Shadow Government

Obama's 'strategic patience' on North Korea is turning into strategic neglect

When asked, "would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" then-candidate for President Barack Obama replied, "I would."

That answer is little noted, nor long remembered. Yet the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs have only grown. Since President Obama took office, North Korea has conducted two more nuclear tests, the latest on the eve of the State of the Union speech, after having admitted a long-suspected clandestine uranium enrichment program in 2010. Meanwhile, Iran has more than quintupled its stocks of enriched uranium, more than doubled its enrichment capacity, and enriched to levels much closer to weapons grade. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently rejected direct talks with the United States, again slapping the hand the President offered in his first inaugural speech.

Moreover, David Sanger reported in the New York Times that the two threats may be  converging: "The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that 'it's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.'" Should this extraordinary statement prove to be more than speculation, it would be a serious escalation of the proliferation threat.

What then did the president say about these matters in last night's State of the Union Speech?  Not much:

"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

"Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon."

What the president did not say is that efforts to isolate North Korea are failing. The North's trade with China has more than tripled in recent years, and Chinese investment is mushrooming. So long as Beijing remains intent on shielding its ally from the consequences of nuclear brinksmanship, efforts to isolate Pyongyang will fail.

Similarly, while Iran has suffered tough and growing economic sanctions, they have not slowed Tehran's nuclear program, which is expanding and accelerating.

In the face of these threats, especially Pyongyang's latest provocation, the president apparently chose not to outline details of his reported plans for deeper cuts to the American nuclear arsenal. The apparent paradox would have been too great.

Indeed, the State of the Union Speech focused on domestic policy, with national security issues raised in the last quarter of the speech. While high unemployment and sluggish economic growth understandably remain the principle concerns of most Americans, the Administration can no longer apply "strategic patience" to the threats from Iran and North Korea. Patience is becoming neglect and neglecting them will only make them worse.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

'Even some supporters fear the potential for hubris'

In its scene-setter for the president's State of the Union Address, the New York Times, long one of the most reliable supporters of the Obama Administration, went off script and described the mood inside the White House in unsettling terms: 

"Inside the White House and out, advisers and associates have noted subtle but palpable changes in Mr. Obama since his re-election. "He even carries himself a little bit differently," said one confidant who, like others, asked not to be identified discussing the president. He is relaxed, more voluble and even more confident than usual, these people say, freer to drop profanities or dismiss others' ideas -- enough that even some supporters fear the potential for hubris."

That striking text was in my mind as I studied the President's State of the Union Address. It was, as advertised, mostly about domestic policy. The sections that did touch on foreign policy were notable mostly for how disconnected they were from the urgency of the myriad crises confronting the administration:

  • The president promised "mission accomplished" in Afghanistan by next year, a remarkably rosy outlook for a conflict that many experts fear is headed toward a far more dismal outcome. On the positive side, however, Obama did not honor Biden's campaign pledge of cutting U.S. troops to zero, thus perhaps tacitly acknowledging that the fight in Afghanistan remains daunting.
  • The president boasted about helping allies take the fight to al Qaeda and its affiliates, but elided over the setbacks and reversals that have spread that fight to new regions.
  • The president asserted that he had "worked tirelessly" on a new legal framework for the war on terror, about which he had kept Congress "fully informed" -- his only nod to the groundswell of opposition and outcry to these very same initiatives.
  • The reference to North Korea's latest nuclear test could hardly have been more perfunctory and the mention of Iran was likewise ritualistic. Nowhere does he acknowledge that both policy lines are failing. Perhaps the biggest concession in this regard was what was not said -- contrary to predictions, the president did not announce a bold new round of nuclear cuts and instead promised only to "engage Russia to seek further reductions..."
  • The president's references to Syria were even more cursory, oddly out of synch with the dramatic revelations regarding internal debates over Syria policy and the even more dramatic and tragic descent into chaos in Syria itself.
  • On trade, the president renewed old promises to deliver on a Trans-Pacific Partnership and made new proposals to launch a similar round with our Atlantic partners -- but gave no explanation for why the trade agenda has languished on his watch.

Indeed, on the national security and foreign policy front, Obama's biggest State of the Union play involved announcing a new executive order to increase "information sharing" in the area of cyber defense. This is a sound and sensible measure in an area where the administration has made genuine contributions, but it is modest in light of the threat.

All told, the foreign policy section was troubling not because it proposed a range of dangerous policies, but because it seemed not to recognize how dangerous the world is becoming for U.S. policy. It seemed to be the speech of someone who felt he was in an unassailable position and did not think there was much to argue about and thus little on which he needed to persuade.

Relatedly, an earlier New York Times article addressed a theme well-familiar to the denizens of Shadow Government: the stark contrast between Obama's Bush-bashing rhetoric and Bush-embracing war on terror policies. I am quoted in the article, a syntax-mangling snippet from a longer conversation I had with the reporter, Peter Baker, who asked me to explain the disconnect.

I told him I could think of two possible explanations. One is mere hypocrisy -- that is, Obama knows that he has been the pot calling the kettle black and is happy to continue to do so until he pays some political price for it. I favored, however, a second explanation, one perhaps a wee bit more generous to the administration: the president and his backers sincerely believe that he was acting more responsibly than the Bush Administration because they sincerely believe in a cartoon caricature of the Bush policies. According to the caricature, Bush enacted certain policies for some combination of nefarious reasons -- he was power-hungry, he was seeking partisan advantage, he was beholden to certain oil and gas interests, he was lying to the public, he was exaggerating the threat, etc. -- and he did so without any regard to respecting civil liberties and other ethical values. By contrast, Obama enacted the same sort of policies, but only so as to protect Americans and only after due regard to balancing civil liberties and other ethical concerns.

Granted this second explanation is not all that more generous to the administration, and so I am not surprised that my friends on the other side of the aisle bristle at it. Their reactions fit neatly into two groups. About half have expressed great outrage that I would even suggest that Obama holds such a view. And the other half have expressed great outrage that I would call such a view a caricature since it is obvious to them that the view is correct!

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images