With only a year left in the Obama presidency, rogue nations around the globe are trying to get in their last licks before the hapless American president leaves office. Russia is in Syria. Iran promises a faster missile program. And now North Korea takes its turn.
World leaders sternly criticized North Korea on Wednesday for carrying out a fourth nuclear test, an explosion that Pyongyang claimed was an exponentially more powerful hydrogen bomb.
However, there was a considerable amount of skepticism about the North’s assertion. Nuclear experts and the South Korean military saying that the size of the blast was consistent with an atomic explosion, not an enormous hydrogen bomb.
The United Nations Security Council was set to hold an emergency meeting in New York to discuss the international response to the test, which North Korea called an “H-bomb of justice” that it needed for defense against the United States.
North Korea’s three previous nuclear tests since 2006 have been met with international condemnation, including resolutions and sanctions from the Security Council, but have done nothing to deter Pyongyang.
And that is precisely why North Korea continues to make threats.
Whether or not North Korea conducted such a test, it is one more indication of the widespread disdain for the United States under this president. “If this test is confirmed, it will be just the latest example of the failed Obama-Clinton foreign policy. Our enemies around the world are taking advantage of Obama’s weakness,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a written statement. “We need new leadership that will stand up to people like Kim Jong-un and ensure our country has the capabilities necessary to keep America safe.”
Speaking on “Fox & Friends” this morning, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went after our failure to respond to North Korea: “You know, three out of the four nuclear detonations that the North Koreans have done have happened on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s watch, and they have just not acted strongly at all around the world.” He noted: “It’s just another example piling on top of Iran, on top of Syria, on top of Crimea and Ukraine. This is what weak American leadership gets you. And Americans should be very, very concerned about this, because we have a president right now who has no idea how to lead our country or lead the world.”
In a statement Tuesday night, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also blasted the White House: “We must recognize the parallels between North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Iran’s. The path to what is now the fourth North Korean nuclear test began two decades ago with a weak and unverifiable deal negotiated by a naive U.S. president.” He argued: “We now must take up the hard work of pressuring and deterring a maniacal nuclear-capable regime. We don’t need to add a second regime to that task. But because of Obama’s own foolish deal with Iran, we may have to.”
Our ally South Korea is also expressing alarm. The Wall Street Journal reports:
“This is a grave provocation to our security, threatening the survival and future of our nation and further directly challenging peace and stability in the world,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said during a meeting of the National Security Council in Seoul. “The government—in close cooperation with the international community—should have North Korea pay a price without fail for the latest nuclear test.” She urged “powerful sanctions” by the U.N. Security Council and international community, as well as “resolute measures” by the U.S. and other allies.
As the report notes, North Korea has every reason to believe the United States has no stomach for confrontation based on its non-response to a 2014 cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment. (“Mr. Obama blamed Pyongyang for the hack, threatening a response. But the U.S. didn’t take threatened actions, such as placing North Korea back on the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a move that was widely supported in Congress and would have instituted new sanctions.”)
Eliot Cohen, a conservative foreign policy expert (who shares his analysis with many GOP presidential contenders) and former State Department official, tells Right Turn: “Obviously, the details are not public yet. But this is their second test in three years, and it suggests that even this backward country can make city-busting weapons — or will soon do so.” He observes: “What is getting less attention, but is no less important, is that they are clearly determined to develop the long range missiles to deliver them, ultimately, to us. When that happens, we are in a very different security environment.”
So here we have a familiar story: An aggressive foe engages in provocative and aggressive action. The United States effectively does nothing, leaving our allies in a lurch and signaling that there are no bad consequences to befall U.S. adversaries. The pattern repeats, with each new provocation more daring and dangerous than the last.
Some Republicans are as feckless as the president. The green-eyeshade set, including presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), has venerated the 2011 Budget Control Act and refused to push for more defense spending. A flock of Republicans opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be the single greatest sign in years of support for our democratic allies in Asia. They, like the president, operate in a make-believe world in which verbose rhetoric takes the place of concrete action.
And then there is Hillary Clinton, who was in charge of the “pivot to Asia.” Our allies are still waiting for the pivot, and fear it will never come. Someone should ask Clinton whether she considers the Obama-Clinton-Kerry Asia policy a success.
Conservatives have been warning the administration for some time that its efforts to reach out to North Korea and to ignore misbehavior are deeply misguided. The John Hay Initiative, which Cohen co-founded, recently traced the disastrous approach to Pyongyang and offered an alternative. In JHI’s “Choosing to Lead,” Dan Blumenthal writes:
First, Washington’s approach to North Korea should fit into a larger strategy that maintains the United States as the most powerful and influential geopolitical player in Asia, enabling Washington to shape the region consistent with its interests and principles. Second, the U.S. government should be open to diplomatic engagement with North Korea if there is a true moderation in leadership in Pyongyang that could lead to a dismantling of nuclear weapons, or at least to prevent a crisis from escalating. Third, while the nuclear threat is paramount, the U.S. government cannot abandon its commitment to the betterment of the lives of North Koreans.
More specifically, that means that the U.S. government must lead an effort to squeeze North Korea’s misbegotten revenues and bring to bear the kind of crippling sanctions inflicted on Iran. A key component of a robust containment policy is to weaken the Kim family, which relies upon a global network of front companies to conduct its illicit business activities.
As with most of the world’s hot spots, our position is dependent upon the threat of hard power and the will to act in our own interests. (“The sine qua non of deterrence is convincing Pyongyang that the United States has overwhelming conventional and nuclear power and is willing to use it to defend its interests.”) Unless and until we are willing to rebuild our defenses, North Korea and every other rogue nation will continue to challenge the United States — and thereby demonstrate what the world looks like when there is no “policeman” on watch in a dangerous world.