BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
As many of you know, I remain skeptical of the outcome of President Donald Trump’s outreach to North Korea. Although, I have long said that the president had to try something fundamentally different from that which his predecessors had tried–if only because North Korea was no more than 18 months away from achieving a fully functional nuclear weapons arsenal.
Whether U.S.-North Korean relations remained static, deteriorated, or bettered, the Trump Administration needed to create the public appearance that the United States was behaving as the rational actor. By meeting with Kim Jong-un for a “sizing up” summit in Singapore last week, the president achieved this objective.
Hopefully, he will appeal to the humanity of Kim Jong-un, and continue bringing Pyongyang into a more stable relationship with its neighbors and the world (including the United States). To use an overstated saying, the president had to “give peace a chance”–especially after the last 30 years of failed military interventions throughout the world, and the declining readiness of U.S. military forces.
Yet, there are some who are not only skeptical of the president’s historic initiative, but they are downright apoplectic over it. One man, in particular–a scion of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C.–has been raging against the president’s (in his view) mistaken North Korean entente cordiale.
That man is CNN anchor, Fareed Zakaria.
In his most recent episode of GPS with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, the erstwhile “expert” chastised the Trump Administration for its decision to reduce tensions by foregoing the pending joint-military exercises between the U.S. military and the South Korean military.
Like so many others in D.C., Zakaria lamented President Trump’s unwillingness to force Kim Jong-un to make concessions before having met with Trump in Singapore.
Zakaria (representing the entire Washington establishment in his musings) believes that the president weakened the American position vís-a-vís northern Asia.
You see, by standing down on the annual military exercises this year with South Korea, and labeling them provocative, Trump gave Kim a “major victory” by effectively using the same language to describe the military exercises that Pyongyang so often does.
As is often the case, the foreign policy “experts” are wrong.
Keep Pyongyang’s Perspective in Mind, It Might Avert a War
As much as it pains me to say it: look at this from Pyongyang’s perspective. The exercises, to them, are provocative. Two of the most powerful militaries in the world, just several miles across your border, are conducting massive joint-military exercises in which they train on how to fight you.
For a peasant state like North Korea–with an inadequate military (save for potential, though rudimentary, nuclear weapons)–that would likely be frightening (yes, yes, I know our exercises are defensive and it’s not as though the North Koreans aren’t provocative in their own right).
But, if Trump is serious about mitigating the threat of war, taking less provocative actions–at least as both sides engage in negotiations–might be the necessary step to achieving the goal of a) normalizing relations with North Korea and, hopefully, b) de-nuclearizing the peninsula (thereby averting a major war that could be the most costly of the 21st century).
The China Syndrome
Zakaria (and many throughout Washington, D.C.), is concerned that the United States is, “quitting the field” in terms of “managing China’s rise” in Asia. Far from it.
If anything, the United States is making reasonable strides in both building up the capacity of its allies in South Korea and Japan, while at the same time, putting itself in better geostrategic position to serve as an offshore balancer in the Asia-Pacific, against China’s rise.
Angelo Codevilla, no supporter of the president’s North Korea policy, highlighted a theory about Trump’s strategy (that he doesn’t believe, but I find too interesting to ignore):
“Consider the possibility that Trump, Bolton, etc. concluded that China-supported North Korea is a nuclear power, irrevocably. In that case, the best way to contain both North Korea and China is to mobilize South Korea, and above all Japan, to become very serious about their own defense.”
This might be the thinking of the administration. After all, as proven in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States cannot–and should not–go it alone in matters of major wars. It needs its regional partners (those who are most affected) to do the heavy lifting. Under current conditions, neither the South Koreans nor Japanese–despite having such advanced militaries–can adequately hold their end of the defense alliance up without copious, direct, American military support and financial aid.
That’s a bad deal for us. Rather than abandon them outright, let’s light a fire under their rear ends and see what they can do. Something tells me they can become normal countries again, and provide for their own defense.
While the United States has had U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War, they are right now, numbering just under 30,000. These forces were never intended to be kept on the peninsula indefinitely (and, in fact, were only there largely because the Korean War had never fully been resolved). Trump seems to be changing that dynamic (again, whether this bears out remains to be seen).
However, the United States has long-maintained far greater numbers of American forces in neighboring Japan. Even if the forces on the Korean Peninsula were to eventually be removed, most would likely continue rotating through Japan (and elsewhere in the region, like Guam).
Zakaria is flat wrong when he argues the United States is “quitting the field.” We’re simply repositioning to a better-defended position on the field, in relation to China.
It’s also less provocative to China, who continue arguing that America’s “aggressive” actions in the region necessitate their own, provocative military build-up. But, by embracing the maritime-based, offshore balancer role, the United States gives China some proverbial breathing room, and allows for Beijing to prove to the world how aggressive they are–absent of constant contact with American forces.
Further, by moving our forces off of the Korean Peninsula, the United States not only reduces the prospects of actual war there, it also ameliorates the prospect of U.S. personnel being killed en masse in the unfortunate outbreak of a war on the peninsula.
More importantly, retrenching in the region to the familiar lands of Japan and Guam, the U.S. is playing to its strengths: its navy.
Traditionally speaking, as John Mearsheimer has long argued, the United States is an offshore balancer. Whenever we start wading into ground conflicts in Eurasia, we harm ourselves and play to the strengths of our adversaries (especially since those ground conflicts are usually fought in the enemy’s territory).
Just looking at America’s military history in Asia is enough to give former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ claim that any American leader who wants to fight another ground war, like Iraq or Afghanistan, “should have their heads examined” a degree of cachet.
From the American-led counterinsurgency against Philippine guerrillas (legitimate freedom fighters, no matter how brutal they were–and they were quite brutal) at the turn of the twentieth century to the violent Pacific Theater of the Second World War; to Korean and Vietnam Wars, the United States has won only a single military conflict of these four engagements: the Second World War.
And, that was at great cost–and ended only after not one, but two, nuclear weapons being deployed against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! Before that, the Philippines counterinsurgency ended in a stalemate; the Korean War technically did not end; and Vietnam ended in defeat for the United States.
Maybe we should try another way before resorting to Fareed Zakaria’s preferred bombs and bullets approach (which, by the way, we could still easily do a preemptive strike against suspected North Korean sites at any time in the next 18 months–and we will have to, if the negotiations with Kim fail).
With the China question, Fareed Zakaria argued that they were the true winners, should the United States make a deal with North Korea. He’s right–to a point. Yes, North Korea has, for all-intents-and-purposes acted as a Chinese vassal state on the world stage (due to its extreme isolation).
However, Kim Jong-un does not seem to be comfortable with relying entirely on China as North Korea has had to do in the last several decades. He has murdered top advisers and family members, based on the fact that they were far too close to China for his liking.
The idea that Pyongyang enjoys being China’s proverbial bitch is, to say the least, an oversimplification. On the other hand, South Korea, America’s erstwhile ally, has many ties to Beijing.
In fact, the elites of South Korea (like many of the elites in North Korea), share a common cultural and budding economic bond with China. Further, they are united in their historical animus toward the Japanese–even more so than the North is, I believe.
So, yes, Zakaria is not wrong to claim that China would be a geopolitical winner if the United States truly followed through on its calls for normalization with North Korea. Again, however, the United States would be reducing an onerous burden on itself by stabilizing the Korean situation and removing its military from the peninsula, drawing back to just between the first and second island chains, and playing to its maritime strengths.
Who cares if China gains influence over either South and/or North Korea?
The United States will always enjoy greater influence over Japan and India–as well as Vietnam and the Philippines. In other words, a balance-of-power paradigm wherein the United States is both better situated (than it currently is) and is playing to its strength will likely lead to an American geostrategic victory over China in the contest for supremacy in Asia.
The Status Quo Will Not Last
But, Fareed Zakaria cannot see this. He prefers things to remain as they are. Unfortunately (as I noted above), given that the North Koreans will have a fully functional nuclear weapons capability in 18 months (give-or-take), things will not remain as they have been on the peninsula.
Therefore, all of the “recommendations” that Zakaria and his ilk in Washington have been “offering” to the president will lead us to another Korean War. This isn’t surprising, though, considering how much in favor for George W. Bush’s Iraq War Zakaria (and the D.C. establishment) was–until things got tough. Then, Zakaria and his fashionable clique got going…against the war they cheered for.
Please recognize Zakaria and the D.C. “expert class” for what it is: charlatans and fools masquerading as intelligent analysts. Everything these folks advocate for eventuate in the spreading of misery; the prolongation of crisis (which they benefit from, both professionally and financially); and the ultimate weakening of the United States.
It’s not surprising that the neoconservatives who pushed us into the most self-destructive war in recent history (and also spearheaded the neoliberal economic policies that led us into the Great Recession of 2008)–then got rich and famous off books detailing the “coming collapse of the United States” because of the failed wars and economic policies they had spent the previous two decades advocating for–are now screaming for another disastrous war!
I say: never again, D.C.! Never again. My earplugs are firmly in my ears whenever I hear one of these folks giving their “expert” opinion.