The False Religion of Mideast Peace

And why I'm no longer a believer.

On October 18, 1991, against long odds and in front of an incredulous press corps, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin announced that Arabs and Israelis were being invited to attend a peace conference in Madrid.

Standing in the back of the hall at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that day, I marveled at what America had accomplished. In 18 months, roughly the time it took Henry Kissinger to negotiate three Arab-Israeli disengagement agreements and Jimmy Carter to broker an Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the United States had fought a short, successful war -- the best kind -- and pushed Iraq's Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. And America was now well-positioned to bring Arabs and Israelis across the diplomatic finish line.

Or so I thought.

Baker, who lowballed everything, was characteristically cautious. "Boys," he told a few of us aides in his suite after the news conference, "if you want to get off the train, now might be a good time because it could all be downhill from here." But I wasn't listening. America had used its power to make war, and now, perhaps, it could use that power to make peace. I'd become a believer.

I'm not anymore.

Etymologists tell us that the word "religion" may come from the Latin root religare, meaning to adhere or bind. It's a wonderful derivation. In both its secular and religious manifestations, faith is alluring and seductive precisely because it's driven by propositions that bind or adhere the believer to a compelling set of ideas that satisfy rationally or spiritually, but always obligate.


And so it has been and remains with America's commitment to Arab-Israeli peacemaking over the past 40 years, and certainly since the October 1973 war gave birth to serious U.S. diplomacy and the phrase "peace process" (the honor of authorship likely goes to a brilliant veteran State Department Middle East hand, Harold Saunders, who saw the term appropriated by Kissinger early in his shuttles). Since then, the U.S. approach has come to rest on an almost unbreakable triangle of assumptions -- articles of faith, really. By the 1990s, these tenets made up a sort of peace-process religion, a reverential logic chain that compelled most U.S. presidents to involve themselves seriously in the Arab-Israeli issue. Barack Obama is the latest convert, and by all accounts he too became a zealous believer, vowing within days of his inauguration "to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbors."


Like all religions, the peace process has developed a dogmatic creed, with immutable first principles. Over the last two decades, I wrote them hundreds of times to my bosses in the upper echelons of the State Department and the White House; they were a catechism we all could recite by heart. First, pursuit of a comprehensive peace was a core, if not the core, U.S. interest in the region, and achieving it offered the only sure way to protect U.S. interests; second, peace could be achieved, but only through a serious negotiating process based on trading land for peace; and third, only America could help the Arabs and Israelis bring that peace to fruition.

As befitting a religious doctrine, there was little nuance. And while not everyone became a convert (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush willfully pursued other Middle East priorities, though each would succumb at one point, if only with initiatives that reflected, to their critics, varying degrees of too little, too late), the exceptions have mostly proved the rule. The iron triangle that drove Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama to accord the Arab-Israeli issue such high priority has turned out to be both durable and bipartisan. Embraced by the high priests of the national security temple, including State Department veterans like myself, intelligence analysts, and most U.S. foreign-policy mandarins outside government, these tenets endured and prospered even while the realities on which they were based had begun to change. If this wasn't the definition of real faith, one wonders what was.


That Obama, burdened by two wars elsewhere and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, came out louder, harder, and faster on the Arab-Israeli issue than any of his predecessors was a remarkable testament to just how enduring that faith had become -- a faith he very publicly proclaimed while personally presiding over the announcement of George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy in an orchestrated ceremony at the State Department two days after his swearing-in.

At first, it seemed that Obama, the poster president for America's engagement with the world, had found a cause uniquely suited to his view of diplomacy, one whose importance had been heightened by his predecessor's neglect of the issue and the Arab and Muslim attachment to it. Even before the Gaza war exploded three weeks prior to his inauguration, Obama had been bombarded by experts sagely urging a renewed focus on Middle East peace as a way to regain American prestige and credibility after the trauma of the Bush years. The new president soon hit the Arab media running as a kind of empathizer-in-chief, ratcheting up expectations even as Israelis increasingly found him tone-deaf to their needs.

Obama surrounded himself with key figures, such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who believed deeply in the peace religion. He named as his chief peacemaker Mitchell, a man with real stature and negotiating experience; and his national security advisor is James L. Jones, himself a former Middle East envoy who made the stunning pronouncement last year: "If there was one problem that I would recommend to the president" to solve, "this would be it."

All these veteran leaders were not only believers, but had extra reason to encourage a tougher line toward Israel; they had seen the Benjamin Netanyahu movie before and were determined not to let their chance at Middle East peace end the same way. In his first turn as prime minister in the 1990s, the brash hard-liner Netanyahu had driven Bill Clinton crazy. (I remember being briefed on their first meeting in 1996, after which the president growled: "Who's the fucking superpower here?") Confronted with Netanyahu again, Obama and his team needed no encouragement to talk tough on the growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, an issue that experts inside and outside government were clamoring for Obama to raise as the first step in his renewed push for peace.

At the time, it looked to be a magical convergence of leader and moment: The Arab-Israeli issue seemed perfectly suited to Obama's transformational objectives and his transactional style. If Obama wanted to begin "remaking America," why not try to remake the troubled politics of peace, too? After all, this was the engagement president, who believed deeply in the power of negotiations.

Obama was not alone in his belief, of course. The peace-process creed has endured so long because to a large degree it has made sense and accorded with U.S. interests. The question is, does it still? Does the old thinking about peacemaking apply to new realities? Is the Arab-Israeli conflict still the core issue? And after two decades of inflated hopes followed by violence and terror, and now by directionless stagnation, can we still believe that negotiations will deliver?

Sadly, the answers to these questions seem to be all too obvious these days. And Obama's first 15 months as a disciple of the old creed tells you why. In 2009, the president pushed the Israelis, the Arabs, and the Palestinians to get negotiations going and was rebuffed by all three. He later told Time magazine ruefully that "we overestimated our ability to persuade." In March of this year, provoked by the Netanyahu government's incomprehensible announcement of new housing units in East Jerusalem smack in the middle of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel, Obama pushed the Israelis again, harder this time, though it seems without much of a strategy to put the crisis to good use.

Obama is clearly determined not to take no for an answer. Fresh from his victory on health care, he's King of the World again and in no mood to let the King of Israel frustrate his plans. This willfulness is impressive, and it makes it even more imperative now that he's engaged in the faith to give that old-time religion a fresh look, based not just on what's possible but on what's probable. We don't have the right to abandon hope, but we do have the responsibility to let go of, or at least temper, our illusions.

I can't tell you how many times in the past 20 years, as an intelligence analyst, policy planner, and negotiator, I wrote memos to Very Important People arguing the centrality of the Arab-Israeli issue and why the United States needed to fix it. Long before I arrived at the State Department in 1978, my predecessors had made all the same arguments. An unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict would trigger ruinous war, increase Soviet influence, weaken Arab moderates, strengthen Arab radicals, jeopardize access to Middle East oil, and generally undermine U.S. influence from Rabat to Karachi.

From the 1940s through the 1980s, the power with which the Palestinian issue resonated in the Arab world did take a toll on American prestige and influence. Still, even back then the hand-wringing and dire predictions in my Cassandra-like memos were overstated. I once warned ominously -- and incorrectly -- that we'd have nonstop Palestinian terrorist attacks in the United States if we didn't move on the issue. During those same years, the United States managed to advance all of its core interests in the Middle East: It contained the Soviets; strengthened ties to Israel and such key Arab states as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; maintained access to Arab oil; and yes, even emerged in the years after the October 1973 war as the key broker in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Today, I couldn't write those same memos or anything like them with a clear conscience or a straight face. Although many experts' beliefs haven't changed, the region has, and dramatically, becoming nastier and more complex. U.S. priorities and interests, too, have changed. The notion that there's a single or simple fix to protecting those interests, let alone that Arab-Israeli peace would, like some magic potion, bullet, or elixir, make it all better, is just flat wrong. In a broken, angry region with so many problems -- from stagnant, inequitable economies to extractive and authoritarian governments that abuse human rights and deny rule of law, to a popular culture mired in conspiracy and denial -- it stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point to argue that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most critical issue, or that its resolution would somehow guarantee Middle East stability.

The unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict is still a big problem for America and its friends: It stokes a white-hot anger toward the United States, has already demonstrated the danger of confrontation and war (see Lebanon, 2006; Gaza, 2008), and confronts Israel with a demographic nightmare. But three other issues, at least, have emerged to compete for center stage, and they might prove far more telling about the fate of U.S. influence, power, and security than the ongoing story of what I've come to call the much-too-promised land.

First, there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of Americans are in harm's way and are likely to be for some time to come. Add to the mix the dangerous situation in Pakistan, and you see volatility, threat, and consequences that go well beyond Palestine. Second, though U.S. foreign policy can't be held hostage to the war on terror (or whatever it's now called), the 9/11 attacks were a fundamental turning point for an America that had always felt secure within its borders. And finally there's Iran, whose nuclear aspirations are clearly a more urgent U.S. priority than Palestine. Should sanctions and/or diplomacy fail, the default position -- military action by Israel or even the United States -- can't be ruled out, with galactic consequences for the region and the world. In any event, it's hard to imagine Netanyahu making any big decisions on the peace process until there's much more clarity on what he and most Israelis regard as the existential threat of an Iran with a bomb.

As Obama surely reckoned, moving fast on Arab-Israeli peacemaking would help the United States deal with these issues. But that linkage wasn't compelling when Bush used it to suggest that victory in Iraq would make the Arab-Israeli conflict easier to resolve; it's not compelling now as an exit strategy from Iraq either, as if engaging in Arab-Israeli diplomacy will make the potential mess we could leave behind in Iraq easier for the Arabs to swallow. Nor can the Arab-Israeli issue be used effectively to mobilize Arabs against Iran, because the United States could never do enough diplomatically (or soon enough) to have it make much of a difference. Finally, linking the United States' willingness to help the Israelis with Iran to their willingness to make concessions on Jerusalem and borders isn't much of a policy either. If anything, it risks the United States losing its leverage with Israel on the Iranian issue and raising the odds that Israel would act alone.

Surely the United States can do more than one thing at once, the foreign-policy equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time. But America must also do multiple things well. Obama can't have an inch-deep and mile-wide approach in which he commits to everything without a cruel and unforgiving assessment of what's really possible and what's not. Nor can the United States afford another high-profile failure based on what a brilliant and committed Clinton told us shortly before we went to Camp David: "Guys, trying and failing is a lot better than not trying at all." This is an appropriate slogan for a high school football team; it's not a substitute for a well-thought-out strategy for the world's greatest power. Obama already has made a commitment to the American people to end two wars, keep them safe from attack at home, and stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, not to mention tackling the challenges of a severe recession and growing deficit.

Governing is about choosing; it's about setting priorities, managing your politics, thinking strategically, picking your spots, and looking for genuine opportunities that can be exploited -- not tilting at windmills. And these days, Arab-Israeli peacemaking is a pretty big windmill.

Even if you could make the case for the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, could you make peace?

Americans are optimists. Our idealism, pragmatism, and belief in the primacy of the individual convince us that the world can be made a better place. Unlike many countries that grapple with existential questions of political identity and physical survival, Americans today don't live on the knife's edge or hold (whatever our Puritan or Calvinist beginnings) a dark deterministic view of human nature.

All this drives our conviction that talking is better than shooting. Rodney King-like, we believe that if people would only sit down and discuss their differences rationally and compromise, a way might be found to accommodate conflicting views. After all, America is the big tent under which so many religious, political, and ethnic groups have managed to coexist, remarkably amicably. Perhaps this spirit is best embodied by Obama's Mideast envoy George Mitchell, who once told me that any conflict created by human beings could be resolved by them. Mitchell is truly convinced that solutions can be found and that serious diplomacy is what you do until that time comes. But he ended his first foray into Arab-Israeli diplomacy with three emphatic no's: from Israel on a comprehensive settlement freeze, from Saudi Arabia on partial normalization, and from the Palestinians on returning to negotiations.

Much of our earlier experience in the tough world of Arab-Israeli peacemaking seemed to bear out Mitchell's initial conviction. In the time from the 1973 war to 1991, two Republican secretaries of state (Kissinger and Baker) and one Democratic president (Carter) succeeded in hammering out a series of Arab-Israeli agreements that established America's reputation as an effective, even honest, broker -- seeming to validate the simple proposition that negotiations can work.

If there was anyone who represented the faith in that proposition, it was me. I recall giving a talk in Jerusalem in the fall of 1998, after Clinton had brokered the Wye River accords (never implemented), in which I argued that Arab-Israeli negotiations and the move toward peace were now irreversible. That remark, one of the great howlers of the decade, prompted a note from Efraim Halevy, then Israel's deputy Mossad chief, rightly questioning my logic, and though Halevy was too polite to say it in his note, my judgment as well. Still I believed.

And I continued to do so, all the way through the 1990s, the only decade in the last half of the 20th century in which there was no major Arab-Israeli war. Instead, this was the decade of the Madrid conference, the Oslo accords, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, regional accords on economic issues, and a historic bid in the final year of the Clinton administration to negotiate peace agreements between Israel, Syria, and the Palestinians. But for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the Arab, Palestinian, Israeli (and American) unwillingness to recognize what price each side would have to pay to achieve those agreements, the decade ended badly, leaving the pursuit of peace bloody, battered, and broken. Perhaps the most serious casualty was the loss of hope that negotiations could actually get the Arabs and Israelis what they wanted.

And that has been the story line ever since: more process than peace.

Looking ahead, that process looks much, much tougher -- and peace more and more elusive -- for three reasons.

First, Arab-Israeli peacemaking is politically risky and life-threatening. Consider the murders of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. At Camp David, I heard Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat say at least three times, "You Americans will not walk behind my coffin." Leaders take risks only when prospects of pain and gain compel them to do so. Today's Middle East leaders -- Israel's Netanyahu, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas -- aren't suicidal. It was Netanyahu, after all, who once told me: "You live in Chevy Chase. Don't play with our future."

Second, big decisions require strong leaders -- think Jordan's King Hussein or Israel's Menachem Begin -- because the issues on the table cut to the core of their political and religious identity and physical survival. This requires leaders with the legitimacy, authority, and command of their politics to make a deal stick. But the current crop are more prisoners of their constituencies than masters of them: Netanyahu presides over a divided coalition and a country without consensus on what price Israel will pay for agreements with Palestinians and Syria; Abbas is part of a broken Palestinian national movement and shares control over Palestine's guns, authority, and legitimacy with Hamas. It's hard to see how either can marshal the will and authority to make big decisions.

Third, even with strong leaders, you still need a project that doesn't exceed the carrying capacity of either side. In the past, U.S. diplomacy succeeded because the post-1973-war disengagement agreements, a separate Egypt-Israel accord, and a three-day peace conference at Madrid aligned with each side's capabilities. Today, issues such as Jerusalem (as a capital of two states), borders (based on June 1967 lines), and refugees (rights, return, and compensation) present gigantic political and security challenges for Arabs and Israelis. One accord will be hard enough. The prospect of negotiating a comprehensive peace; concluding three agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon; dismantling settlements in the Golan Heights and West Bank; and withdrawing to borders based on June 1967 lines seems even more fantastical.

Bottom line: Negotiations can work, but both Arabs and Israelis (and American leaders) need to be willing and able to pay the price. And they are not.

Under these circumstances, the refrain from many quarters is that America must save the day. If the Arabs and Israelis are too weak or recalcitrant, then the United States must support and/or push them to make the deal.

Such forceful U.S. diplomacy succeeded in the past. Indeed, it's a stunning paradox that with the exception of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, every other successful accord came not out of direct negotiations, but as a result of U.S. mediation. The Oslo accords, often touted as the miracle produced by direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, proved to be a spectacular failure. All that's missing now, the argument goes, is the absence of American will.

I understand the logic of this view, and having spent more than 20 years in frustrating talks with the Arabs and Israelis, I can also see how it can be emotionally satisfying. But because I know a thing or two about failure and don't want to see the United States fail (yet again), I simply don't buy the argument. If I genuinely believed America could impose and deliver a solution through tough forceful diplomacy, I'd be more sympathetic -- but I don't. And here's why:

Ownership: Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic advisor, said it best: In the history of the world, no one ever washed a rental car. We care only about what we own. Unless the Arabs and Israelis want political agreements and peace and can invest enough in them to give them a chance to succeed, we certainly can't. The broader Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers that wrongly believed they could impose their will on small tribes. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran … need I continue? Small tribes will always be meaner, tougher, and longer-winded than U.S. diplomats because it's their neighborhood and their survival; they will always have a greater stake in the outcome of their struggle than the great power thousands of miles away with many other things to do. You want to see failure? Take a whack at trying to force Israelis and Palestinians to accept an American solution on Jerusalem.

The negotiator's mystique: It's gone, at least for now. When Americans succeeded in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, it was because they were respected, admired, even feared. U.S. power and influence were taken seriously. Today, much of the magic is gone: We are overextended, diminished, bogged down. Again Summers: Can the world's biggest borrower continue to be the world's greatest power? Our friends worry about our reliability; our adversaries, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, believe they can outwait and outmaneuver us. Nor does there appear much cost or consequence to saying no to the superpower. After Obama and Mitchell's fruitless first year, I worry that the mediator's mystique of a Kissinger or a Baker, or the willfulness and driving force of a Carter, won't return easily.

Domestic politics: The pro-Israel community in the United States has a powerful voice, primarily in influencing congressional sentiment and initiatives (assistance to Israel in particular), but it does not have a veto over U.S. foreign policy. Lobbies lobby; that's the American way, for better or worse. Presidents are supposed to lead. And when they do, with a real strategy that's in America's national interests, they trump domestic politics. Still, domestic politics constrain, particularly when a president is perceived to be weak or otherwise occupied. This president has been battered of late, and his party is likely to face significant losses in the 2010 midterm elections. Should there be a serious chance for a breakthrough in the peace process, he'll go for it. But is it smart to risk trying to manufacture one? The last thing Obama needs now is an ongoing fight with the Israelis and their supporters, or worse, a major foreign-policy failure.

U.S.-Israeli relations: America is Israel's best friend and must continue to be. Shared values are at the core of the relationship, and our intimacy with Israel gives us leverage and credibility in peacemaking when we use it correctly. But this special relationship with the Israelis, which can serve U.S. interests, has become an exclusive one that does not. We've lost the capacity to be independent of Israel, to be honest with it when it does things we don't like, to impose accountability, and to adopt positions in a negotiation that might depart from Israel's. It's tough to be a credible mediator with such handicaps.

Fighting with Israel is an occupational reality. It's part of the mediator's job description. Every U.S. president or secretary of state who succeeded (and some who didn't) had dust-ups, some serious, with Israel. (Remember how Bush 41 and Baker used housing loan guarantees? In 1991, the United States denied Israel billions in credit to borrow at reduced interest rates because of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's determination to build settlements.) But the fight must produce something of value -- like the Madrid conference -- that not only makes the United States look good but significantly advances the negotiations. In short, we need a strategy that stands a chance of working. Otherwise, why would any U.S. president want to hammer a close ally with a strong domestic constituency?

And this was the problem with Obama's tough talk to Israel on settlements. Not only was the goal he laid out -- a settlements freeze including natural growth -- unattainable, but it wasn't part of a broader strategy whose dividends would have made the fight worthwhile. Going after the Israelis piecemeal on settlements to please the Arabs or to make ourselves feel better won't work unless we have a way of achieving a breakthrough. That a tough-talking Obama ended up backing down last year when Netanyahu said no to a comprehensive freeze tells you why.

And that remains the president's challenge after the Biden brouhaha over housing units in East Jerusalem. In the spring of 2010 we're nowhere near a breakthough, and yet we're in the middle of a major rift with the Israelis. Unless we achieve a big concession, we will be perceived to have backed down again. And even if the president manages to extract something on Jerusalem, the chances that Netanyahu will be able to make a far greater move on a core issue, such as borders, will be much reduced. Unless the president is trying to get rid of Netanyahu (and produce a new coalition), he'll have no choice but to find a way to cooperate with him.

So now Obama faces a conundrum. A brilliant, empathetic president, with a Nobel Peace Prize to boot, has embraced the iron triangle and made America the focal point of action and responsibility for the Arab-Israeli issue at a time when the country may be least able to do much about it.

Trying to compensate for the absence of urgency, will, and leadership among Arabs and Israelis by inserting your own has always been a tough assignment. The painful truth is that faith in America's capacity to fix the Arab-Israeli issue has always been overrated. It's certainly no coincidence that every breakthrough from the Egypt-Israel treaty to the Oslo accords to the Israel-Jordan peace agreement came initially as a consequence of secret meetings about which the United States was the last to know. Only then, once there was local ownership or some regional crisis that the United States could exploit, were we able to move things forward.

Right now, America has neither the opportunity nor frankly the balls to do truly big things on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Fortuna might still rescue the president. The mullahcracy in Tehran might implode. The Syrians and Israelis might reach out to one another secretly, or perhaps a violent confrontation will flare up to break the impasse.

But without a tectonic plate shifting somewhere, it's going to be tough to re-create the good old days when bold and heroic Arab and Israeli leaders strode the stage of history, together with Americans, willing and able to do serious peacemaking.

I remember attending Rabin's funeral in 1995 in Jerusalem and trying to convince myself that America must and could save the peace process that had been so badly undermined by his assassination. I'm not a declinist. I still believe in the power of American diplomacy when it's tough, smart, and fair. But the enthusiasm, fervor, and passion have given way to a much more sober view of what's possible. Failure can do that.

The believers need to re-examine their faith, especially at a moment when America is so stretched and overextended. The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance. But America should also be aware of what it cannot do, as much as what it can.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who probably didn't know much about the Middle East, said it best: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, then in half the creeds." And maybe, if that leads to more realistic thinking when it comes to America's view of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, that's not such a bad thing.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images


Multiple Personality Disorder in Pyongyang

Yes, Kim Jong Il's still in charge. But intrigue at the top is heating up, which may explain some of the bizarre behavior coming out of North Korea these days.

View photos of Kim Jong Il surveying steel foundries, goat farms, and more.

On April 14, Kim Jong Il, North Korea's numero uno, bumped 100 generals up the career ladder. The North's official news agency described the move as a noble gesture to mark the birthday of Kim's deceased father, Kim Il Sung. It was the biggest group of senior officers he has promoted in 13 years.

So why would he do a thing like that?

North Korea has been changing a lot over the past few years. The North is no longer quite as cut off from the rest of the world as it is used to be; flourishing trade with China, and a corresponding inflow of goods and information, has seen to that. And, as some discerning experts have shown, over the decades North Korea's reigning ideology has moved ever further away from communism toward the intensely ethnonationalist "military first" worldview of Kim Jong Il -- which turns out to look a lot more like Japanese World War II emperor-worship than the thought of Karl Marx.

These aren't just academic debates either. For all its weaknesses, North Korea remains a paranoid power with a million-man army and nuclear weaponry, capabilities that give it the ability to create enormous mischief in one of the world's strategic flashpoints. (And if we needed any reminding of that, just consider the rising tension over the mysterious sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan.)

All of which leaves the intriguing issue of the real nature of power at the top. We all know who's in charge in North Korea after all: the guy with the platform shoes, the bouffant hairdo, and the paunch. Indeed, it would be hard to think of another country where opposition has been extinguished as thoroughly as it has been north of the 38th parallel. If any place in the world qualifies as an absolute dictatorship, surely the Democratic People's Republic of Korea would be it.

But is it really that simple? Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine I'll call "Oscar." For a variety of reasons, Oscar doesn't want me to reveal his identity; he consented to be described merely as a "long-time Korea expert." So I'm afraid you'll just have to trust me on this one.

First, just a bit of historical background. As Oscar reminded me, we know today that Stalin's Russia and Mao's China -- neither a slouch when it came to dictatorial control -- actually experienced a great deal of factional push-and-pull at the uppermost levels of government. Stalin succeeded in tamping down the maneuverings of his confederates through the use of random terror, but rivalries within the top ranks of the Soviet Communist Party broke into the open immediately after his death (when several leaders managed to gang up on Stalin's putative successor, secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, and had him shot). Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, in turn, precisely in order to undermine (and in some cases eliminate) his internal party opponents.

Oscar points out that Kim Jong Il had similar problems to deal with when he came to power upon the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, back in 1994. Unlike his dad, Kim Junior had never served in the military, and the generals were deeply skeptical that he could handle the top job. In some cases, says Oscar, that skepticism extended to outright rebellion, including an attempt on Kim's life in July 1994 and an abortive mutiny by an army unit not long after that. The officer who tipped off Kim about the uprising was instantly rewarded with a hefty promotion -- and ever since then the Dear Leader has made a priority of keeping the generals happy, showering them with favors, promotions, and perks. At about the same time, in what was surely no coincidence, Kim enshrined the still-reigning "military first" policy as North Korea's dominant ideology -- raising the armed forces to the dominant position in the state once held by the Communist Party. Oscar says that Kim also made a habit of blaming all the country's problems -- like food shortages and the dismal economy -- on the ruling Korea Workers' Party, thus deflecting blame from the generals.

But what about today, you object? Surely Kim the Younger must have things firmly under control by now? Oscar sees little evidence of any overt challenges to Kim's power. "There's no disagreement about changing the system. But there is disagreement about how to steer it. These are tactical, not strategic differences."

That's a polite way of putting it. North Korea as described by Oscar sounds less like a tightly controlled totalitarian state than a really rowdy high school. (Yes, there's a difference. In North Korea, ending up in the wrong clique can get you a bullet in the head or a stint in a concentration camp.) The jocks are the military, the guys who tend to rule the roost and demand the most resources. The arrogant rich kids are the party elite, especially the ones with close ties to Kim's immediate entourage. (At the top of the heap are the Dear Leader's own relatives, like Chang Sung Taek, Kim's brother-in-law, who has been widely regarded as a major player ever since 2006, when he returned to the top ranks after a mysterious period of disfavor.) The science club geeks are the civil servants, the professional bureaucrats who are supposed to keep the machinery of the state running despite the violent to-and-fro of state-ordered caprice. While they have some power over ordinary folk, they're the ones who tend to get dumped on by the higher-ups. This category includes people like the hapless Pak Nam Gi, the functionary who's said to have been singled out as the fall guy for the regime's latest spell of idiotic economic policy. Pak appears to have been shot last month.

All these groups are rivals to a certain degree, and the issues that divide them -- namely, money and power -- won't come as much surprise. A prime point of contention is the extent to which North Korea should emulate China's economic reform program. On several occasions over the past decade Kim Jong Il has announced plans to set up Chinese-style free trade zones around the country. "There were supposed to be eight or nine of these zones originally," says Oscar. "There was this big rollout fanfare -- and nothing happened." The only projects that ever worked out were the two based on direct investment from South Korea -- the Kaesong Industrial Park and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, set up as part of the two sides' fitful attempts at rapprochement around the turn of the century.

Kim, Oscar suspects, "encountered resistance." And it's fairly clear where the resistance came from. At the end of 2008 South Korean investors in the Kaesong venture received an unpleasant surprise. A North Korean general showed up to read them a riot act about their presumed exploitation of the Northern workforce -- which was odd, because the military isn't supposed to have anything to do with economics. Rodger Baker, a North Korea-watcher at the Austin, Texas-based intelligence consultancy Stratfor, says that the generals have never been happy about the idea of cooperating with the South, which they still view as a dangerous and devious enemy, plotting to use seemingly innocuous cooperation projects to weaken the communist system. And the fact that the two big North-South showcase projects are located right next to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the dividing line between the two sides, doesn't make them any less suspicious. "The military has always been unhappy about gaps in the DMZ," notes Baker -- especially the rail line that crosses through the zone to Kumgang.

It's worth noting that this view -- that there are competing power centers in North Korea's leadership -- is somewhat controversial among the experts. "I'll believe it when I see it," says Peter Beck, a North Korea expert at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. "We don't really have the evidence. My working assumption is that we still have a grand puppeteer and that the military only plays the role that he allows them to play." But what about those odd flip-flops in policy -- the ones that seem to have been coming more frequently ever since Kim Jong Il apparently suffered a stroke in the fall of 2008? "I interpret it as Kim Jong Il playing the good cop-bad cop game," says Beck.

Fair enough. That has certainly been true in the past. Yet Oscar detects a different quality in the maneuvering these days. It used to be, he says, that the regime was rather sophisticated at alternating goodwill gestures with saber rattling (wooing, say, South Korea while ranting at the United States). But lately it's all mixed up. The North is demanding increased investment from Seoul even while excoriating President Lee Myung-bak or threatening retaliation for all sorts of imagined slights. "When Kim Jong Il was healthier there was more coordination of this effort," says Oscar. "In the spring, when South Korea was doing its military training, you'd expect that the propaganda would turn harsh and the military would be huffing and puffing. Now we're getting it out of phase." And that, he believes, suggests a degree of turmoil within the upper ranks of the North Korean regime. Part of the reason may be Kim's weakened state after his stroke. But there might be another one.

And that has to do with the other question that looms over all else in the Hermit Kingdom these days: the succession. The evidence is mounting that Kim has chosen his third son, a virtually unknown 20-something by the name of Kim Jong Un, as his heir to the throne. Everyone at the top knows that the 69-year-old Dear Leader's days are numbered -- and that translates into a major uptick in what Oscar calls "bureaucratic infighting."

The campaign to promote the "Young Captain," as Kim Jong Un is being called, has been anything but smooth. An early campaign to promote the presumptive leader-to-be was called off a few months ago; now it seems to have started up again, this time in earnest. A while back it looked as though Chang Sung Taek, that powerful brother-in-law, was backing one of the other sons. But he's now swung behind Kim Jong Un -- perhaps because the third son is widely viewed as the military's favorite candidate (presumably because his lack of experience would make him easier to control). Recently there has been a flood of official paeans hailing the martial virtues of the young prince (who, like his two older brothers, has never served as a soldier).

That could also explain why Kim has seen fit to lavish more goodies on his friends in the army. Sure, it could be that Kim is just a generous guy, a man with a big (albeit failing) heart. But there could be another explanation. Even if you're the Dear Leader, you've still got to watch your back.

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