Can’t We Drop Even One Alliance?

Evidence that the American republic long ago ceased to be a republic in anything but name is the reluctance of policymakers – any policymaker in any administration – to drop even one military alliance, international commitment, security guarantee, or troop deployment, no matter how antiquated, irrelevant, costly, or dangerous. What has ever been must ever be, appears to be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. America must always do more, never less.

It’s obvious that the worst commitment today, in terms of lives lost, terrorists created, dollars wasted, and reputations destroyed, is Iraq. Unfortunately, it was a lot easier to get into than to get out of. We’ve got to do so, and we could start by taking the president at his word on how swell everything is going. Since he fantasizes that freedom is marching, we should be drawing down our troops, with an exit planned for months rather than years.

But the administration’s armchair warriors have made a mess that even a lot of antiwar people feel obligated to clean up before we leave. That’s a prescription for a permanent garrison and endless war. Afghanistan is even tougher, since there too simply getting out would leave potential disaster behind.

Not so with most of America’s defense ties. The Red Hordes seem ill-prepared to pour forth from Russia to conquer Europe, so who needs NATO? China doesn’t have the conventional capability to invade Taiwan, let alone Japan. Why base a Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa?

Moreover, South Korea (ROK) has 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. Why does the U.S. have some 33,000 troops on station defending a country that can take care of itself – a country that doesn’t even believe it is in danger?

There are lots of places where Washington doesn’t belong. One of them is dealing with the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Just the other day Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency opined: “The army and people of the DPRK are now in full preparedness to answer a preemptive attack with a relentless annihilating strike and a nuclear war with a mighty nuclear deterrent.”

It’s pure bluster, of course. The nation with the “mighty nuclear deterrent” is the U.S. America could inflict “a relentless annihilating strike” on North Korea using just one bomber, missile, or submarine, let alone its entire force.

Still, what benefit does Washington get from dealing with Kim Jong-Il? True, there’s no evidence that he is crazy in a clinical sense. Rather, he’s brilliantly played a weak hand, winning worldwide attention for a desperately poor, technologically backward, and economically isolated nation in which hundreds of thousands – and perhaps millions – of people have starved to death. In the normal course of events, no one would pay any attention to him.

And more importantly, in the normal course of events he wouldn’t be America’s problem. The Republic of Korea, China, and Russia are next door. Just a little bit of water separates Japan from the DPRK. Australia is further, but still not entirely safe, like other Southeast Asian states.

Pyongyang should be their problem, not America’s problem. If North Korea threatens anyone, it is its neighbors, not the globe’s most powerful nation. Kim Jong-Il is a nasty character, yes, but the U.S. spent most of its history blissfully ignoring similar nasty characters running similarly isolated and desperately poor states.

Yet there was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, lecturing Kim Jong-Il over the North’s planned missile test: “It would be a very serious matter and, indeed, a provocative act should North Korea decide to launch that missile.” The DPRK would “deepen its isolation,” she added. One can imagine how Kim Jong-Il received her warning: yada, yada, yada.

Why the waste of breath? It actually doesn’t much matter if the North tests a missile, since Kim is not stupid enough to actually attack America. And Pyongyang certainly isn’t going to be deterred from enhancing its military by a verbal threat. To the contrary, Kim Jong-Il likely is pleased to see that he got a reaction from Washington. America shouldn’t be paying him any notice. Policymakers should reflexively react to the latest North Korean maneuver with a yawn.

Dealing with South Korea is almost as painful as confronting the North. Which is bizarre, given the links between America and the ROK. Trade is significant and profitable. Family ties, too, are strong. Indeed, the children of many leading South Koreans are American citizens, having been born in the U.S. while their parents attended university.

But younger South Koreans remember Washington’s support for various dictatorships rather than intervention and rescue from DPRK aggression in the Korean War. Although the polls vary over time, many South Koreans have soured on their country’s reliance on the U.S.: majorities prefer China to America, view Washington as a greater threat to peace than North Korea, and don’t believe the North poses any military threat. Protests of American installations and boycotts of Americans no longer seem unusual.

South Koreans are entitled to their views, however odd they might appear to Americans happily ensconced across the Pacific. Yet the ROK elite prefers to whine about U.S. behavior rather than take responsibility for the South’s future. While there is much to criticize in Washington’s actions over the years, South Koreans want to have their cake and eat it too: America should defend them against nonexistent threats involving the North but not entangle them in real potential conflicts involving China. The ROK should enjoy the economic benefit of 33,000 troops spending away but not have to suffer the social consequences of basing so many largely bored, young males in their country. The U.S. should guarantee the South’s independence from Japan and China but not expect any help in return.

Today, the greatest tension between Seoul and Washington comes over policy toward North Korea. South Korea, a short artillery shell or SCUD missile away from the demilitarized zone, prefers to conciliate rather than confront. America, a big ocean away, is more willing to threaten preventive war.

Neither nation should be expected to submerge its perceived national interest to the other’s wishes (though attacking North Korea would be even more foolish for Washington than was invading Iraq). The way to resolve this and other policy conflicts, however, is simple: declare that the North is the ROK’s problem.

The U.S. should bring home its troops from the South. Then Washington can tell the DPRK that while it would be happy to open an embassy in Pyongyang, it no longer cares much what Kim Jong-Il does. There’s certainly nothing important enough at stake to warrant going to war. If North Korea wants aid, recognition, trade, praise, reunification, political summits, investment, family visits, apologies, tribute, or anything else, Kim Jong-Il should call Seoul.

If South Korea can’t satisfy the North, then the DPRK should address Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo. Maybe toss in Canberra, since Australia is pretty well-off. And there’s Taipei, though talking to it might upset the Chinese. But no matter: it wouldn’t be America’s problem.

Washington should patiently explain to the DPRK that America’s only interest is that North Korea not be so stupid as to actually consider using a nuke against the U.S. – that’s why America maintains several thousand nuclear warheads. Washington should add that selling nuclear materials to terrorist-minded groups would be very unhealthy for Kim Jong-Il and his many flunkies who today feast off the labors of the long-suffering North Korean people. While none of the communist apparatchiks have expressed much interest in martyrdom, that would be the inevitable result of threatening America.

Crafting this sort of policy during the Cold War would have run into the same sort of objections as are now raised to leaving Iraq. The Soviets and Chinese would sense weakness, North Korea would be emboldened, a “loss” in Asia would have repercussions around the globe, etc. In fact, South Korea long has been capable of defending itself. But forget the past. Today none of the original reasons for the U.S.-South Korean alliance remain.

The security of the ROK is no longer tied to any overarching global struggle. North Korea’s nuclear program is unsettling, but is largely a regional problem.

The South can defend itself, and North Korea is essentially friendless, with China and Russia having more, and closer, contact with South Korea than with Pyongyang. The ROK is no longer particularly friendly toward America and willing to reflexively follow Washington’s international lead.

In short, it’s time for an amicable divorce between Washington and Seoul. Bring the troops home. Drop the defense commitment. Void the security treaty. Let’s enjoy the full panoply of cultural and economic ties, but leave promises to go to war out of it.

Korea should only be a start. The U.S. shouldn’t keep nearly 50,000 troops in Japan. Tokyo’s neighbors might prefer American to Japanese naval patrols, but the Pentagon is supposed to be protecting U.S., not Asian, interests.

Then there’s the Balkans and Europe. It should be an easy call for America to go home. Some people might not have noticed, but World War II is over, the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union split apart, and the Warsaw Pact disbanded. Virtually all of the old Soviet satellites have rushed to join NATO. U.S. security guarantees for Western or Eastern Europe aren’t needed.

Finally, we come to Iraq. It ain’t easy. But if Washington policymakers aren’t able to dump the least important, most wasteful, and least necessary security commitments, how will they ever deal with the genuinely tough cases?

It’s time to start somewhere. I nominate Korea.