Obama’s windy words, dovish appointments and lack of resolve

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

WASHINGTON — A mood of collective celebration swept over the American capital as President Barack Obama entered his second term under clear skies in freezing temperatures. It was as though the country were taking a break from fears about the economy, the next “fiscal cliff” and debate on gun control that’s likely to be even more contentious than efforts to raise taxes on the rich.

Amid these concerns, worries about foreign wars seemed remote from the mass political consciousness. Obama in his inaugural address dispelled any qualms in lofty terms that might have left anyone who hadn’t been following the news in recent years with the impression that U.S. forces weren’t doing much overseas beyond putting out a few fires.
“We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully,” he said. “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East ….”

Obama failed to name any of the countries within this broad American embrace, but none of the analyses I’ve read suggests that he had Korea uppermost in mind. “Obama appears to be referring to foreign policy challenges relating to Iran’s suspected development of nuclear weapons and the threat of retaliation from Israel,” was the advice from the Washington Post.

One wonders if Obama and the Post would have relegated Korea to such obscurity a day later, when North Korea said flatly it would no longer negotiate over its nuclear program. That response came after the U.N. Security Council strengthened sanctions as punishment for the North’s firing off a long-range rocket that put a satellite into orbit last month.

The view here may be that North Korea is engaging in the usual rhetoric, but no one doubts the North is contemplating a third underground nuclear test. Nor is there any doubt that North Korea is cooperating with Iran on nukes and missiles. In fact, according to Bruce Bechtol, who’s been writing about these issues for years, the North is passing on its technology to Iran — not the other way around.

North Korea may be in a strong bargaining position — asking aid for its hungry people while refusing to negotiate the nuclear issue that dominated all those six-party talks hosted by China. The six parties haven’t gotten together since December 2008, but people are talking about talks while the second Obama administration settles in and Park Geun-Hye takes office in Seoul next month.

One reason for the North’s bargaining power is that those who are likely to be running the U.S. defense and state departments may be even less disposed toward armed conflict than their predecessors. Chuck Hagel faces tough Senate confirmation hearings in view of his opposition to strong sanctions against Iran, but he’s still likely to wind up as defense secretary.

If Hagel is regarded as dovish on Middle East policy, he presumably won’t want to get tough in Asia either. That means that he would prefer to avoid a showdown with North Korea and would favor scaling down the U.S. military presence in South Korea and Japan. Assuming John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state, we may also assume that he would prefer an equally soft line.

The imminent appointment of both Hagel and Kerry is especially interesting considering they both served in U.S. forces in Vietnam — both, in fact, in the Mekong delta region south of Saigon. Hagel was seriously wounded while a squad leader in the Army’s 9th Division. Kerry was wounded three times, none serious enough to require hospitalization, while serving with the Navy’s Riverine force scouring delta waterways for bad guys.

Both of them, from this experience in a war that’s widely viewed as the worst catastrophe in U.S. military history, have an aversion to conflict. That’s understandable, but where will they stand, and what will Obama want to do, if the North follows through on its latest threat to increase “self-defense capabilities” including “nuclear deterrence”?

U.S. leaders, Hagel and Kerry included, will be hoping and praying that China will exercise its power over North Korea and persuade whoever’s dictating these tough statements to tone down the rhetoric.

The thinking is that China above all wants “stability” and has enough influence over the North to rein in “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un and whoever’s calling the shots in his name.

But then we get to China’s spat with Japan over the Senkakus.

How much will China cooperate on North Korea while Japan strengthens its forces around those distant islands — and counts on the U.S. alliance in a showdown? Obama at his inaugural promised “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe” — windy words that avoid the issue of the real U.S. commitment in Northeast Asia.