- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

North Korea’s firecracker-sized nuclear test was puny in magnitude — the equivalent of 500 or 1000 tons of TNT or about fifty of America’s largest conventional bombs. Yet the shock waves sent the political Richter scale into the red zone. If we panic or lose our strategic composure over this incident, we will unnecessarily magnify the consequences and miss the larger issue.

Yes, conceivably, North Korea’s ambitions could trigger a nuclear arms race in East Asia. Conceivably, North Korea, desperate for cash, could sell weapons to terrorists. And, yes, a nut with a nuke, if Kim Jong-il is indeed one, is worrisome. However, succumbing to these instant reactions conceals a more consequential reality.

The world indeed has changed. But not as we think. American power and perceived omnipotence have been greatly neutralized or displaced. As military force cannot democratize Iraq, force alone will not convince North Korea to reverse its nuclear ambitions. Nor will America’s persistent and flawed perception that the status of the world’s sole remaining and indispensable superpower conveys any real benefit or sets us above lesser parties in imposing our will. Here is a new reality of the 21st century.

America’s security cannot be guaranteed without a great deal more help from other states. Help must be rooted in shared interests that recognize this dependency and appreciate that America does not automatically always have to assume the lead. But can America make such a psychological leap and learn that mutual dependency as opposed to American dominance is the key organizing principle of this new world? And can we appreciate that we are not the exclusive target or the bull’s-eye for all terrorists. Surely in Moscow, Tokyo and many other capitals, a potential nut with a nuke is no less a danger than to Washington.

Consider some limits to American power. In Iraq, internecine war between Sunni and Shi’ite cannot be stopped by the greatest military in history unless someone like Saddam Hussein were put in charge. Furthermore, insurgents have taken to the cities where villains merge invisibly with innocents and thus checkmate overwhelming U.S. superiority that cannot be brought to bear because of resulting collateral damage. Mr. Kim has now said, “I dare you.” If we are to succeed in either denuclearizing or containing the north we must recognize the new rules of the game.

After Mr. Kim’s Fourth of July fireworks display and the launch of a handful of missiles, the Bush administration acted in a level headed and measured manner. The test of the long range Taepodong II missile failed. And it appears that North Korea set off at best a fizzled nuclear device, not a weapon. Most experts believe that it will be years before the north will be able to miniaturize a warhead to fit in one of its rockets. Hence, if we are clever, we have time to develop a strategy based on full understanding of the limits to our power.

The critical issue is whether the Bush administration can be persuaded, as Tom Friedman puts it, to change its behavior and the role of lonesome sheriff. The Iraqi Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, was created for that purpose. And it was rumored that Bush 41 took a run at suggesting some Iraqi policy changes last month and was politely rebuffed by 43.

Since Mr. Bush is so adamant in his views, perhaps a “council of elders” could persuade him to reconsider. Distinguished individuals such as Sen. John Warner, whose crisp remarks following his latest trip to Iraq were made sharper by their understatement, former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski come to mind as individuals whose views cannot be ignored. The agenda for these elders goes beyond Iraq, North Korea and Iran. The goal is to convince the president to appreciate the possibility that many of our policies are failing or foundering and, unless we take new directions, events in East Asia could follow the disastrous trajectory of what is happening in the greater Middle East.

From this understanding of the limits to our power, particularly growing dependencies, and why fuller partnerships with others including Russia, China, Japan and South Korea are crucial to future security, an effective strategy for dealing with Mr. Kim can be devised. If bold diplomacy that emphasizes real initiatives and shared interests of all parties fails, then a containment and deterrent framework, perhaps not too dissimilar from NATO, surely can be constructed. This full and frank discussion with the president should occur before the election so that no matter who wins control of Congress, the subsequent political dynamics do not impede a reassessment.

This means aligning our ego with reality. Mr. Bush once called for a more humble foreign policy. The times never demanded one more.

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