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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Nuclear Korea

The hand wringing over North Korea’s nuclear exhibitionism begins anew this week. The Americans' Director of Central Intelligence, General Michael Hayden, testifies soon in Congress about Pyongyang’s illicit dealings with Syria and others. Christopher Hill, the indefatigable State Department negotiator, continues his shuttle diplomacy, nudging the Koreans closer to making the ultimate clean break. Whose tail is wagging the dog? This is the perennial question.

We allow ourselves to digress and note that most of the experts on this question were once ‘political scientists.’ As such, they have been well trained to make and follow assumptions about individual and collective behavior based on theoretical models. For example, Saddam Hussein was typecast as a classic revisionist dictator, determined to rule his part of the world by whatever means necessary. Like Hitler and Stalin, he could not be appeased, so better to get rid of him while he was weak. The North Koreans and their strange leader, by contrast, are depicted as mere extortionists. They will keep driving up their side of the bargain in order to gain time for ‘regime survival.’

Talleyrand, who also regards himself as a student of human nature, wonders whether the experts might have got it backwards. He has no secret or special basis for knowing one way or the other. But he cannot resist posing the question: what if the North Koreans have something more in mind than survival? What if their long, tragic and violent history tells them, too, that one must grow or die? What if−to suggest a radical notion−an ambition of Kim Jong Il is to start an even bigger and better war than the one begun by his father? After all, the Korean War was a major boost to the global militarization of the Cold War. Try to imagine what a second Korean war would do, especially if it destroyed the fragile harmony among China, Japan, Russia and the United States? This time they might all emerge as losers. What sweet revenge that would be.

This is why the Americans and others have no choice but to keep stringing along the North Koreans, tapping them on the knuckles every time they misbehave. But they should do it with their eyes wide open, and prepare for the worst.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Fence Sitters

The United States presides over a world of fence sitters. We recall that the Americans’ own Revolution barely succeeded with only about a third of the population in favor of independence. “With us or against us” has always been little more than a rhetorical device; even during the toughest years of the Cold War, a good part of the world watched and waited to see which side would command the future while the rest perfected the art of playing one side off the other.

Things are not so different today. And yet a new crop of Spenglerian prophets has arisen, telling us that China, India (but alas, no longer Europe or Japan) are bound to overtake the West. Just short of a generation since the Soviet Union breathed its last gasp, the Cassandras of “imperial overstretch” are hitting their originally intended target: the USA. In the meantime, would-be client states are having second, third and even fourth thoughts. Ecuador’s government announces the US must close its military base, the largest in the region. Uzbekistan’s government seems to be inviting the Americans back after inviting them to leave in 2005. But at home, insisting that the United States is "bound to lead" still remains de rigueur.

To most Americans, neutralism carries a whiff of dishonor. Americans like certainty, road maps, optimistic scenarios. Ambivalence is best understood as a temporary condition, something to be overcome, like injustice or misfortune, or lasting only until the next election cycle. But as confident as many people may be that 2009 will prove salutary, much of the rest of the world lingers on in confusion.

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