Mushroom Cloud Diplomacy

Before Americans lit the fires for their Memorial Day barbecues, North Korea lit four: an underground nuclear test — far more powerful than their 2006 test — and reportedly fired three short-range ballistic missiles.  

Iran lit its own fire, sending six “warships” — really coastal patrol boats — for the first time into international waters in the Gulf of Aden.  Iranian President Ahmadinejad also rejected the latest Western proposal for a freeze on Iran’s nuclear development in return for a promise of no new sanctions.  

Responding to the North Korean test, another emergency session of the U.N. Security Council was called for Monday afternoon.  At which North Korea’s test was ritually condemned amongst many expressions of mutual harrumphs. 

Though the North Korean underground test didn’t erupt into the atmosphere, this is an exercise in mushroom cloud diplomacy.  

In a statement released by the White House, President Obama said, “By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community.North Korea’s behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation. It will not find international acceptance unless it abandons its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.”

Isolation is the empty threat George W. Bush held over every nation we lacked the power to influence, especially North Korea and Iran.  It was a hollow threat then, and it is even more so now.

As one-time U.N. ambassador (and later Supreme Court justice) Arthur Goldberg once said, modern diplomats approach every problem with an open mouth.  In the United Nations, diplomacy is conducted for its own sake without determination or resulting action.  Though U.N. Security Council resolutions supposedly carry the force of international law they are routinely disregarded by rogue and terrorist nations. (See Hussein, Saddam, et al.) Under former Secretary General Kofi Annan, U.N. sanction was the sine qua non of legitimacy: unless, he said, the U.N. gave its formal sanction to action, any nation taking military action against another was, meaning us, a rogue nation.

Annan’s goal, quickly achieved under the Clinton administration, was to control where and how America would use its military power.  George Bush broke that tether, but President Obama is apparently eager to mend it.

The North Korean tests and the Iranian incursion are direct challenges to Obama’s administration.  From this point forward, Obama’s pledge to renew the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and attempt to gain Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty must be put on hold.  If he still pursues them — and the failed “six-party talks” aimed at disarming the North Korean nuclear program — that will be a clear message to both North Korea and Iran that their nuclear weapons programs can continue unhindered.  
Obama’s weak reaction to the North Korean tests presages inaction and worse.  His pressure on Israel to accept a “two-state” solution to the Palestinian problem will be just as ineffective.  The Palestinians — surrogates for the surrounding Arab states — refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had also rebuffed Obama, saying that Israel will continue expansion of its West Bank settlements.

Neither friend nor foe respects Obama.  And neither will be led by him unless he learns quickly the lessons of the past.

President Obama apparently doesn’t understand that, as Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz said, diplomacy that is not backed by the threat of military force cannot succeed.  Military force isn’t the first answer: it’s the last.  But U.N. diplomacy and pursuit of treaties that rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran won’t abide by even if they ratify them isn’t an answer at all.

North Korea — a Chinese client state — is not going to be talked out of its nuclear program.  China could force North Korea to disarm, but it won’t. And given China’s financial leverage over us, there is no prospect of sufficient American pressure on China to cause it to act.

Nor will Iran be susceptible of negotiated solutions. Obama has given himself and the Iranians the rest of this year to come to an accord that will end Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.  Iran will do as it has since about 1981: talk, obfuscate and delay.  No one has successfully negotiated any change in Iran’s behavior since the ayatollahs took power in 1979.

Obama pretends to international leadership.  But so far — as with the attempt to get Russian help with Iran and the pressure on Israel — that leadership has been entirely comprised of giving in to our adversaries and bashing our friends. Leadership in this context means something else entirely.

Obama has used the START renewal as leverage to get Russian help with Iran.  That, as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton put it succinctly, is a sucker bet because Iran has no interest in helping us.  Other nations do, and must be convinced they should.

None of the Obama diplomatic brain trust — the president, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton — has the experience or training to form and lead the international coalition that is required now.  

To do that requires a comprehensively un-Obama like (and un-Biden and un-Clinton)
realization that such a coalition cannot be created using the U.N. as its base.  The United States has, still, a few allies who are both realistic (i.e., other than France) and powerful enough to unite in effective action against Iran and North Korea.  They have to be convinced that real economic and diplomatic action must be undertaken and agree that military action must be next if — or more likely when — those actions fail.

Mushroom cloud diplomacy requires a deft hand, and a real leader.  There is no reason to believe Obama is up to the task.