National Security

Shoot First, Talk Later

A who's who of North Korea hawks.

If you think Barack Obama's recent posture toward North Korea has been hawkish -- maybe even a little too hawkish -- he remains far more dovish than many politicos and policy wonks inside and outside his administration. This week, the White House dialed back its posture toward Pyongyang after a series of provocative flybys of B-52 bombers, B-2 bombers, and F-22 fighter jets risked triggering an even deeper crisis. But others would have him do more. These foreign policy thinkers have seen the Kim dynasty develop nuclear weapons, threaten the United States, violate reams of international agreements -- and they want to get tough. Though even the most extreme hawks have yet to endorse a preemptive strike in the current crisis, many have come very close. Behold, Washington's North Korea Hawks:

Dick Cheney

Title: Former vice president of the United States

Views: Cheney has always had a fairly straightforward view of Pyongyang over the years: "We don't negotiate with evil -- we defeat it." But in the new Showtime documentary about his life, which debuted in March, he revived his policy preferences on dealing with North Korea. In particular, he called former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "naive" for trying to negotiate with Pyongyang given its track record of deceit. He's also continued to slam the Obama administration for underfunding, in his view, U.S. missile defenses. "One of the things that I think is a wrong thing to do is, at this particular time, to cut our program for missile defense in the Defense Department," Cheney said of Obama's first term. "We've gotten a long way on missile defense...but we need to a lot more work to defend the United States."

John Bolton

Title: Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

Views: A vintage conservative, Bolton's enthusiasm for foreign interventions hasn't lessened since his time in the Bush administration. Last week, on Fox News, where he is now a contributor, Bolton said the long-reigning U.S. policy of pursuing negotiations with Pyongyang regarding its nuclear program is a "bad idea" that "hasn't gotten any better with age." He made a direct call for regime change. "The threat here is the irrationality of this regime, coupled with this potential to use a weapon of mass destruction against innocent civilians. And we're not going to talk them out of it," he told Greta Van Susteren. "The solution lies in eliminating the regime, which we could try and do through reunifying the peninsula."

Peter King

Title: U.S. congressman and member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Views: In a standoff with North Korea, King wouldn't let Pyongyang get a shot off. He told CNN last week that Obama has a "moral obligation" to preemptively strike North Korea if intelligence indicates a forthcoming attack. "If we have good reason to believe there's going to be an attack, I believe we have the right to take preemptive action," he said. "I don't think we have to wait until Americans are killed or wounded or injured in any way.... If we have solid evidence that North Korea's going to take action, then I think we have a moral obligation and an absolute right to defend ourselves."

Ashton Carter

Title:  Deputy secretary of defense

Views: Although a senior Pentagon official tells Foreign Policy that Carter is "completely in sync" with the administration, Carter's past writing on North Korea tells a different story. With Pyongyang poised to test a new missile this week, The New York Times reports that Obama won't shoot it down unless it heads toward the United States or its allies. In a similar situation in 2006, however, Carter opposed this level of restraint. Prior to a North Korean missile launch, Carter co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed urging George W. Bush to destroy the missile on its launch pad. "Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil?" he wrote. "We believe not." It's possible Carter has since changed his mind, but for further evidence of hawkishness, see his 2002 op-ed in the Post arguing that the reasons to risk all-out war "are even more powerful now" than they were in 1994, when the United States confronted North Korea over its production of plutonium. 

John McCain

Title: U.S. senator

Views: McCain has never been shy about advocating the use of American power abroad and that holds for the Korean Peninsula. In an interview with Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin on Monday, McCain said the United States should shoot down any missile that North Korea launches, no matter where it is headed. "If they launched a missile, we should take it out. It's best to show them what some of our capabilities are," he said. "Their missile would most likely miss, but the fact that they have the ability to launch one with that range is very escalatory at least." When asked if a U.S. failure to hit the missile would cause unwanted embarrassment, he said, "That's true, but I would hope that would be a minimal risk."

Walter "Skip" Sharp

Title: Former commander of U.S. Combined Forces Command & USFK.

Views: He's been retired for two years, but that hasn't muted Skip Sharp's support for a tough "kinetic" response to North Korean provocations. The four-star Army general, who spent years mapping out war scenarios on the peninsula, raised eyebrows last month when he advocated "strongly punishing North Korea" militarily if it struck anywhere in South Korea. "We've got to change the dynamic," he told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on March 21. "There needs to be action taken that will make a next attack more difficult both technically and from a risk-benefit calculation for Kim Jong Un." When the Huffington Post's David Wood noted that such a strike greatly risked further escalation, Sharp held firm, arguing that Pyongyang has gotten away with provocations with "very little response" and that the United States needs to target a strategic asset deeply valuable to the regime. (See Sharp's remarks at CSIS here.)

James Inhofe

Title: U.S. senator and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.

Views: Inhofe has never been a huge fan of international diplomacy, but last week he leaped ahead of his conservative colleagues in advocating preparations for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea "right now," he told The Steve Malzberg Show. "In terms of the capability we have out there with the F-22s and the battleships...a pre-emptive strike from something like that would get their attention," Inhofe said. He also landed a few jabs on Kim Jong Un: "[He] is just as bad as his daddy was. He's not reliable in terms of what he might do, what he might say, but he is capable of doing it because he's deranged."

William Perry

Title: Former secretary of defense

Views: Ashton Carter isn't the only Democrat who's staked out aggressive positions on North Korea: His former boss in the Clinton administration, William Perry, who led the Pentagon at the time, actually took steps to prepare for war during the 1994 crisis. Perry was the co-author of Carter's 2006 article on preemptively striking North Korea's missile site and his 2002 article emphasizing the "powerful" reasons for risking war with Pyongyang. Since his party has come into power, Perry has been relatively quiet on the issue of war with North Korea, but his trail of op-eds paint a fairly consistent picture of where he stands on North Korean provocations, despite the fact that he's a reliable voice on nuclear disarmament. (Efforts to reach Perry were not successful.)

Jon Kyl

Title: Former U.S. senator and minority whip.

Views: Inside and outside of government, Kyl has been steadfast in his determination to "get tough" with North Korea. Last year, Kyl signed a letter accusing Obama of "embracing a policy of appeasement with Pyongyang" for his decision to provide 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea in exchange for promises to temper its nuclear program. (The deal ended up falling through.) He's been just as active outside government, writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month chastising Obama for his "antipathy" to missile defense, which he said leaves the United States "vulnerable not just to attack, but also to nuclear blackmail and proliferation." Kyl advocates beefing up the country's missile defenses, and he specifically called out Obama for canceling the final phase of the Europe-based missile-defense system, which he said "will please Russia." (For honorable mention: Sens. Marco Rubio, John Cornyn, and James Risch also signed the "appeasement" letter.)

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Left Hook

Five ways the GOP can outflank Obama on foreign policy.

The global war on terror was the gift that kept on giving for Republican foreign-policy experts for the better part of a decade. The open-ended and amorphous struggle against al Qaeda and its offshoots not only offered rhetorical cover for traditional party priorities, such as rapidly expanding the military and striking against rogues such as Saddam Hussein, it was the perfect vehicle to denigrate Democrats as too soft to get the job done. No wonder President George W. Bush and political strategist Karl Rove thought that terrorism would be the issue that would help cement the permanent Republican majority of which they long had dreamed.

But with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq concluding, the American public profoundly fatigued with foreign entanglements, and the Treasury deep in the red, all but the most recalcitrant recognize that the Republican approach to foreign policy needs some reinvention. Indeed, recent polls suggest that America's chief complaint with the GOP these days is its unwillingness to compromise or change. Here are five foreign-policy priorities that the Republicans could push if they are serious about getting their mojo back (hint: Benghazi ain't one of ‘em).

Normalize relations with Cuba: If Nixon could go to China, why can't brave Republicans push for normalizing relations with Havana? The case is not a hard one to make. The embargo has been in place for more than 50 years, and while it has hobbled Cuba's economy, it has had disastrously little impact in securing regime change. A flood of U.S. commercial activity, tourists, advertising, and person-to-person engagement would almost certainly bring change more rapidly than sanctions, given that Cuba has remained a communist dictatorship largely because Washington has insisted that it shouldn't. The GOP could make the case on economic grounds, and although a portion of the Cuban-American community in Florida would surely despair, the move would likely be genuinely popular with the broader Latino community in the United States. Let President Obama try to defend why an embargo should stay in place. As an added bonus, the move would look decidedly pragmatic at a time when the party is battling the broad public perception that it is too often extremist and too often intractable.

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Rein in the drones: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul hit on a winner with his filibuster against the seemingly unchecked power of the president to launch deadly drone attacks. Of course, one has to skip by the obvious irony -- or hypocrisy -- of the GOP suddenly embracing human rights and civil liberties in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy after pushing for virtually untrammeled executive power under Bush. But consistency has not been either party's strong suit when it comes to foreign policy, and Republican leaders would be smart to leverage the drone discussion into a broader conversation that resonates beyond Paul's libertarian fan base. The time is ripe for a reasoned national conversation about the rules of the road when it comes to modern technology, warfare, and the power of the presidency. With a Democrat in the White House and Republicans wary of executive overreach (but still eager to reclaim 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), the dynamic is probably about right to strike a reasonable compromise.

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Resuscitate free trade: Republican foreign-policy experts used to care about trade -- and promoting freer, fairer trade was a core part of their agenda. No issue seemed to drop off the Republican radar more precipitously with the advent of the war on terror, and no issue is probably more deserving of resuscitation within GOP foreign-policy ranks. Without Republican leadership on trade, and partially as a result of the shift toward global economic austerity, trade discussions have largely ground to a halt. Protectionism is on the rise, but well-handled trade deals would help secure progress on both jobs and the deficit, key Republican priorities. Budget-conscious Republicans could also take on domestic agricultural subsidies as part of an effort to promote trade deals with Europe, India, and China, and help shrink wasteful U.S. spending in the process. If Republicans want to look serious on the economy, being a voice of reason on trade would make sense, and could also highlight tensions within the Democratic caucus on these same issues.

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Reverse mission creep in the U.S. military: This is an oldie-but-goodie. Hardly a day went by during the Clinton administration when Republicans in Congress didn't complain that Democrats were intent on having the Pentagon do everything but run daycare centers instead of doing what the U.S. military was designed to do: fight and win wars. Given the Pentagon's dramatic mission sprawl over the last decade, it seems like a good time to dust off this old playbook. AFRICOM is building schools in Africa. The new Navy motto, "A Global Force for Good," sounds more appropriate for a semester at sea program than for the U.S. military. The Department of Defense is conducting breast cancer research and training officers in global economic theory. Is this the military that Republicans think we need in a modern world? As with drones, Republicans had a big hand in creating the problem, but that doesn't mean they can't benefit from making hay with it.

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Capitalize on North Korea: When Chinese Communists ousted their rival nationalists in 1949, the hue and cry of "Who lost China?" went up from Republicans on Capitol Hill who suggested that State Department ineptitude was to blame for Mao's rise to power. The question wasn't really a fair one in that the Chinese nationalists made more than their share of mistakes, but that didn't mean that the issue didn't resonate politically. With the Korean peninsula ever-more restive, Republicans may be positioned to get some mileage out of the situation if the situation continues to erode and U.S. handling of the crisis looks poor. The challenge for Republicans will be take shots at the White House for its handling of North Korea in a way that doesn't look crassly opportunistic or overtly bellicose. That might require more discipline in the Republican foreign-policy ranks than we have seen of late.

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