Saturday, August 09, 2003

Two letters

Unlike Kevin at Incestuous Amplification, I haven't had to deal with hate mail as a blogger yet (though my previous experience as a scatological humor writer on AOL involved plenty of hate mail and hate posts). Yes, I've been riding Captain Scarlet's ass for being annoyed at my strategic assumptions (Cap, I don't like your blog much, but this doesn't mean I actually have anything against you personally; I don't, especially since I don't know you), but Cap's comment on a post at The Marmot's Hole wasn't hate mail by any means.

I guess I'm on a roll, then, as two emails arrive-- neither exhibiting signs of hate! I'll deal with them point by point as best I can (with the caveat that I am no expert in anything, including the field in which I have an MA, religion and culture).

John Moore writes:

I'm the American who wrote the comment below that you referred to..

[Mr. Moore quotes his own comment from Marmot's Hole:] All I know is that I want some pretty good reassurance that the next nuclear explosion in the world isn't going to take place in the United States! If the only way to ensure that requires war against North Korea, then we are going to have to do it - in spite of the threat against Seoul.

[He quotes my remark in a previous post on my own blog:] I assume the commentator's American, and can't blame him for thinking in terms of national self-interest. In fact, I found national self-interest to be a MUCH more honest justification for dealing with Iraq than the much-touted humanitarian concern (which doesn't make sense unless coupled with the network of other justifications for Gulf War 2).

[Mr. Moore then writes:] And yes, I think America needs to think in its self interest. That is not to say that we should just go around causing trouble that gets people killed, but that ultimately the only reason we care about North Korea is its threat to us and our allies.

The final sentence very neatly sums up the complexity of the situation. The moment we include "our allies" in the formula, it becomes difficult to claim this is merely (and/or ultimately) a matter of national self-interest. There are many directions we could take this discussion, and I really don't know which way to proceed.

We could, for example, explore the issue of diplomatic capital: it's in our interest to promote ourselves as people who fight for freedom, democracy, etc. But if we tell the world repeatedly that national self-interest (and not the spread of democracy, etc.) is what ultimately underlies our motives internationally, then we risk sacrificing diplomatic capital, if for no other reason than that we've now said this out loud. Bad marketing, even if it's honest.

Or we could take this in a different (if related) direction and discuss what the balance is/should be between our national self-interest and our willingness to stand (and fall) with those we call allies. To what extent is altruistic self-sacrifice a part of our national character? This question speaks directly to the current debate about US troops in Korea. It has been pointed out in blogs and articles, for example, that South Koreans fail to recognize that the "tripwire" doctrine guarantees that an enormous number of American troops WILL die when conflict breaks out, and that should be an obvious indicator that we're an ally, not an enemy. The tripwire doctrine could be interpreted this way: "This is what allies do. We stand beside each other on the battlefield and face a common enemy." But because times change and we have to be responsive to our own needs, a more pragmatic Rumsfeldian school of thought has emerged: it's stupid to sacrifice our troops on the front line. Pull them back, give them breathing room, employ them on the battlefield more intelligently.

How to view this? Personally, I think Rumsfeld, whatever his faults, has found a good middle way. It's strategically stupid to place people where they can't be of practical use. 20,000 US troops in the face of-- what-- around a million NK troops, most of them massed at the DMZ? What significant defense contribution can we make? Our troops' only purpose, as things stand, is to die, which will cause America to get pissed off, and then motivate us to send more troops. Tripwire doctrine in a nutshell. Scary. But Rumsfeld is acknowledging that we need (and are developing) a sleeker, faster, more precise military, and it's no longer necessary for us to be this extravagant, committing thousands of troops to certain death. Tech counts in this equation. As to the issue of altruistic self-sacrifice: Rumsfeld's current plan doesn't take us off the peninsula. We're still here for South Korea. And even if he did remove our troops completely (which I advocate), it's doubtful he'd recall them all the way back to America. We'd still be there for SK.

Just meditating. I don't offer any solid conclusions, especially since I'm no expert. Just points for thought and discussion.

It has been a couple of decades since I went to Korea, but at that time, Seoul had underground shopping centers, etc, that were (according to my Korean host) there as shelters in case of a bombardment of Seoul. Has Seoul since then given up on civil defense measures?

I'll defer this question to bloggers in the know, but my impression is that the civil defense measures are still largely in place. But I don't know how those measures may have been changed/adapted as South Korea's rapidly changing infrastructure has evolved. Will they be adequate in case of war? Hmmmm.

Americans, of course, are used to living in hostage cities. After all, throughout the cold war (and even today), massive nuclear weapons are targeted on most of our cities. Seoul is now also in the gunsight!

And we're gonna get used to the hostage city thing again. I'm from Alexandria, VA, just ten miles from DC, and DC has been fingered repeatedly as a likely target of the fundie Muslims (and maybe even an enterprising NK effort). Similar to measures taken in the Paris train stations, the DC Metro no longer has garbage cans in which bombs can be placed and buried under trash; they were all removed (someone feel free to correct me if this has changed). NYC is the other big target, of course.

I occasionally engage in the "if I were a terrorist" game. My first thought: our culture is so caught up in its entertainment industry that a massive attack on Hollywood would, in my opinion, strike a crippling psychological blow to our country (though Tim Robbins- and Susan Sarandon-haters might cheer). A friend one-upped me, and said that a carful of terrorists with dart guns filled with Mad Cow virus could joyride across the Cattle Belt shooting randomly into herds. If cattleherds discovered even a single instance of Mad Cow, they might be motivated to destroy entire herds, putting a nice dent in the beef industry. DCers morbidly conjecture that it'd be so easy to cripple DC by blowing up some principal bridges, like the 14th Street Bridge, Key Bridge, and maybe Memorial Bridge. I'm sure NYCers go through the same hypothetical scenarios, but with NYC soft points.

[By the way, is it irresponsible to speculate openly about this? My contention: (1) I doubt these sorts of ideas haven't been mulled over by terrorists, (2) this is free speech, dammit, and (3) by putting the problems out there, I hope to get people thinking about how to combat them, if they haven't thought about them before.]

I wish I knew a way out of this situation, but unless we can achieve a very good inspection regime, we have to de-nuke the north for our own safety (or, if you want to imagine how this could escalate into a global catastrophe, see ).

The big "unless." I'm not optimistic. And my brain is too small to speculate on what "de-nuking the North" will entail. It's been said that bombing Yongbyon isn't enough, because NK has thousands of underground facilities. So... how to do this? To me, de-nuking the North means all-out war. Kim has rigged the game so that anything less than attacking NK is, effectively, appeasing it. Hulk frustrated. And when Hulk get frustrated... Hulk take it out sexually on nearest livestock!

9-11 woke up the United States to the threat we face from enemies world wide. Unfortunately, much of the US has gone back to sleep. We, and all of the civilized world, face grave threats today from the development of WMD's by smaller, less responsible countries, combined with the rise of non-national suicidal terrorist radical Islamists.

I agree with most of this, but respectfully disagree with the idea that much of the US has gone back to sleep. I think the US is still wide awake, but heavily conflicted (or maybe this is effectively the same thing?). The Bush Administration is dealing with a huge amount of cognitive dissonance on the Korea question. Iran is, to my mind, a simpler matter than NK for the Bush Admin. If we decide to bomb Iranian facilities (or whatever), I almost guarantee there will be less agonizing before the bombing begins than there might be for an NK bombing. This is because we have more control, I think, over hot-button issues like civilian casualties in the Middle East than we do in Korea. Iran can't promise us quite the all-out war that NK can, and it's already dealing with a blossoming democratic movement. But the Korean situation is... well, I agree with you when you say, "I wish I knew a way out of this situation." Shit, yeah.

And of course the US went into Iraq for reasons of national interest: self defense. There is, however, a strong humanitarian impulse in the US including the current government, so don't discount the satisfaction we take in destroying an evil dictatorship and potentially freeing a subjugated people. Although Bush mentioned humanitarian issues, his clear justification for the war was Weapons of Mass Destruction elimination, and that was not put forth as a humanitarian justification. I don't think the US has been dishonest in it's justifications.

Your point is well taken, though I see the humanitarian justifications coming to center stage while the jury remains out on the WMDs (which I believe WILL be found eventually).

Confession: I was against the war in Iraq, but not for pacifist reasons. I'm one of those people worried about unintended consequences, and believe that our nation-building ambitions in Iraq may be proceeding on certain shaky assumptions (and in ignorance of a huge cultural deficit in Middle Eastern Muslim culture: the complete lack of secularism, a point on which Islam scholars like Bernard Lewis harp all the time). However, I fully agree that Saddam's departure is a good thing. At the same time, I have been suspicious of the strong argument being made about our humanitarian reasons for being in Iraq. While I don't deny that we're doing loads for the Iraqis (and getting little official thanks for this from some-- not all-- Iraqis and from nations who disagreed with us pre-war), I don't see the humanitarian reasons for attacking Saddam as tenable unless coupled with the other reasons for attacking him. I also see the humanitarian argument as an argument of convenience: early on, the counter-argument was put forth that other countries have more pressing humanitarian needs. There's been no decent rebuttal for this, except the one that combines humanitarian concerns with self-interest. And that's not a direct rebuttal. You're right when you say, "Although Bush mentioned humanitarian issues, his clear justification for the war was Weapons of Mass Destruction elimination, and that was not put forth as a humanitarian justification." Certainly, the humanitarian side of the coin couldn't be ignored: to eliminate the Saddam government, then leave-- that would have been sheer stupidity.

But our troops are in Iraq. They're doing their damnedest and many are paying with their lives. I thank them. I respect them. I appreciate them. I support them fully and am behind the nation-building project. Partly, it's because we all have to be behind this project now. It can't fail. A withdrawal isn't simply a loss of face or prestige; it will mean we've failed in our promises to the Iraqis. And the debate about whether we should even be in Iraq is academic at this point, so I refuse to pursue it.

To be clear: I was against the war, but my support for our current efforts isn't grudging. It can't be-- not if we hope to get this done right and thoroughly. We should all be pulling for success. I have doubts, of course-- who doesn't? People with no doubts are fundamentalists, ideological and philosophical dogmatists who insist that everything's black and white when the world shows it's filled with infinite colors. But doubts don't preclude wholehearted support, and I don't for a moment poo-poo the fact that we are rendering great aid to Iraqis.

[for more on my doubts, try my meandering essay on Western values and physical space, and a shorter piece on "The Question We're Not Supposed to Ask"]

The second letter, then, comes from Hi CSQ (Common Sense Quotient):

Big Hominid,

I'm not a NK or SK expert, and no military experience. But it seems to me that the analysis in the WSJ is not looking at the whole chessboard. First, do you think someone asked these gentlemen to plant the story? NK must certainly read the WSJ. Maybe someone wants NK and China to think that military action is getting more consideration than is generally thought. As in "we can counter your blackmail threat of artillery with fewer deaths than you think." And after the race to Baghdad, if you are the target of this military plan, you have to be concerned by the threat. Prior to the Iraq war, you could just dismiss such threats as saber rattling - but not now.

I don't think anyone planted the story, because I think this school of thought is fairly widespread. Well before Gulf War 2, the public back-and-forth included discussion about what options were and weren't "on the table" for dealing with North Korea, and to this date no one's explicitly, officially removed the military option, Colin Powell's remarks notwithstanding ("we don't seek regime change" is not, to my mind, synonymous with "fighting you is not an option").

I guess my original phrasing was bad. I wrote: "A question to ask yourself at this point, given that the Wall Street Journal skews conservative, is whether we as a nation are being psyched for war."

I think it's a good question to ask, but I hope I don't sound like I'm engaging in conspiracy theories (and I don't mean to imply that that's what you're doing, either, CSQ).

I think the reason to get all the neighboring countries involved may be designed to put pressure on China rather than to force an outcome from NK. NK has lost one of their sugar daddies and is now engaged in blackmail.

If pressure is being put on China, I suspect that's supposed to be an indirect way of forcing an outcome from NK. But NK is balking. I've had questions about NK's rationality in the past; there are good arguments for and against, and the truth (as we nondualists know) probably lies somewhere NOT at either pole.

We get everyone sitting around the table and ask each what they will do if NK develops nuclear weapons. Well of course they have to move to a MAD posture. US says, well if that happens, we will sell you weapons because we are willing to reduce our number way below that called for by our agreement with Russia. They just aren't worth that much to us anymore, and once we perfect an ABM, they have no real significance. And we will sell you the latest and greatest MIRV tipped missiles while we destroy older weapons under our agreement with Russia.

I'm not up on all this speculation, so this comes as news to me, though it may be old hat to people who've been watching Korea for a long time. You've given me something new to think about.

Now NK may not care if Japan, Taiwan, and SK go nuclear, but China sure would not like it one bit. China may not want to lose NK, but then again, NK is only a drain on their economy. They even have refugees moving into China. Which may be why they are continuing to feed and fuel the NK, as it may be cheaper than taking care of refugees.

Yeah, there's already plenty of awkwardness in NK-China relations, which we would do well to exploit to the fullest. The issue of refugees is almost comical in that it leads to one of my favorite things: Chinese discomfort on the international stage! And the refugees keep on a-comin'. Now a trickle, now a drove.

I wonder to what extent China itself feels it's hostage to NK's bluster.

Now China has to make some moves. Do they try to maintain status quo by getting NK to stop their nuke program? Or do they see the idiot NK dictator as a thorn in their side so they just end up putting a bullet between his eyes? But they can't sit by and do nothing.

I'll call Kim either crazy or desperate, but I'm pretty sure he's not an idiot. Not to contradict the substance of what you're saying, but he's probably inherited the wily political survivalist gene from his dad.

True: no one can sit by and do nothing, at this point. I'm pretty sure the Bush Admin is itching to do something. I further think that, like the real Koreabloggers have been saying, China would secretly like the US to shoulder the total burden of the Korea question, thereby removing the onus of responsibility from China. Which is silly: as others have pointed out, regional defense issues should be hashed out by the countries of that region. If China's hoping to look the other way, twiddle its thumbs and hum loudly, well... it can't anymore. So I agree: China's being maneuvered into a position where it will be, not compelled, but impelled to act.

I saw a program about NK on PBS, Discovery, or maybe the History channel. You are right about generations of propaganda. The NK and Arab propaganda machines make Hitler's look like propaganda 101. Kim Jong-Il apparently stayed in his bunker as the Iraqi war was starting. The fact that we tried to take out Saddam on at least two known occasions seems to have scared the bejessus out of him. I think there is a big lesson to all dictators in the Iraq war. The big change from Gulf War I to GWII is that the technology now allows us to target the leader and not the people. Not only that, but the opening salvo was directed at the leader. So if a wing of four F117s is deployed within striking range of you domicile, and you are a dictator of a nation considered to be part of the axis of evil, you should be very afraid. I remember reading or hearing that just such a deployment took place to Japan about a month ago.

I'd be more reassured about leader-targeting ability if we could get confirmed kills of Saddam and bin Laden. I think the double-cancellation of Uday and Qusay was a promising step in this direction, and it seems like we're tracking Saddam well enough to know how frequently he moves around. I don't know what kind of progress we're making on bin Laden.

But you're right: the leaders have to be afraid, because even if we don't get 'em, we force 'em to move around. It's our way of giving them the chance to feel like Salman Rushdie-- this is an American death fatwa, asswipe! Feels pretty good, huh!?

[NB: Had to say "death fatwa." A fatwa, by itself, is simply a Muslim religious leader's generic decree or opinion, not specifically an order to put someone to death.]

I suspect that Kim Jong-il has an escape pod that will shoot him out into space, Dr. Evil-style. He'll freeze, then be back thirty years later to demand "one... miiiiiillion...Korean won!" from the world. Which, in thirty years, will buy him a fucking roll of toilet paper, at current South Korean rates of inflation.

I think this is a dance to convince Kim Jong-Il that in any war scenario, he will loose "Big Time," to quote the VP. But you have to plan for war. For Kim it is not about NK, it is all about him. Which make[s] him just like Saddam.

Without a doubt, he shares certain Saddamite traits. I also think that, if Kim is rational, he knows he's going to lose a war. If the scales tip in our favor, Kim will have lost. What happens after that-- i.e., the war-- will be the final act of a desperate leader who knows the end has already come. That's both exhilarating and extremely worrying where I sit.

No easy answers on this blog, sorry to say. When you firmly believe that yang implies yin (and vice versa), you don't trust definitive conclusions. Or as one sage succinctly put it:

"Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future."

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