its nuclear facilities, the Clinton administration threatened military action against North Korea, pouring equipment and missiles into the country and drawing up plans to strike the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. Robert Galluci, the chief American negotiator at the time, has said that the buildup was “essential” to getting North Korea to compromise. Meanwhile, it’s not as if the risks of a strike against North Korea would be much more deadly than what we thought the risks of war against Iraq would be at the time. But despite all this, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said back in 2003 that the White House has not drawn up any “red lines” against North Korea. That’s not to say we should be amassing troops along the border, but it’s certainly worth asking how such a hawkish administration continues to insist on such a dovish position.

Here’s one answer. Over at Duck of Minerva, a new foreign policy blog, Daniel Nexon points to a new paper suggesting that the White House got itself “discursively entangled” into negotiating with North Korea. In other words, rhetoric matters, and our early warmongering rhetoric against Iraq basically constrained our options and led to war—indeed, we often heard that it would be impossible for the United States to “back down” once we had amassed so many troops in neighboring Kuwait in early 2003—while the administration’s cautious rhetoric against North Korea has led to yet more caution. That may be true. The problem here is that the White House hasn’t yet established a norm of actually negotiating. What it’s established is a pattern of rhetorical saber-rattling, from which it can’t back down, coupled with an operative policy of not actually setting red-lines and allowing North Korea to do whatever it wants, from which it also can’t seem to back down or change course.

Basically, the theory goes, the White House has got itself stuck on a particular foreign policy track and, perhaps because the president is so unwilling to make mistakes, can’t change course. Now that’s a bit odd since Bush may be stubborn, but the White House is perfectly able to change course on domestic issues. Bush was against Homeland Security before he was for it, for instance. And he even shifted his stance on China early in his presidential career—he was adamantly against apologizing for our downed spy plane in 2001, remember, before he was for it. So why can’t Bush change course and start negotiating with North Korea—and I mean seriously negotiating, not waiting for China to take charge, which, as Joshua Kurlantzick reports, will probably never happen. It’s a bit of a mystery, and the best explanations probably involve a mixture of indecision, infighting among foreign policy principles in the administration, and outright incompetence.

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