In the wake of the Benghazi attacks it was U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. On Sunday in the midst of the North Koreans’ show of bombast it was senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer’s turn. In each case someone with no operational responsibility for the foreign policy blow-up made the Sunday morning talk shows. In Rice’s case she conveyed misleading information. Pfeiffer merely appeared clueless; far worse he revealed that the administration he serves is entirely hapless.
This exchange with Chris Wallace was telling:
WALLACE: The Pentagon has delayed a test-firing of a Minuteman ICBM, intercontinental ballistic missile, this week, fearing that it would ratchet up tensions with North Korea and its young dictator, Kim Jong Un.
Does the Obama administration risk looking like it is caving to threats from Kim?
PFEIFFER: Absolutely not, Chris. Let’s take a step back and look at the whole picture here. We have a situation where North Korea is engaging in the kind of behavior we have seen for many, many years, provocative actions and bellicose rhetoric and the onus is on North Korea to take the step back and meet their international obligations so they can undertake what they say is their number one goal, which is economic development.
That can only happen if they rejoin the international community, which can only happen if they meet their international obligations.
WALLACE: Well, having said that, North Korea moved a medium range missile to its east coast. Jay Carney said he would not be surprised if they fired the missiles. The South Koreans seemed to expect it. It is within range of Guam.
How would the president regard it, given the fact that you have delayed the U.S. missile test by the U.S., if North Korea goes ahead and fires its missile?
PFEIFFER: Well, you know, we have seen the reports you cite there. As Jay Carney said, we wouldn’t be surprised. Missile launches have been, you know, part of this repeated pattern of behavior for the North Koreans and like I said, the onus is on the North Koreans to do the right thing here. This only — they are the source of the problem, and, the only way to solve it is for them to take a step back.
WALLACE: When you say –
PFEIFFER: And that’s the case we’re continuing to make.
WALLACE: When you say the onus is on them, what if they don’t?
PFEIFFER: Well, they’re going to be able to continue to further isolate themselves in the world. They will continue to further hurt themselves. You know, the North Korean people are starving because of the actions like the ones North Koreans are taking right now.
This was the same story on ABC’s This Week. (“And the key here is to — is for the North Koreans to stop their actions, start meeting their international obligations, and put themselves in a position where they can achieve what is their stated goal, which is economic development, which will only happen if they re-join the international community.”)
Was Pfeiffer given only one notecard of talking points or does the administration lack any coherent approach to Kim Jong Un’s aggression? It’s frightful, but one assumes it is the latter. The entirely of the administration’s policy is that Kim Jong Un must knock it off. But how do we get him to? And when we halt a planned test, how could that do anything but convey reticence?
The problem of nuclear blackmail from tyrants is not limited to North Korea. As grave as the situation is on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang’s behavior has more dire repercussions for Iran and the Middle East. ABC’s reporters explained (goodness knows what Pfeiffer would have said if the question was asked of him):
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And Martha, you have to think while this is all going on, the nuclear talks with Iran basically failed again. And you have to believe Iran is watching this as well, and says, he’s got nuclear weapons, he has a stronger hand.
MARTHA RADDATZ: Not only watching it, but I think there’s cooperation between North Korea and Iran. In fact, that’s something else General Thurman and other U.S. officials have told me.
STEPHANOPOULOS: What kind of cooperation?
RADDATZ: Cooperation on a nuclear program. Certainly North Korea wants money. And Iran wants nukes.
And, of course, this comes in the wake of yet another round of nuclear talks with Iran in which absolutely nothing was accomplished. The centrifuges continue to spin while the West dawdles.
To recap: 1) We facing a growth threat from North Korea both in aggression against the South and in proliferating nuclear weapons material; 2) The White House has no effective policy for dealing with that; 3) The White House’s effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program through a combinations of sanctions and diplomacy is a complete failure; and 4) In the midst of this they sent a political flak, a know-nothing on foreign policy, out to stumble through TV appearances.
The result is the appearance of confusion and fickleness. Sitting in Pyongyang and Tehran, the rogue dictators must think we are exceptionally indecisive and disinclined to challenge them. And on his they would be right. (There is bipartisan failure here, certainly. The Bush administration did no better with Iran and North Korea than its successors.)
One can feel a tinge of sympathy for Secretary of State John Kerry. He was handed a chaotic mess when he assumed office. In four years Hillary Clinton could not devise a reasonable approach to dealing with these two hot-spots. (To the contrary she helped to embolden North Korea by another round of feckless negotiations headed by Wendy Sherman and to seal the mullahs’ control by remaining mum during the Green Revolution). But act he must. As my colleague Michael Gerson points out, we’ve done nothing to respond to the Iranian regime’s clear and repeated incitements to genocide; the administration’s obsession with “international law” and multilateral bodies sure doesn’t extend to our enemies.
No, Kerry won’t have the help of a competent secretary of defense. To make matters worse, the White House national security team has perfected the art of insulating the president from decision-making and ducking conflicts even at the expense of U.S. interests and grave humanitarian crises. Kerry would do well to develop for himself a cadre of outside experts (e.g. Michele Flournoy, Michael O’Hanlon, Robert Kagan) who have credibility with Democrats to provide him with some sound counsel. He will need it.
And finally he should stop obsessing about something he can do nothing about (the “peace process”) and start pressuring North Korea (both economically and with expulsion from international bodies from which Kim Jong Un derives legitimacy and stature) and in making our military threat more credible to Tehran. Weakness in one arena will make it more difficult to address the threat in the other.