Argument

Seoul Mates?

How North Korea’s threats of brimstone and fire are driving a wedge between the United States and its South Korean ally.

On Wednesday, South Korea suffered a massive cyber attack, shutting down the computer networks at three TV broadcasters and at two major banks, a move that resulted in the army upping its defense readiness posture. According to most analysts, North Korea -- which in mid-March blamed South Korea and the United States for shutting down its own websites -- is probably responsible. If the attacks did come from Pyongyang, then they are just the latest in a series of provocations.

Last week, North Korea added a sexist twist to its martial bluster, which has recently ranged from threats to launch an "all-out war" against South Korea,  to a "diversified precision nuclear strike" against Washington, D.C. The body that controls North Korea's military remarked that the "frenzy kicked up by the south Korean warmongers is no way irrelevant with the swish of skirt made by the owner" of the Blue House, the residence of South Korea's president.

That would be President Park Geun Hye, who took office on Feb. 25. ("Swish of the skirt" is an old chauvinistic Korean term, a swipe at assertive women who purportedly step out of line.) While there seems to be an intensification of the insults and attacks, they're actually not all that different from what Seoul has faced over the last few years. But this time Pyongyang's bluster barrage has actually struck a chord with South Koreans, who are increasingly worried about war.

While the vast majority of South Koreans are seemingly unperturbed by (or in denial of) the North's threats, Pyongyang's war drumming has led to protests against the annual joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises, dubbed Key Resolve, which began on March 11. Although these military drills have been in place since 1976, the heavy daily dosage of war threats, buttressed by the North's successful long-range missile test in December and its nuclear test in February, are having a noticeable psychological effect on South Korea. On the day the exercises began, The Hankyoreh, the nation's main left-leaning newspaper, editorialized that "even a minor military incident could quickly spiral out of control." This while South Koreans, including a surprisingly large number of older people (who tend to be pro-Washington and anti-Pyongyang) gathered near the U.S. embassy in downtown Seoul, holding up placards with phrases like "Stop! War Exercise" and "Vicious cycle of confrontation that is Key Resolve."

In mid-March, the South's Defense Ministry called Pyongyang's threats an attempt to "put psychological pressure on South Korea." But to a public that has so much to lose in an exchange of fire with the North, Pyongyang's threats have resonance. Ever since the Korean War ended 60 years ago, the North has called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South, and has blamed "U.S. hostile policy" for causing the strategic instability in the Korean peninsula. These claims seem to be gaining the same kind of credibility they had a decade ago, when 44 percent of South Koreans held unfavorable views of the United States. In October 2002, when the peninsula's security environment deteriorated after the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of cheating on its nuclear accord, roughly the same number of South Koreans surveyed blamed the United States as blamed North Korea for the tensions. And in January 2004, the South Korean polling organization Research & Research found that 39 percent of all South Koreans, and 58 percent of those in their 20s, viewed the United States as their greatest security threat. Only 33 percent of those surveyed, and a mere 20 percent of those in the 20s, saw North Korea as a greater threat to their national security.

South Koreans have long been averse to escalating tension with Pyongyang. In the 1950s, South Korea, devastated by the Korean War, was one of the poorest countries in the world. The nation's tremendous economic growth since the end of that bloody conflict, coupled with six decades of de facto peace, make a stand-off an unappealing political prospect for southerners. The richer South Korea grew, the lower the public's anxiety threshold on Pyongyang's war threats has become. Hence, despite some choice words for Kim Jong Un, the Park administration will likely take a wait-and-see posture and do its best to avoid confrontation with the North, lest the nervous public perceives it as adding fuel to Pyongyang's fiery rhetoric.

If the North does decide to launch another controlled, limited attack against the South (beyond the cyberattacks that presumably originated from the North), the most likely time would be in late March or early April, after the Key Resolve drills finish on March 23. Three years ago, North Korean naval forces sunk the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan, just eight days after Key Resolve ended. If the North attacks in the coming days, Park will likely be forced to hit back. But she'll face resistance among her own population: the South Korean people's support for military countermeasures will likely drop precipitously. They would advocate return to negotiations, possibly with billions of dollars worth of concessions in tow. Based on the past 20 years of nuclear diplomacy, that's what the Kim regime likely calculates.

At the same time, it bears thinking about those worrying poll numbers regarding the favorability of the United States in South Korea. Washington is not acting entirely on behalf of Seoul when it comes to the North Korean threat: Pyongyang's nuclear and long-range missile programs are targeted at the American public. And the Kim regime appears to think that if it can demonstrate the capability to hit the West Coast of the United States with a nuclear warhead, Washington may have second thoughts on its treaty commitments to the defense of South Korea. And if Washington can't even count among its friends and supporters the good people of South Korea, that calculus may get tricky indeed.

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National Security

The First Step

Why America needs to beat itself up a little more over the Iraq War.

Ten years ago this week the United States launched the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Ten years later we can and should say that the United States lost that war.

Recognizing that the United States lost (and why) is a bit like an alcoholic admitting that he has a problem -- it's the first step on the road to recovery and preventing such grievous errors from being repeated in the future.

Defining a wartime loss can be a tricky thing. Clearly, the United States does not look defeated in the way that, say, Japan looked at the end of World War II. But if one uses the Bush administration's criteria for what the war in Iraq was supposed to accomplish, it's a loss all the same.

The initial rationales used by President Bush to justify military action in Iraq revolved around two ideas: one, that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and the inclination to build more; and two, that Iraq had direct links to terrorist organizations that could use these weapons to attack the United States. As Bush said at the time, "We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over." Removing Saddam Hussein -- one of the objectives that the United States did accomplish in Iraq -- was viewed as a key means for lessening these alleged threats.

But we now know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, or even an active program to build them; it was not attempting to rebuild its nuclear program; it did not have links to al Qaeda; it was not working with international terrorist groups to attack the United States. Iraq was a neutered, battered, and marginalized nation, hemmed in by international sanctions and the enforcement of no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. Saddam was a threat to no one but his own people.

Acolytes of the Bush administration (and they are a small group) could argue that the United States was not fully aware of Iraq's vulnerable state, its lack of WMD, and its mythical links to terrorism. The problem, of course, is that one doesn't get a mulligan when it comes to invading and occupying a foreign country and squandering thousands of American lives (and some 100,000 Iraqi lives), as well as trillions of dollars. Even if the Bush administration was misled by CIA intelligence or had the best of intentions in Iraq, that's an explanation (and an unbelievably charitable one) -- not an excuse.

After all, containment of Iraq was working -- and was significantly strengthened in the run-up to the war. In May 2002, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a program of "smart sanctions," overcoming long-standing Russian opposition and renewing international support for keeping Saddam in his box. And a few months later, the Security Council again unanimously approved a resolution demanding Iraq allow U.N. inspectors back into the country -- which it did in January 2003. The initial IAEA and U.N. monitoring teams reported that they could find no evidence of WMD in Iraq, but that more inspections were needed. Perversely, this was viewed in Washington as evidence of continued Iraqi obfuscation and even more reason to invade the country. Even if one believes that the sanctions regime was wavering, the steps taken by the United Nations were compelling evidence that containment of Iraq could be maintained -- and that the allegedly urgent need for invasion and occupation was thoroughly overstated.

Of course, in the years after the invasion -- and after no WMD or links to terrorism were found -- the rationale for sustaining the U.S. presence in Iraq shifted: from removing Saddam as a threat to birthing liberty between the Tigris and the Euphrates. While putting Iraq on the road to stability and even democracy might be a laudatory goal, it was certainly never the war's primary objective.

Regardless, can anyone seriously argue that building a democracy in Iraq was worth the price tag? Whatever your priorities, the opportunity costs alone are stratospherically large. The $3 trillion spent by the United States in both direct and indirect costs could have balanced the budget (several times over), fixed the nation's crumbling infrastructure, ensured that every person with HIV had access to life-saving medications, or ended world hunger.

In the end, a war that was predicated on dubious suppositions, diverted trillions in resources, cost thousands of lives, and did not further U.S. security interests really only has one descriptor:  a loss.

So why does this matter? Does the United States really need to engage in self-flagellation over the war in Iraq? Actually, yes it does.

To be sure, accepting defeat in war is a rare thing. As Paul Fritz, a political science professor at Hofstra University said to me, "No one likes to label themselves a loser and most of the time will find ways to rationalize, deflect, or otherwise not accept the fact and consequences of a loss, implicitly or explicitly." History is replete with such examples. While the most vivid example is perhaps the stabbed-in-the-back meme that followed Germany's loss in WWI, even after the more total defeat of WWII, Germany initially saw itself as a victim and only years later accepted culpability for its actions during the war. In the case of Japan, penance was imposed by the United States and even to this day there has been little of the national soul-searching in which Germany eventually engaged.

In the United States, after Vietnam, while there was perhaps not an explicit recognition of defeat, there was an understanding that steps must be taken to avoid such a calamitous and ill-advised conflict in the future. That belief became the impetus for the so-called Weinberger Doctrine, which established clear criteria for the use of force: a vital national interest must be at stake; wars should be fought wholeheartedly; political and military objectives must be clear; those objectives and the size of the force engaged much be constantly reassessed and adjusted; the support of Congress and the American people is paramount; and, finally, force must be the last resort. Colin Powell later expanded on these tests with the inclusion of overwhelming military force and full consideration of the consequences of military action.

Across three administrations -- Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton -- civilian leaders largely abided by the spirit if not always the letter of the doctrine. While occasionally the definition of vital national interest was stretched very far, by and large military engagement was de-emphasized, the political impact of extended wars was given greater consideration, and when fought, wars were limited and were conducted on a grand scale (the first Gulf War). Allied support and a strong military force were also considered essential.

In the years since the Iraq War has wound down, there has been little of the same reflection. Rather, military and, in particular, civilian leaders took away from Iraq not the strategic mistakes and faulty assumption that underpinned the decision to go to war, but rather the tactical advances that allegedly salvaged the conflict in the 2007. This is, for lack of a better term, "surge triumphalism." It reflects the abiding belief among military leaders that the U.S. Army learned crucial lessons in waging counterinsurgency -- and is why they pushed for more troops in 2009 to wage the war in Afghanistan.

However, a proper appreciation of the lessons of Iraq -- not just by the military but also by civilian leaders -- should have led to different outcomes in Afghanistan. What is most startling about Afghanistan is the extent to which U.S. policymakers -- even from a new administration and a different party -- made so many of the same mistakes as their predecessors had made in 2003. No clear political objectives were established; options other than U.S. boots on the ground were rejected, including containment; the process of political development and governance was deeply misunderstood; the potential threats to U.S. national security from inaction were dramatically overstated; and there was once again a complete lack of appreciation for the limits of American diplomatic and military power. Hubris and strategic incoherence drove the United States to fight an ill-advised war in Iraq; it led to similar misjudgments six and a half years later in the decision to surge in Afghanistan.

During the Afghan surge debate in 2009, former British Army officer Rory Stewart recounted his experience meeting with U.S. officials about the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan: "‘It's like they're coming in and saying to you, I'm going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?' And you say, 'I don't think you should drive your car off the cliff.' And they say, 'No, no, that bit's already been decided -- the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.'" The problem on both Iraq and Afghanistan was that the decision to use force was made before the United States even figured out what it wanted or could accomplish -- and that useful criteria for thinking about the use of American military power were ignored.

Such mistakes cannot be made again in the future. But with policymakers from both sides of the political aisle rattling sabers with Iran, they very well could.

"Don't fight stupid wars" is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the past 10 years in American foreign policy -- and it's pretty good advice for the future. But refusing to fight dumb wars begins with understanding how the United States found itself fighting two of them back to back. It's not enough to simply recognize that Iraq was a strategic error; we must understand the many reasons why. And that begins with recognizing that America lost the war in Iraq before a single shot was ever fired.

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