Ally or critic, everyone can agree that President Obama has a full plate.
Economic growth remains sluggish and uncertain. New unemployment claims are up while housing starts are down. In Washington, Congress is deadlocked on the proper policy to spur the economy, while each day brings a new twist in the European debt crisis that looks increasingly like a frantic effort to plug individual leaks in a dam, which will eventually wash over the US.
Then there are fights that the Administration takes on needlessly, like the pending lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law, a measure that enjoys the support of 58% of the American people, according to the Washington Post.
Of course, there is BP and the oil spill, which needs neither introduction or explanation.
Cumulatively, these events have distracted and weakened POTUS.
Far from the dreams of calming rising seas and curing the sick, the Administration, in practice, seems pedestrian, ideological and uncomfortably political. It also, now, seems unnervingly adrift at a time of potentially maximum peril internationally.
Consider the current Korean crisis.
Following the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel – the Cheonan – South Korea assembled an international team to investigate the sinking that killed 46 South Korean military personnel. The conclusion, based on overwhelming evidence, was that a North Korean mini-sub torpedoed the Cheonan.
Recognizing the precarious military balance on the peninsula – a North Korean attack would create casualties and destruction in its first hours that would rival the final Soviet assault on Berlin in 1945 – South Korea has pragmatically opted for diplomatic actions, through multilateral economic sanctions and military exercises, to show that the South Korean government cannot be intimidated.
North Korea, which denies any involvement in the sinking, has publicly warned on Friday that it will strike “merciless blows” against the South if the UN moves to sanction the regime. Even for a regime that has made hyperbole into an art form, the rhetoric is uncomfortable.
Into this mix of action and charges comes details on the military maneuvers.
In early June, reports surfaced that the US would not only participate in the military exercises, but that the 97,000 ton, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS George Washington, would be the centerpiece of the US flotilla, symbolically operating in the Yellow Sea near the area where the Cheonan was attacked and sunk.
This was ostensibly designed to show solidarity with the South and American resolve to the North.
But that public announcement was both premature and problematic.
The Yellow Sea is the body of water that separates Korea from China. The distance from the Chinese city of Weihai to the South Korean port of Inchon is less than 200 miles, a little more than the distance from New Orleans to Pensacola.
Aside from the crisis created by North Korea’s actions, the Chinese have a legitimate security interest in the Yellow Sea and what happens there, given the proximity of the Sea to a large part of the Chinese coast line, which is densly populated and near the manufacturing heart of China.
It is useful, in this context, to remember that when the Chinese were busy raising tensions in 1996 by shooting off missiles into the Taiwan Straits, and President Clinton ordered a US carrier group into the area to show US resolve, those forces were kept well away from the Taiwan Straits that separate China from Taiwan; an action which might have been viewed as needlessly provocative.
But now in a crisis that does not involve China, the US has at leasat notionally planned to send the most potent symbol of American military power into the restricted waters of an emerging world power? Let’s keep in mind that China is the only tenuous leverage that the globe has on the North Korean regime, thus provoking Beijing does not further US-South Korean interests.
But with the word already out on the exercises and the carrier’s involvement, the Washington Post today published a story indicating that top US officials are having second thoughts, compounding a bad decision and making it worse.
Instead of a policy grounded in cooperation, nuance and sophistication, our policy has been exposed as amateurish and unconstructive. And predictably, the Chinese are unhappy. State-run media stated that, “Having a US aircraft carrier participating in joint military drills off of China’s coast would certainly be a provocative action toward China.”
Now, the US is in the worst of two worlds.
If the US suddenly backs off its commitment to send a carrier to the Yellow Sea, what message does that send to North Korea, which may make an “extinction level event” decision based on American Hamlet-esque behavior?
Indeed, when American nerve is being tested globally – by the Taliban, Hamas, the Iranian regime, just to name a few – what does a reversal of policy like this say about America’s willingness to honor treaty commitments?
But placing the carrier on station in the Yellow Sea will only incite the Chinese and make a dealings with Beijing and North Korea more complicated.
It is a sordid mess.
President John F. Kennedy was three years younger, but ten years more seasoned in national public office than President Obama when he managed the greatest threat to mankind in the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Declassified Soviet records only addy a measure of increased horror at how close general nuclear war came, through uncertainty, incomplete intelligence, and misread motives. It shines a postive light on Kennedy’s astute handling of the crisis, all the more so given the absence of that critical data.
There is a “tick-tock” going on in northeast Asia. Looking to Kennedy’s example,we need to get our act together before this gets out of hand.