Obama, Kerry and Hagel thought that they had a plan for putting North Korea back in the box. North Korea had conducted a nuclear test in February, violating once again the various understandings that had been worked out. But agreements and understandings, written or oral, had never meant much to the repressive regime which had suspended the Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War numerous times—including last month.
So Obama decided to wave a stick. The playbook for North Korea would feature flights by B-2 and B-52 bombers and F-22 fighter jets to remind the North Korean military that it was no match for Uncle Sam.
A month after Obama’s victory, Park Geun Hye of the Grand National Party had won South Korea’s presidential election. The Grand National Party is conservative and Hye’s mother was murdered by a North Korean assassin. Hye ran on a platform of conciliation, but her rhetoric of peace was wrapped in a concise message that warned North Korea that if it attacked then it would be made to “suffer the costs of provocation.”
Two weeks before her inauguration, North Korea carried out its underground nuclear test sending the region into a panic. The timing was almost certainly deliberate. For her inauguration, the first female president of South Korea wore an olive green jacket with gold buttons that had a distinctly military look to it and her message to North Korea warned that its nuclear ambitions would turn it into its own biggest victim. The quote had the perfect sort of ambiguity that could be read as empathy in the West and a threat in the East.
Hye’s victory neatly matched up with Abe’s victory in Japan. Both South Korea and Japan were under the leadership of conservative governments. Hye was the daughter of her country’s former military dictator. Abe had spoken of rebuilding Japan’s military into a force to be reckoned with. On the other side of the board, China had turned toward its own hard line leadership.
Obama’s pivot to Asia was a belated recognition that a power vacuum had formed and was being filled by growing militarization on all sides.
Japan and South Korea had little confidence that the United States could continue to maintain stability. China was shoving the United States out of the way and blatantly threatening traditional American allies like the Republic of the Philippines. And North Korea was pushing every red line that could be imagined.
Toward the end of January, North Korea declared that its nuclear program was aimed at America. The era of ambiguity was over. North Korea was defining itself as a nuclear power in a new MAD stalemate.
And so the playbook began to unroll. The joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States were supposed to demonstrate that the two countries together could easily defeat the north. But the exercises were a bluff. A demonstration that no one could take seriously. North Korea certainly did not. Instead it called Obama’s bluff by playing a game of nuclear chicken, raising the stakes and the rhetoric.
Obama blinked. The United States put the playbook on hold, cancelled a missile test and began clumsily urging everyone to tone down the rhetoric to avoid a war. The game of chicken had ended with Obama, Kerry and Hagel squawking in a corner.
The trouble with a bluff is that it only works if the other side believes that you aren’t bluffing. And no one believes that Obama would be willing to commit to the use of force in North Korea in any scenario short of a surprise attack. North Korea knows it. So do China, Japan and South Korea. The grand pivot to Asia was an empty gesture with no substance.
After the Taliban had cleaned Obama’s clock, his empty posturing was not likely to impress the ruling elite of a totalitarian state with nuclear capabilities and a willingness to murder uncounted numbers of its own people in horrifying ways.
Obama’s first and biggest bluff took place in Afghanistan. His Surge was supposed to compel the Taliban to come to the negotiating table and make a peaceful withdrawal feasible. Instead large numbers of American lives were thrown away in a limited surge with a timeline. A bluff that failed to work. And that failure set the stage for all the failed bluffs to come.
Obama had gambled on his ability to win over Afghans by reducing air strikes and narrowly constraining the ability of American soldiers to defend themselves, as well as the willingness of the Taliban to come to any agreement with an enemy that they were being paid by Iran and wealthy Gulf oil tycoons to fight.
It wasn’t the last time that Obama would gamble on a bluff and lose. In Syria, Obama is still betting that a few warnings and officially unofficial support for the opposition will force Assad to step down. It hasn’t worked yet and it won’t work. Obama made the same bet in Libya and Gaddafi called his bluff forcing him to engage in an extended bombing campaign to destroy Libyan forces. And when that was done, the victory prize was a burning diplomatic mission and a dead ambassador.
In Iran, Obama has likewise been bluffing with no ace up his sleeve. Libya made it clear that the only way that the White House will commit to a military operation is if the risk is minimal. Obama’s smaller-and-smarter strategy took armed force off the table against any state with a strong enough military and made his bluffs preemptively worthless.
And that left Syria, North Korea and Iran free to do as they pleased.
Obama is stuck with no options between sanctions and military intervention. And once sanctions have been employed, there is nothing left except to sit and wait for a surrender that will never come. It’s not a problem unique to Obama; Bill Clinton and George W. Bush found themselves facing it with Saddam Hussein. But the difference is that they could credibly bluff. Obama can’t.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry mumbled something about refusing to accept North Korea as a nuclear state.
“The United States will do what is necessary to defend ourselves and defend our allies, Korea and Japan, “ Kerry said at a joint press conference with the South Korean foreign minister. “We are fully prepared and capable of doing so, and I think the DPRK understands that.”
But that’s exactly the trouble. North Korea doesn’t understand it. Not when its threats were followed by feverish attempts at retreat from Obama Inc.
President Theodore Roosevelt advised speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Instead Obama speaks loudly and carries a toothpick. Obama and Kerry bluster and then punk out when their bluff is called. Obama’s foreign policy of empty threats and incompetent policies has ushered in a Post-American world order.
Asia has lost faith in American stability. Eastern Europe is learning the same lesson. And the Middle East learned it years ago. Whatever happens with North Korea is no longer up to Obama. Just as the UK and France made all the important decisions in Libya and Syria, the North Korean crisis is in Japan and South Korea’s hands.
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