Shadow Government

Is Obama about to go wobbly on North Korea?

After campaigning on the untenable promise that he would meet with leaders like Kim Jong Il without preconditions, President Obama has actually approached North Korea with a firmness that sometimes eluded the Bush administration in its last year. The Obama administration has strengthened trilateral security coordination with Japan and South Korea; implemented tough U.N. Security Council sanctions against the North after its nuclear tests; and rebuffed Chinese pressure for emergency six-party talks in the wake of Pyongyang's unprovoked attacks on South Korea. Given the North's escalating provocations and nuclear cheating and Beijing's dangerous complacency, this is the only strategy that has a prospect of deterring further belligerency and reversing the incentives the North sees in proliferation on the peninsula and beyond.

This past week, however, senior Japanese and South Korean officials are reporting that the administration has begun signaling to them that the United States is ready to "shift back to dialogue" with the North. The Blue House in Seoul now feels under pressure to accelerate its own resumption of North-South dialogue so that U.S.-DPRK talks can get under way (since the administration has rightly stated that it would not get ahead of its ally South Korea's own diplomacy toward Pyongyang). In Tokyo there is an eerie sense of déjà vu at yet another potential swing in the pendulum of U.S. North Korea policy. Both Tokyo and Seoul want some dialogue with the North, and the administration deserves credit for how closely it has coordinated strategy with both capitals. But since the Hu Jintao visit to Washington, the dynamic seems to have shifted from U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral pressure on China to rein in the North to a new pattern of U.S.-China pressure on Seoul to pick up the pace of engagement (that, at least, is how one senior ROK official put it to me). Given our inconsistent history on North Korea to date, one can understand why our allies would be a bit nervous about where all this might go.   

Dialogue is not bad, as long as the expectations are realistic. What are the administration's expectations? Three possibilities come to mind: one of them would be delusional, one potentially problematic, and one quite reasonable.

The delusional expectation would be that Pyongyang is ready to deal on nuclear weapons. While some administration allies on the progressive left make this argument, I do not think anybody in the senior levels of the Obama administration believes it … and for good reason. Pyongyang has announced it will be a full nuclear-weapons state by 2012 and is unapologetically violating every agreement it has ever made in order to get there.    

The second expectation could be that dialogue is necessary in order to de-escalate from last year's pattern of confrontation and crisis. This logic is correct, but only up to a point. My Georgetown University and CSIS colleague Victor Cha issued a report last May that tracked 60 years of inverse correlation between U.S.-DPRK dialogue and North Korean provocations (i.e., when we are talking, the North Koreans tend not to blow things up). This report has apparently resonated in the administration and animated the discussions about re-engaging the North. However, as Victor points out, the data does not necessarily demonstrate a causal link between dialogue and lack of North Korean provocations. In fact, on most occasions the North Koreans walked out of talks unilaterally and then conducted nuclear tests or military provocations. In other words, Pyongyang has retained control over when dialogue will be an obstacle to its own desired proliferation or military actions. Moreover, talks have rarely prevented the North from continuing with proliferation activities clandestinely, as we have learned with increasing clarity after the fact. Finally, there is a danger that our own obsession with reducing tensions through dialogue could actually create more tensions in the long run, since Pyongyang will always be in a position to manufacture new crises when it wants to up the ante. It would be an enormous mistake to assume yet again that the danger of war means we need dialogue more than Pyongyang does. When that happens, we start paying for the dialogue by easing tensions in ways that only help the North advance its primary goal of nuclear weaponization and increased pressure on us.

The third possible reason for talking would be as a complement to the current strategy of alliance-centered deterrence, interdiction, pressure on the North's overseas financial and technology arteries (including in China) -- and preparation for possible change in the North post-Kim Jong Il. In this context, reliable communication channels with the North could help clarify strategic signals (in terms of both sticks and potential carrots), increase understanding of North Korean tactical intentions in a crisis, and probe over time the possibility for more substantial negotiations. However, expectations of negotiated outcomes would remain low, as would our willingness to invest in the process by reducing pressure on the North. If this is the administration's perspective, our defensive measures with Japan and South Korea and our efforts at interdiction and sanctions implementation would be redoubled in light of Pyongyang's determined push to mount nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles, regardless of whether we are talking to them in Beijing or some place.       

My guess is that the administration's debate about engaging North Korea is somewhere between reasons two and three. Hopefully, they are closer to reason three, and the architects of the strategy will proceed knowing exactly what they think they can achieve from dialogue and what it would be worth. Otherwise, it is will far too easy to slip into a process with the North where we become more afraid of ending talks than they are of our deterrent power. Let's talk, but let's not go there again.       

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Why didn't the Obama administration see this coming?

Less than a week after a State of the Union address that relegated foreign policy to an almost parenthetical concern, the turmoil in Egypt serves reminder yet again how global events can surprise and demand a presidency's attention nonetheless.

I am sympathetic to the Obama administration's challenges in staying abreast of developments this past week, and calibrating their public and private diplomacy effectively. The balance has been difficult, between hedging that Mubarak might hang on to power while supporting the demands of the protestors for freedom and reform, all the while trying to minimize violence, and prevent outright chaos and state collapse.

Where I am not sympathetic to the administration is on two counts: their failure to anticipate this and prepare contingency plans, and their neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review. The Mubarak regime's brittleness and Egypt's stagnation have long been apparent to many observers. As just one example among many prognostications, the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt co-chaired by Michelle Dunne and Bob Kagan has for the past year been sounding alarms and urging a revision of U.S. policy.

Even a non-Egypt specialist like me has raised multiple concerns about the regime's stability and encouraged the United States to support more vigorously the democratic reformers. For example in March 2009 I warned "on a recent visit, I did not meet a single Egyptian who had any positive words for Mubarak. My queries elicited either frustrated complaints or the furtive silence that comes from decades of living in a tightly-controlled society... Egypt embodies all the maladies of the non-Gulf Arab world: widespread unemployment and even more underemployment, few channels for popular expression, and a resilient and growing Islamist movement ... serious destabilization in Egypt is a real possibility. Which should caution the Obama team against relying too heavily on this traditional U.S. ally and regional leader for any important policy." (See also here, and here.)

Yet as Tom Malinowski laments in this insightful article, the State Department's default posture on Egypt and similar regimes has instead been a succession of short-term calculations on autocratic stability that may pay off day-to-day -- but miss horribly when major paradigm shifts take place.  If anything, the Obama Administration's policy towards Egypt has consisted of a double-down bet on the Mubarak regime's stability and longevity, and a painfully shortsighted eschewal of any meaningful support for democracy and human rights.

Political reform is not the only issue; the Egyptian protests are against economic stagnation as much as political repression, as Egypt's burgeoning population has faced a dismal job market and little prospect for improving their station in life. Here also is another missed opportunity - very little of the billions in U.S. development assistance sent to Egypt in the past decades has supported genuine economic reform, entrepreneurship, and private sector job-creation. Yet lest America's billions in aid to Egypt be dismissed entirely, one potential fruit today may be found in its largest recipient: the Egyptian military. At least as of this writing -- and hopefully going forward -- the Egyptian military has played a pivotal role in preserving order and providing moral support for the reformers.  In doing so it has honored one of the most fundamental tenets of civilian-military relations -- it has protected, not attacked, the citizens that it serves.

Meanwhile, as events in Egypt play out by the hour, various commentators are casting about for historical analogies. One being invoked, mistakenly I believe, is the 1979 Iranian revolution.  Yet as Robert Kaplan points out, there is no Egyptian Ayatollah Khomeini preparing to return from exile and lead an Islamist takeover, nor does the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt receive majority support.  Other analogies are possible, but limited. Perhaps 1986, and "People Power" in the Philippines when the Reagan administration at last withdrew support from the Marcos dictatorship and got behind Cory Aquino? South Korea in 1987? Or 1989 -- and if so, which 1989? Tiananmen Square in China, or the mass movements in Europe that led to the peaceful fall of the Iron Curtain? Or Indonesia in 1998, when Suharto fell, replaced initially by a fellow general but soon enough by democracy (while the Islamists remained a minority)? Or the most recent mass protests in the Arab world, Lebanon's stillborn "Cedar Revolution"? None of the analogies fit exactly, because history does not repeat itself exactly. However Egypt in 2011 plays out, it will soon become an analogy of its own.

Finally, as my former NSC colleague Elliott Abrams points out, Egypt vindicates President George W. Bush's strategic insight in his 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. ... As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

The window is diminishing, but not yet closed, for President Obama to seize the initiative and make emphatically clear to the people of Egypt -- and to whatever leaders succeed Mubarak -- that the United States supports their desire for liberty, prosperity, and a better future. Doing so now offers the best hope for a meaningful U.S.-Egypt partnership in the future.