No ‘cakewalk’ to Pyongyang, please

ON WEDNESDAY I was about to head out to a seminar on cyber security at Wilson Center in Washington when I peeked into the Internet to check the latest news.

“U.S. quietly plans to occupy North Korea after war,” a banner headline in London’s The Sun newspaper screamed at me. I remembered that President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had said, too, that military action against North Korea is a  possibility.

The story led to a Newsweek link. Clicked, it opened a piece in which German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was quoted as saying that a war between the United States and North Korea “could be deadliest conflict in history,” more catastrophic than the Second World War.

The seminar was about security threats from North Korea, China and Russia.  James Lewis, vice president of Center from Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, talked about a “deterrent” against cyber threats from Pyongyang.

I told him that North Koreans had been saying that their nukes are meant to be “a deterrent against American invasion.”  I also mentioned that I had heard Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq lamenting that if Saddam Hussein had a few nuclear weapons he could’ve “deterred the U.S. invasion” of 2003, sparing both Iraq and America the “unnecessary and catastrophic war.”

Lewis nodded, apparently signaling that he was aware of it.

Continuing, I inquired if Iranians wanted to have “a couple of nukes,” which they insisted they never did, won’t those warheads also serve as a deterrent against Israeli or U.S. military action? I couldn’t conceive, I added, of Iranians wanting to “commit national suicide” by initiating a nuclear conflict with Israel or the United States.

I asked the CSIS executive what he thought of Kim Jong-un’s reasoning for a nuclear deterrent against a U.S. invasion.

The panelist didn’t answer my question, but warned, instead, that North Koreans “would be deluding themselves” if they thought that a few nukes “would give them immunity” against the U.S. military power. The United States could “get rid of the problem” posed by Kim, regardless of his nukes.

Was he hinting at a possible regime change in North Korea? I wondered.

Explaining the reason America was determined to prevent North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, Lewis said, such weaponry could tempt those countries “to evade their responsibilities under international law, to violate international law,” and threaten their neighbors and international security.

I thought of asking him the obvious question of whether the United States and other nuclear powers weren’t potentially violating international law over and over because they sat on nuclear stockpiles.  Nuclear arsenals have given them the ability to commit illegal aggression against non-nuclear countries. Also, they have equipped them with veto powers at the U.N. Security Council, practically shielding them against accountability for violations of international law. But I didn’t want to get into an argument with the panelist.

Martin C. Libicki from the U.S. Naval Academy, another panelist, picked up on my comment about Iran. He said Iranians would be “right to think that Israel can do things with its [nuclear] capabilities that its neighbors can’t.”  But the Israelis needed that capability for their national security, added the professor of cyber security studies.

Their comments reminded me of a complaint that my Pakistani mentor had made to me several times in the early 1970s. Nurul Amin was prime minister and later vice president of Pakistan, and I worked as his press aide.  He would lament to me about America’s “blatant and illegal” military interventions, and often regime change, in Iran, Lebanon, Vietnam, Congo, Ghana and elsewhere. “Independence from colonial rule lets us [Asian and African nations] have our own brown and black rulers,” he would say, “as long as we toe their lines.”

On the subway train back home from Wilson Center, it occurred to me that Nurul Amin’s comment of the Cold War era doesn’t quite apply to the new world we live in. Yes, in 1953 the CIA under the Eisenhower administration could have Iran’s democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq easily overthrown in a military coup. But by 1979 Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries bundled out the brutal pro-American monarchy of Muhammad Riza Pahlavi, whom the Americans had installed in Tehran.

In 1958 the Iraqi army overthrew the pro-Western monarchy in Iraq while Muslim insurgents in neighboring Lebanon rose up against the pro-Western Christian minority government of President Camille Chamoun. Chamoun asked for U.S. help, and the Eisenhower administration immediately rushed some 14,000 troops to Lebanon. The Muslim insurgents ran for cover and the invading American troops hit the beaches in Beirut.

“We drank a lot,” as the U.S. Marines corporal Thomas Zmecek would recall later. “We were provided with swimming trunks and swam with the daughters [of Christian hosts] and had a grand time.”

Twenty-five years later a U.S.-led multinational force was stationed in Lebanon to intervene in a brewing civil war between the Israeli-backed Christian forces and Syrian-backed Muslim and Druze activists. When opposition forces threatened the presidency of Maronite Christian Amin Gemayel, the Reagan administration, prodded by the Israelis and Secretary of State George P. Schultz (against the strenuous objection of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger) ordered an American contingent to rush to West Beirut to protect the Gemayel regime. But the new Lebanese generation didn’t go into hiding as had their parents and uncles in 1958. They were infuriated by the America intervention in their internal affairs and began to mobilize to resist it. But one of them, a Shiite Muslim, spared them a prolonged fight. He went on a suicide mission, piling up explosives onto a truck and detonating it at a U.S.-French Marines barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American and 58 French servicemen. That led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon.

American politicians and bureaucrats have had difficulty grasping the changed social ethos and worldviews of contemporary generations of post-colonial societies. Many people who grew up under European colonial rule or in the shadow of the colonial era were tolerant of Western military interventions and hegemony. Their children are not. Born in independent countries and exposed to Western values of freedom and democracy, disseminated by myriad communications media, they’re mostly allergic to foreign domination and presence of foreign troops on their lands.

American neocons and Cold War retirees who planned the Iraq war were ostriches with their heads buried in the sand, without having a clue about the dynamics of the Muslim youth of the day. During the run-up to the war neoconservative security expert Ken Adelman proclaimed he was “reasonably certain” that the Iraqis would greet invading U.S. troops “as liberators.” He probably was musing over Lebanese Christians reveling at the arrival of U.S. troops in 1958. Or maybe images of Koreans hailing U.S. Marines under Gen. Douglas MacArthur after their heroic victory in Battle of Inchon was flashing back on his mind.

But in 2003 Iraq had a fiercely independent-minded breed of Arabs who, despite their sectarian feuds, were deeply hostile to foreign domination, as I had observed during three trips in previous years. Their resistance to the U.S. invasion led to the rise of the Islamic State, sectarian blood-letting, unraveling of the Iraqi state, and the security of America and the West.

I’m not sure that the United States can launch a successful invasion of North Korea. Unlike Iraq, that Communist country is believed to have between six and 16 nuclear weapons, most or some of which are in locations unknown to Americans.  “It is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, [intelligence] collection nations that we have to collect against,” Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, told Congress in May. Even if America can succeed in taking out all of Kim’s nukes before an invasion, which is extremely unlikely, I doubt that North Koreans would hail American invaders as “liberators” anymore than did Iraqis.  North Koreans are extremely xenophobic people, usually suspicious of foreigners.  A U.S. occupation force would very likely get bogged down in the Hermit Kingdom for years, which the war-wary American public is unlikely to accept.

If the Trump administration blunders into an invasion of North Korea, I’d be as concerned about the catastrophe it would spawn for Americans and Koreans as is Gabriel, the German foreign minister.

– Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts this blog.

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