The United States is threatened with a number of challenging military situations: Iran, and its recalcitrant regime; a muted, but not defeated, Hamas; an increasingly hot war in Afghanistan; and, of course, the North Koreans.
Though style has certainly changed in the Obama administration, often the substance of policy has not.
In the hardest case, that of North Korea, the alternatives are shockingly constant: confrontation or capitulation. They may be dressed up in six-power talks or in "humanitarian gestures" (everyone who thinks that former President Clinton's actions -- noble though it may be -- were not drenched in symbolism (we don't negotiate with terrorists) and thereby "political," raise your hand), but there is an unerring constant: Either we will stand up to an aggressive, repressive and brutal regime or we will negotiate and capitulate, at least partly, to its demands.
Kim Jong-il is well aware of the current state of our great nation. He understands that we are spread frightfully thin, that it appears that our social policy is going through a transformation and that we are facing the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Also, we have a president who seeks to court leaders around the world regardless of their willingness to unleash fear, terror and chaos among their people. To add to this pile, Kim Jong-il has always been an eccentric character, who delights in public attention. If there were any time to make a bold move against the U.S., that time would be now. After all, he is not going to live forever.
Though the parallel is not exact, the situation with North Korea bears some analogy to the nuclear threat faced by another young president with a minority affiliation.
John Kennedy found himself in October 1962 faced with a direct nuclear threat from a brutal regime led by an enigmatic leader. Nikita Khrushchev bullied Mr. Kennedy at an earlier summit, and needed a way to advance the Soviet standing in the world after an inconclusive Berlin crisis and the humiliation of having the U.S. attack the only communist regime in the Western Hemisphere at the Bay of Pigs.
Mr. Khrushchev acted from weakness. The Soviet Union knew all about the "missile gap" Mr. Kennedy hammered the Republicans with during the campaign. And, he knew it was much in the United States' favor. That, together with the U.S. missile bases that surrounded Soviet territory, gave the U.S. a decided nuclear advantage.
Today, the U.S. possesses several key advantages akin to those: North Korean territory is surrounded by the seas, a U.S. preserve. Just over its borders and a short distance across those seas are major U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan -- countries much richer and more populous than North Korea. Increasingly, these nations and the U.S. are armed with ever more effective missile defenses and advanced military technology. Against this, the North Koreans can only rage, and brandish the only weapon that could potentially confer asymmetric advantage: a nuclear weapon, preferably one tied to an intermediate or intercontinental range missile.
The lesson of recent history -- Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and the nuclear agreements with India -- is that only a nuclear capability suffices to immunize a country from U.S. attack. It may even -- in the case of India -- justify special treatment. This the North Koreans covet.
Just as Mr. Khrushchev did, might the North Koreans undertake a gambit to redress, radically, the balance of power vis-a-vis the U.S.? After all, this is what the Soviets did in 1962. When they did that, they were met with a determined response but also a flexible approach to negotiation (Mr. Kennedy agreed to dismantle several obsolete missile bases in Turkey, and basically pledged never to invade Cuba in return for the Soviet withdrawal of missiles).
Does the Obama administration have the combination of toughness and shrewdness to pull off something similar? One hopes so, but there is not much evidence to support the case.
Yes, Defense Secretary Bob Gates has brought seeming order to the Pentagon, but among his cuts to the defense bill are cuts to the very missile defenses that would thwart attacks on the U.S. and our allies in the event of North Korean attack.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has gotten high marks so far, but she recently failed utterly to induce the Indians to come to the table for talks on global warming, and the dizzying array of "czars," ambassadors at large and other layered on sets of "experts" and "advisers" makes one think maybe the president's lack of management experience might be an issue in crunch time. Certainly this administration in its policy has not charted a course that has been met with any initial success; unless, one counts producing a photo-op for an aged and an ailing dictator desperate to shore up his power as a regime change looms as success.
No one wants war on the Korean Peninsula, but neither can the U.S. stand for an outright and obvious defeat. What is a minor threat to us is an existential one for our Japanese and South Korean allies. We must stand with them in defusing the situation. That precludes the bilateral U.S.-North Korean negotiations the hermit kingdom craves. It also calls for an ever tighter relationship with our allies in confronting North Korea. Importantly, "honorary allies" for this effort include China and Russia. Both have interests in the region, but only China has any real influence -- and even that has its limits -- with North Korea.
The Obama administration is going to have to be creative and forceful to orchestrate the kind of diplomacy that's needed. We can all hope for the best, but forgive me for displaying some skepticism. There has not been a single foreign policy triumph to date unless you want to count the fortitude and expertise of Navy Seal marksmen on the high seas -- something to celebrate, but not the product of Obama foreign policy team.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il waits, and schemes, and plans ... for what? That is unknowable, but if he opts for the 'big surprise' as Mr. Khrushchev did four and half decades ago, we could all be in for the ride of our lives.
• "The Armstrong Williams Show" is broadcast weeknights on XM Satellite's Power 169 channel from 9 to 10 p.m.