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What Shall We Do with the Nuclear Weapons Smuggling Sailor?

June 27, 2009

“Let him pass and build his nuke arsenal – early in the morning”, seems to be the answer by the Obama administration. Within less than a month the administration has effectively destroyed whatever little credibility it had concerning a tough stand against North Korea’s belligerent behaviour. Here’s what Obama said in his historic Prague speech virtually at the same time as the Norks did their first missile test this year (not that using the word “historic” is necessary because Obama’s speeches are all historic by definition):

Obama said the UN should respond strongly to North Korea.

“Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response,” Obama said.

For someone who routinely throws around big promises in lofty language with the world as witness that’s raising some quite fantastic expectations – but we are used to that by now. To underline how extra serious he is Obama argued that the US has an extra serious obligation to stop the spread of nuclear weapons because “[a]s the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”

For some funny reason China and Russia made it hard for the UN to produce anything worthy of mention in reaction to the first North Korean test. After the second missile test, though, the UN security council actually put out a statement that was uncharacteristically powerful. Among other things:

The resolution calls upon any potentially suspect vessels to submit consensually to that inspection. If a suspect vessel refuses to submit to inspection, it is required that the flagged state direct that vessel to an appropriate port, for mandatory inspection. Any contraband material that is found following that mandatory inspection is required to be seized and disposed[.]

Then and now the North Korean regime has responded with threats to the resolution. Nothing to be surprised about, to be sure. As Ambassador Rice said (in a tone that was so convincing you really wanted to believe that she meant it):

“Based on past experience and the pattern that North Korea has of reckless and dangerous actions, it would not be a surprise if North Korea reacted to this very tough sanctions regime in a fashion that would be further provocation and further destabilizing,” she said.

Rice says if that happens the US will “implement to the fullest extent” the sanctions agreed upon today.

“We’re not going to get into a tit-for-tat reaction to every North Korean provocative act,” Rice said. “They know what they need to do to uphold their international obligations.  We’re intent upon ensuring that this very tough regime is fully implemented.”

As you probably know the US has been tracking the Kang Nam, a suspect North Korean ship, for some days now. If we take the UN resolution and Miss Rice by their words the ship would be subject to an inspection and the destruction of any prohibited cargo. That the crew on the North Korean vessel will tamely let the interception take place was not to be expected. According to Ambassador Rice this wouldn’t stop the process. Looks like Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy didn’t get the memo – and by “memo” I mean the text of the UN resolution:

Ms. Flournoy said Friday that Washington has ruled out use of military force to inspect the North Korean freighter.

“The U.N. resolution lays out a regime that has a very clear set of steps,” Ms. Flournoy said, according to the Yonhap news agency. “I want to be very clear. … This is not a resolution that sponsors, that authorizes use of force for interdiction.”

Now we could quibble about the terms here: what does “use of force” mean? Apparently Madame Flournoy means military force. So the US won’t send the Navy to blow the Kang Nam into pieces, all right. But does this also mean that in the Age of Obama “mandatory inspections” are actually “inspections only if the North Koreans want to be inspected”? Because it’s looking awfully like this is the case. And if not even the US complies by those internationally agreed upon rules then who are we to expect to do better?

The big problem here is that should the US let the Kang Nam deliver its goods without any inspections, let alone confiscations, the Obama administration as well as the UN can talk and publish resolutions until they’re blue in the face, no one will ever take them serious again (let alone begin to take them serious). By not following through with the implementation of a UN (a UN!) resolution President “Words must mean something” Obama is anihilating any hopes that future negotiations with any – any! – rogue regime are going to be fruitful unless Obama (re)establishes some amount of authority through a very, very painful type of action – and I do mean action as in “military strike where it hurts”. The point is, even the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military in the world can threaten as much as he wants and keep his eyebrows drawn together until they cramp it won’t impress anyone if he doesn’t even have the stomach to search a ship in accordance with a UN regime.

Obama may believe that forcing the Kang Nam to the next port for inspections would entail too many bad consequences. But he fails to see that not searching the ship has even worse ramifications. Autrement dit, Obama thinks he wards off the small problem but what he actually does is cue the big problem. A smart president would avoid putting himself into a situation that forces him to renew credibility through actions painful not only to his enemies but also to his own country.

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