Tillerson’s Blinkered Understanding of North Korea

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

The ‘60 Minutes’ interview with Rex Tillerson makes for depressing reading:

Margaret Brennan: What is the carrot that you’re dangling for North Korea to convince them to talk?

Rex Tillerson: We’re not using a carrot to convince them to talk. We’re using large sticks [bold mine-DL]. And that is what they need to understand. This pressure campaign is putting – is having its bite on North Korea, its revenue streams. It’s having a bite on its military programs.

Margaret Brennan: But to say full denuclearization, why would they agree to give up something they’ve already got that they think is an insurance policy?

Rex Tillerson: Because it buys them nothing [bold mine-DL]. It buys them more of being the hermit kingdom, isolated, isolated from the world diplomatically, isolated from the world economically.

Each of these answers is troubling, and taken together they show how hopeless the administration’s policy towards North Korea is. The U.S. is expecting North Korea to give up something that is clearly extremely important to them, but it is offering them absolutely nothing in exchange. There is something about dealing with “rogue” states that causes people in our government to shut off their ability to reason. If our positions were reversed and we were the ones being put under “maximum pressure” to force us to give up our nuclear deterrent, would we respond to increasing pressure by caving or by doing whatever we could to keep building up the thing that our adversary wants to eliminate? It would obviously be the latter. If North Korea is given no incentives to do something, and faces only more and more pressure unless it capitulates, it is a virtual certainty that their government will dig in its heels and concede nothing.

As if that weren’t bad enough, our officials can’t or won’t even acknowledge that North Korea gets something out of refusing to give up their nuclear weapons and missile programs. They get to keep what they have already built, and they retain an ability to use these weapons that they didn’t possess a little over a decade ago. If they consider having such a deterrent to be essential to their regime’s survival (and we have good reason to believe that this is what they think), refusing to denuclearize has almost inestimable worth to them. If our top government officials don’t understand that or can’t admit it publicly, we’re in much bigger trouble than I thought.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted fromThe American Conservativewith permission.

Daniel Larison: Maximalist Demands Won’t Change North Korean Behavior

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Mike Pence confirmed again that the administration’s idea of “talking” to North Korea doesn’t mean anything:

Vice President Mike Pence told Axios’ Mike Allen on Wednesday President Trump “always believes in talking [with North Korea], but talking is not negotiating.”

He said nothing will change with North Korea until they give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons [bold mine-DL]. He said they must “completely, verifiably, and completely abandon” its missile programs, and “only then can we consider any change in posture by the United States or the international community.”

The administration’s maximalism may feel satisfying, but it has no chance of reducing tensions or getting North Korea to agree to anything. The insistence that North Korea abandon these programs is as unrealistic as can be. It is not just that North Korea has already invested considerable resources in these programs and would be reluctant to dismantle everything they already have, but they also believe these programs to be essential to their security. Just as our government would not budge on something that it considered vitally important, theirs is not going to budge. More pressure and threats will just make them cling to these programs that much more tightly.

Continue reading “Daniel Larison: Maximalist Demands Won’t Change North Korean Behavior”

Michigan And The War

Related to James Bovard’s question about the war and the Michigan primary, here are some indications of how the war may be affecting the primary.  According to Strategic Vision, 39% of Republicans support withdrawal for American forces from Iraq in the next six months, which hints that Michigan should be receptive to an antiwar message.  However, as he noted about the exit polls from New Hampshire, antiwar voters seem to have backed McCain there for some reason, which suggests that the war was either a low priority for most of these voters or they did not identify McCain with the ultra-hawkish wing of the GOP.  According to Rasmussen, Ron Paul has 8% support, which is one of his best poll results since his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire last week.  Based on the crosstabs of that Rasmussen poll, 92% believe Iraq is “very important” or “somewhat important,” but those who rate it as very important tend to be “conservative,” among whom Paul does not poll as well as among “moderates.”  To the best of my knowledge, all the leading candidates have been running heavily on domestic, economic issues, given Michigan’s high unemployment rate.  The wild card remains Democratic crossover voters who have no stake in the essentially one-sided Democratic primary, where Clinton is the only leading named candidate on the ballot because of a DNC ruling againt Michigan for its early primary.  These Democrats could follow the lead of Kos and back Romney, or antiwar Democrats could vote on principle for Paul and boost his final result.

Our Man In Tbilisi

It has been so obvious this week that it seemed a bit like piling on to observe that Saakashvili’s declaration of a state of emergency (like a certain other allied dictatorial ruler we know) and violent repression of civilian protesters are just the latest expression of the one-man despotism that Saakashvili created in Georgia in the wake of the so-called “Rose Revolution.” Like its successors in Ukraine, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan, the Rose Revolution narrative has come to its predictable, unhappy conclusion where the revolution is supposedly “betrayed” (The New York Times took up this line Saturday) or fails to “fulfill its promise” or is “thwarted” by malevolent forces, when the entire thing was a sham from the beginning. The Guardian offers a typical lament (though, to their credit, they do not engage in the easy Russia-bashing that commentary on Georgia often becomes). Even now, Ralph Peters is offering up one version of this disappointment with how the “revolution” turned out:

The Saakashvili regime shone from afar – but grew rotten within.

But there was never anything that “shone” about the “Rose Revolution,” except perhaps the glaring hypocrisy of the “revolutionaries.”

Continue reading “Our Man In Tbilisi”

The Freedom Agenda Strikes Again

Of course, Saakashvili’s “Rose Revolution” never was a democratic movement.  That much is obvious.  So it would be deeply mistaken to describe the continued U.S. backing of Saakashvili as a contradiction or betrayal of the “freedom agenda”–the “freedom agenda” has always been aimed at the empowerment of local oligarchic stooges who will align their governments with ours, and Saakashvili has certainly fit the bill.  That is the whole point of the “agenda,” and how these lackeys rule at home has never been Washington’s concern.  The internal affairs of other states concern Washington in inverse proportion to those states’ alignment with the United States. 

In this way, we can understand why Washington continues foolishly to back Musharraf and will persist in its hostility towards Venezuela’s Chavez, despite the marked similarities in their styles of government and the clear destabilising effects all three rulers are having on their respective countries.  Chavez doesn’t play ball, Musharraf occasionally does what Washington (again often foolishly) calls on him to do, and Saakashvili is a reliable lackey, and they are treated accordingly.   

Cross-posted at Eunomia

Sisyphean Efforts

According to Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, violence in Iraq as a whole since the end of June has declined 70%.  (One might point out that the media that allegedly never report “the good news from Iraq” have been…reporting some good news when there has been some to report.)  If correct, that’s good news for Iraqis, though it only returns the situation to its 2005-level misery.  Had someone said to you, “In late 2007, we will just be getting back to the awful situation we had in late 2005,” would that have inspired confidence in you to be willing to remain in Iraq?  It has taken two years to go nowhere, and this is now being described as “progress.”   

The problem with the jingoes isn’t that they want America to succeed, since that is actually what all of us want (for most of us, the sooner the better so that we can bring our people home), but that they are so chronically optimistic that they are also still expecting Sisyphus to get his boulder to the top of the incline and keep it there.  Perhaps when the boulder rolls back down the hill, they will find a way to blame it on the “MSM” and the antiwar movement. 

In other words, they always believe that there is progress and good news, and would believe it no matter what.  (This is why I consider optimism to be a species of mental illness.)  Once in a great while, there actually is a little good news (it was bound to happen sooner or later), and from their braying about it you’d think these people possessed oracular powers.    

A large part of the decline seems to be the changed situation in Anbar, where “violent deaths” declined 82%.  Assuming that all of these figures are basically accurate (that’s a big assumption), that means that much of the “progress” (a.k.a., getting back to where we already were) being touted derived from the Awakening in Anbar, which, as we have had to say over and over, was incidental to and not part of the “surge.”  Good news?  Certainly.  A vindication of the “surge”?  Not nearly so much as crowing jingoes would have you think.  The “surge” has had some modest and perforce temporary success, but it has yielded no political results and cannot conjure up a professional Iraqi police force or independently effective Iraqi Army by sheer willpower. 

As we know, the police force is a shambles, and the army remains still largely inadequate to the task of providing security on its own.  The elements needed for long-term stability and victory, such as it is, are not present, and there is little that has happened in the last ten months has made them more likely in the coming year.  The “surge” was intended to “buy time,” and so it has bought a little–only in this very narrow sense can it be declared successful.  As most of us already know, and all of us should know, that time bought with American lives will be frittered away to no good purpose by the different factions.  Of course, if Turkey invades Kurdistan, all bets are off anyway.  

The part of the story that doesn’t seem to be getting nearly as much attention is this:

However, in the northern province of Nineveh, where many al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab militants fled to escape the crackdown in Baghdad and surrounding region, there had been a 129 percent rise in car bombings and a corresponding 114 percent increase in the number of people killed in violence.

While the figures confirm U.S. data showing a positive trend in combating al Qaeda bombers, there is growing instability in southern Iraq, where rival Shi’ite factions are fighting for political dominance. 

This really is not an exercise in being a naysayer.  This is to keep in mind that every time we have been told that there has been progress in Iraq, some other part of Iraq has soon enough started going to hell after one part had seen a modicum of order restored.  This is not a coincidence, and we have seen the same pattern since the first battle of Fallujah: success in one place simply pushes insurgents and bombers to some other part of the country, where they begin their attacks anew.  As Nineveh province goes to pieces, we are being told about success in Anbar and Baghdad.  As soon as forces are shifted to face the problem in Nineveh, where they will be at least moderately successful, Baghdad or Diyala or somewhere else will probably start deteriorating again.  This is the very definition of running around in the circles, and there is a large part of the population that sees this abuse of our military as a policy that treats them with respect and honour.  Excuse me if I don’t buy it. 

The fundamental flaws of the “surge” that have been criticised since the beginning have always been: 1) insufficient numbers of soldiers to accomplish the counterinsurgency task assigned to them, and 2) a hopeless local political mess that shows no real sign of resolving itself.  The deeply compromised and sectarian nature of the “Iraqi government” has always been at the heart of the latter problem.  The “surge” will at some point come to an end, as has always been the case, which means that the old evils that the “surge” was meant to combat will return once the “surge” has ended.  As Prof. Bacevich pointed out a couple weeks ago, ending the one thing that might have been doing some good on the security front makes no sense by the standards of the supporters of the “surge”–yet this is what Gen. Petraeus has recommended. 

It is the manipulative propaganda of the administration and the hopelessly confused nature of the strategic planning of this war that make it unsustainable and indefensible.  No doubt, our military can execute very smart, effective tactical plans until the end of time (I believe that is the unofficial target date for ending the war at this rate), but if it is in the service of no larger, coherent, feasible plan it is a waste of lives, money and resources.  The strategic goals have remained unchanged for the duration of the occupation (the frequent talk of the “surge” as a “new strategy” has revealed just how few understand what strategy is), and they remain just about as far-fetched and distant as they have ever been.  It is high time to end the war.

Cross-posted at Eunomia