Perhaps it is going too far to say, as someone did after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill two years ago, that most US citizens want a president who is cool, calm and collected in a crisis — except when there is a crisis. However, of all the charges thrown at US President Barack Obama by his domestic political opponents, the hardest for most outsiders to accept is that he is too emotionally disengaged: all brain cells and no red blood cells.
Certainly in defense and foreign policy, a cool and measured response to the extreme provocations that often come with that territory is what the world wants, and needs, from the leader of its reigning superpower.
Nowhere is that need greater than in the cases of North Korea and Iran, owing to the destructive potential of the weapons that they have or might be developing.
With North Korea, the provocations continue to come thick and fast. Understandings are reached, only to be immediately broken, as with the North’s agreement in February, in return for US food aid, to accept International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, suspend uranium enrichment and halt missile and weapons tests. Within little more than a month, a “satellite rocket” is launched, albeit spectacularly misfiring, and all bets are off.
With the North’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, feeling the heat of that technical humiliation, there is now every reason to be concerned that another nuclear-weapon test, or some other chest-beating military antic, is imminent. China seems unable or unwilling to moderate its neighbor’s behavior. Nerves in South Korea, and especially Japan, are raw.
The Obama administration has been right not to appear too spooked by all of this. The tone of the US response has been firm, giving appropriate reassurance to its allies and making clear that gamesmanship will not be tolerated, but not raising the temperature further. Its three-pronged approach of containment, deterrence and openness to negotiation is exactly the right course to pursue.
Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula — with the price being guaranteed regime survival and major economic support for the North — might be a fading dream. However, it is still not impossible. We came much closer to getting there than is now remembered in the Agreed Framework deal of the mid-1990s, in which I participated as Australia’s minister of foreign affairs.
The underlying dynamics have not changed fundamentally since then. For all of their infuriating brinkmanship, it is reasonable to assume that North Korea’s leaders are not bent on national suicide, as any attempted use of their still very modest nuclear arsenal would certainly entail.
With Iran, the stakes are, and always have been, higher. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, the prospect of a regional arms race (starting with Saudi Arabia) — and thus heightened risk of nuclear war by accident, design or miscalculation — is very much greater than is the risk of further proliferation in Northeast Asia. Furthermore, just one or two nuclear weapons could effectively destroy a country of Israel’s size. Accordingly, the pressure on Obama to be seen to be doing something to stop Iran in its tracks is very much greater than in the case of North Korea — and will become almost unbearable during this election year.
However, Obama’s response so far has been, again, exactly right — cool and measured; avoiding any military adventurism of his own and discouraging Israel from it; and applying the same three-pronged strategy of containment, deterrence and openness to negotiations. It remains to be seen whether the talks now under way between Iran and the 5+1 Group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) will bear fruit. However, with the escalating financial sanctions of the past year now clearly biting hard, the signs are more encouraging than they have been for some time.