Shadow Government

Kim Jong Un’s two escalation ladders

The media is transfixed on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threat to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already declared that the North is on a full war footing, put his rocket forces on "full alert," and promised to nuke Washington and destroy the South. Predictably, a host of North Korea pundits are getting air and print time urging the administration to "engage" Pyongyang to prevent a rush to war on the peninsula (Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is ubiquitous, but fortunately we have been spared the geostrategic musings of NBA body art nightmare Dennis Rodman, the most recent high profile visitor to Pyongyang).

Young Kim and his National Defense Commission obviously want all attention on the escalation ladder they are now producing, directing, and starring in. However, it is the other escalation ladder that is far more important to them and threatening to us: the North's two decade nuclear and ballistic missile weapons development programs. Reports now suggest that Pyongyang's recent nuclear test was a well-concealed explosion of a uranium device. The test was probably successful and therefore positions the North to begin producing nuclear weapons in the near future by spinning centrifuges underground where detection and elimination will be a far more difficult task for the United States. With a deliverable nuclear weapons capability -- likely aimed at Japan and Guam first -- Pyongyang will seek to force sanctions relief and "peaceful coexistence" with the United States as a "fellow nuclear weapons state." When the North is ready to increase the protection price for not driving a pick-up truck through our store window, they will threaten to export their technology to the Middle East or engage in smaller scale provocations under cover of a nuclear deterrent, i.e., threaten to drive an even bigger pick-up truck through our store window. 

All of this reflects a recurring pattern over the past 15 years. This time, however, the rhetoric is more shrill and unnerving. Most commentary has attributed this to young Kim's need to establish credibility with his generals -- at least one of whom he has already blown up (literally) as a message to the others. But if you think about the other escalation ladder, it would seem there is a more important audience -- China. Beijing surprised the North by supporting chapter seven Security Council sanctions last month in the wake of the North's missile test -- and then surprised the experts by actually implementing those sanctions with inspections at its ports. China is the one country that could bring down the North, but Pyongyang understands how to terrify Chinese leaders like a small wasp buzzing around the nose of a giant. It appears that the North's newest bellicosity may have worked. The U.N. Security Council committees responsible for implementing sanctions were humming along for the first few weeks after the members of the council unanimously adopted the tough new resolution. Then, Beijing suddenly put the brakes on last week. 

Since they have learned how badly it can play for the party in power politically, the Obama administration has generally preferred not to put North Korea on the front burner. But the administration was right to brandish force, not only as a reassuring deterrent to our allies but also as a signal to Beijing that we will not be knocked off track by North Korean bluster. Of course, that signal would be more credible if the administration had not engineered a sequestration strategy that cuts our Navy and Air Force, but that is the topic for another post.


Shadow Government

Why eroding public confidence in the Supreme Court should worry the military

A new Pew survey of public opinion shows approval of the Supreme Court at an "all time low." I think these numbers are a warning sign for the U.S. military. What's more, I am pretty sure the senior military leadership understands that falling public respect for the Supreme Court could portend a similar fate for them, if they are not careful.

For the past several decades, the Supreme Court has vied with the U.S. military for the honor of being the public institution in which Americans have the greatest trust and confidence. The military has usually had first place, but the Supreme Court was near the top as well. The bottom feeders were Congress and, of course, the media.

The military was not always held in high esteem, however, and the climb to the top coincided with the Reagan years. There were many reasons for the high public respect for the military, as David King explained, including a string of remarkable operational successes, a focused campaign of outreach to the public, and the elite's desire to get beyond the poison of the Vietnam era.  

One important reason, which bears on the Supreme Court numbers, was that the public viewed the military as non-partisan and functional, as distinct from the institutions paralyzed by partisanship (Congress) or unacknowledged bias (media). This reputation for being above politics is what the military shared with the Supreme Court, until the latter started to lose that reputation.

As the latest Pew poll survey shows, public attitudes toward the Supreme Court are increasingly filtered through the lens of partisanship. The enormously controversial decision to uphold Obamacare may have looked to many like just another act of a partisan institution, not much different from a party-line vote in Congress. Conservative partisans lost a lot of respect for the institution; liberal partisans, while glad that they won, began to worry that an institution operating along partisan lines could turn on them.

So far, the public still views the military as relatively "above politics," but a study I did last fall with James Golby and Kyle Dropp shows that beneath the surface there is a strong partisan tilt shaping public views of the military. This is precisely the slippery slope down which the Supreme Court has slid.

Today's military leaders understand the importance of staying out of partisan politics, but the fight over the sequester -- and the painful defense cuts that appear inevitable in any "sequester fix" -- will make it harder and harder for the military to stay pure in both appearance and reality.