Entry from June 21, 2010

A report in this morning’s Washington Post by John Pomfret offers an unintended glimpse into the amateurishness of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. There is, according to Mr Pomfret, a debate within the inner circle of national security advisers as to whether or not to send an American aircraft carrier to join South Korean naval maneuvers in the wake of North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean vessel.

The back-and-forth over the USS George Washington reflects the precarious security situation in Northeast Asia after North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan on March 26. It underscores a huge issue facing U.S. and South Korean officials: how to stop North Korea, which is believed to possess nuclear weapons, from conducting conventional attacks such as the torpedoing of the Cheonan. Some within the administration are arguing that dispatching the 97,000-ton carrier to the Yellow Sea off the Korean Peninsula, where the Cheonan was sunk, could anger China or cause North Korea to react violently, according to officials involved in the discussions. Others say the United States needs to send a clear message to its allies and to North Korea and China that the United States is standing firmly behind the South. “It’s a very tough call,” said Susan Shirk, a former State Department official and an expert on Asian security at the University of California at San Diego. “You don”t want to be too proactive. But you need to send a clear message.”

Unfortunately, no one seems to have figured out that the debate itself is the “clear message” that is being sent to North Korea — and that the message is that we’re more afraid of fighting than we are of their various provocations to fight, which will thus doubtless continue.

And then there’s this remarkable quotation:

“I think it’s a question of the U.S. and South Korea working out what we want to do together and when we want to do it,” said a senior administration official. And as for China, he said, “we”ll make sure that they’re not surprised.”

The Chinese ought to be surprised. And so ought the North Koreans. They ought to be surprised by the willingness of a President they have too much reason to think will back down in the face of their provocations not to back down. But neither the Chinese nor anyone else is likely to be surprised that way. Anyone with any familiarity with the primitive honor culture that still exists in the relations between nations could have told the Obamites what kind of signal it sends when you signal so blatantly that you’re only sending a signal. But they are wedded to the therapeutic and crypto-pacifist view of the relations between nations: that if you are nice to those that threaten you, or at least don’t threaten them back, they will stop threatening and be your friend.

As a result, those whose bad behavior they are attempting to deter will not be deterred. In fact, it’s worse than that. They might not be deterred anyway, but the semaphoring of American unseriousness about answering their threats will tell them that there is no reason why they ever should be deterred — something that will render impotent any future attempt to deter them as well. As it is, they know that all they have to do is complain about being provoked when their own provocations are answered, and they are more likely to get apology than a timorously rattled saber. “China”s state-run press has also reacted badly to reports that the United States was considering dispatching the aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea,” writes Mr Pomfret. “‘Having a U.S. aircraft carrier participating in joint military drills off of China’s coast would certainly be a provocative action toward China,’ warned the Global Times, an English-language newspaper run by the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People”s Daily.”

But fear not! The Asian security expert, Ms Shirk, thinks that on balance we ought to send the carrier and its battle group anyway.

“Our commitment to the region is always in question because we’re the outside power,” Shirk said. Add to that the appearance that China”s economy has recovered quickly while unemployment is still high in the United States. “It just reinforces doubts about our ability to deliver,” she said. “But it”s dangerous,” she acknowledged. “I would send it but not say anything about it. I wouldn’t make some big muscular statement. I would just say, “This is normal’.”

What a laugh! She has already confirmed, along with the Post and the “senior administration official” what we and doubtless the Chinese and North Koreans already know, namely that it is not normal — while at the same time advertising a weakness that would rule out a “big muscular statement” even if we wanted to make one. If we’re afraid to make them cross with us, what will we do if we are dared to fight them? I don’t think the Chinese or the North Koreans will have any trouble working that one out for themselves.

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