Remember when Joe Biden predicted a foreign policy crisis early in the Obama Administration? Well, it's arriving from the East, and might be as little as a week away.
North Korea already has the bomb. And it announced that sometime between April 4-8, it will launch a rocket:
North Korea says it plans to put a communications satellite into orbit, but that claim is widely viewed as a pretext for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2. The U.S. director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, told a Senate committee that a three-stage missile of this type, if it works, could strike the continental United States.The reach of North Korea's missiles might extend to Hawaii, but clearly threaten our allies South Korea and Japan, and would bring Alaska under NoKo's range:
source: Washington Post
In 2006, the UN condemned past and future North Korean missile tests (Resolutions 1695 and 1718) and every country in the region--including China, Russia, Japan and Korea--warned the NoKos against further testing. So has France. For those who trust in enforceable international rules, there are good arguments that downing the NoKo rocket would be lawful if it is a ballistic missile, as Senior Administration policymakers believe.
So how will the Obama Administration react? Initially, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called North Korea's plan "provocative," but ruled out any intent to intercept or shoot down the rocket. One Senate Foreign Relations staff member warned Obama against overreacting to the test. Yet, the head of the US Pacific Command said we could shoot down the NoKo missile. And a former Clinton Defense Secretary said we should--back in 2006, when that position was a critique of President Bush. Still, late in the week, the Administration positioned two anti-missile warships to international waters near Japan.
The Administration plainly wishes it could avoid a decision. They would prefer someone else take this cup from our lips. Which is possible: Japan "ordered its military on Friday to destroy a North Korean missile or its debris, if the launch fails and falling pieces of the rocket seem to imperil Japanese territory."
But what if Japan doesn't act or seeks US approval (as may have already happened)? When the NoKos launch, will Obama blink? I predict yes. Even though Obama says he supports missile defense, he only endorsed "technology [that] will protect the American public," not necessary America's Asian allies. And the President famously prefers international diplomacy to force--what he calls a "whole philosophy of persistence." Though this is a huge risk, the reluctance to use force is a position that many other countries support even should the NoKos launch. Further, he's relatively disengaged with foreign policy in general, preferring to concentrate on the economy. Finally, Obama has to be concerned that any attempted intercept would fail.
I favor clipping Pyongyang's wings. Nonetheless, if only to avoid being blamed for any subsequent NoKo response, President Obama probably will "tread softly" and merely complain to the UN. So Mario Loyola writing on The Corner is right:
Whatever else one may say, the looming North Korea missile launch may be considered the first crisis of Obama's National Security Council. How he acts may be a signal of how he intends to steer U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead.MORE:
See the March 30th Wall Street Journal editorial:
The missile launch is an obvious test of the new U.S. Administration, and the appropriate response would be to shoot it down. Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told the Senate this month that the U.S. has the capability to do so, and that the military is "prepared to respond." Yesterday, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on "Fox News Sunday" that the U.S. has no plans to shoot down the North Korean missile -- though he allowed that it might consider trying if an "aberrant missile" were headed toward Hawaii or "something like that."
That tepid response won't help our allies in Tokyo, which is responding more robustly. It deployed two ships equipped with sophisticated radars and antimissile interceptors to the Sea of Japan, and one to the Pacific, where the North's long-range missile is expected to land. The Defense Ministry also announced that it has deployed Patriot antimissile units in and around Tokyo. Japan is preparing to defend itself against debris from the long-range missile, whose trajectory North Korea says will travel over Japan, and from the North's likely additional tests of short- and medium-range missiles, which could reach the Japanese islands.
All of this is business as usual for North Korea, whose ultimate objective is to use its nuclear and other military programs to extract more money and recognition from the West. It used the same tactics on the Bush Administration, despite assurances from negotiator Christopher Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the North's disarmament promises were believable.
Now Kim is trying to intimidate the new Obama team into paying again for the same promises. What it ought to do is join with Japan in shooting the missile out of the sky. It could then pull the plug on the Bush deal and enlist China and South Korea to exert new pressure on the North. The alternative is more phony diplomacy, with Kim's regime gaining more Western support to stay in power while developing even more weapons.