Defying international warnings, North Korea attempted to launch a multi-stage rocket Thursday that potentially would be capable of carrying a nuclear payload into space.
Being North Korea, its effort proved a dismal failure, with the rocket falling apart shortly after launch. However, that doesn’t mean that its ambitions can be safely ignored or downplayed. The U.N. Security Council will be taking up the issue today, and the Obama administration has indicated that a program to deliver food aid to North Korean citizens would be abandoned in response to the provocation.
Mitt Romney, however, immediately condemned the launch attempt as a sign of failure by the Obama administration.
“Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naive as it was short-lived,” Romney said. “This incompetence from the Obama administration has emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and our allies.”
Now, if you want to dissect this problem in partisan terms, we could certainly do that. We could note that the United States first detected the North Korea nuclear program way back in 1989. That would have been early in the administration of the senior President Bush, who did little or nothing in response. In fact, by the end of his term he had pulled all U.S. nuclear warheads out of the Korean Peninsula.
In 2002 — under the second President Bush — North Korea publicly admitted its nuclear program, booted international inspectors from the country and restarted nuclear facilities that had been closed as part of a deal with the Clinton administration.
In 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2004 it announced it had built a bomb. And in 2006, it conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon.
In other words, most of the major advances made in the North Korean nuclear program have come with Republicans in the White House. Perhaps they too should have “approached Pyongyang from a position of strength” to solve this problem?
In reality, such a partisan analysis would be deeply foolish. I am not attempting in any way to argue that North Korea’s nuclear program represents a failure of Republican policy or Republican presidents. North Korea poses an extremely difficult challenge that has befuddled presidents of both parties going all the way back to Harry Truman. When a country has nothing and wants nothing, there are very few tools available to influence its behavior.
But I will admit to being curious. He has attempted to set up a dichotomy between “strength” on one hand vs. “appeasement” on the other. But what exactly would Romney do as president?
Would he take military action and provoke what by all accounts would be an extremely bloody war in Korea? Would he try to enlist the help of, say, the Russians? You know, the country that Romney recently denounced as “our number one geopolitical foe,” earning him a rebuke from the Russian president that “now is not the mid-70s”?
Would the Chinese — whom Romney has also harshly criticized — be equally willing to help him out? I rather doubt it.
I do know that I am leery of politicians whose first instinct is to bluster about using “strength” to solve international problems that might better be approached through wisdom, patience or cooperation. Been there, done that, and it didn’t turn out so well.
Based on Romney’s public statements, under his leadership we would still have troops in Iraq, despite Iraq’s insistence that they would not allow them. We would still be plotting how to extend rather than end our presence in Afghanistan. And you may remember that after an American drone crashed in Iran last year, Romney insisted that he would have sent troops into that nation to reclaim it, regardless of the consequences.
It’s also important to note that Romney has assembled a Cheney-esque foreign-policy team that is dominated by the same group of neoconservatives that led President Bush into the miscalculated invasion of Iraq.
By his second term, a chastened Bush had learned enough to discard many of those folks and ignore the rest, but by then the damage had been done, both to this country and to his presidency. By recruiting that crowd to his team, and by his evident willingness to follow their advice, Romney shows no such learning curve.
So I’m curious, and the American people ought to be curious as well: What exactly does “approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength” really mean? How would that approach play out, and what would its consequences be? Over the next six-plus months, maybe we’ll get an answer.
– Jay Bookman