Reflections on 'Containment' | The Nation


Reflections on 'Containment'

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

When Bush the Younger adds a new phrase to the English language, questions assault the mind: Did he mean to say it? Does he understand what he said? Is an allusion intended, or just plucked from the flotsam and jetsam floating around in his head? By the time the United States finally got off its duff and entered World War II, Hitler had unified his control of continental Europe and Tojo's forces had command of most of East and Southeast Asia. Thus the Axis had transformed the global balance of power in both East and West. Today the Bush Administration, fresh from chasing callow Taliban youths from power, restoring Afghanistan's politics to the warlord era circa 1995 and failing to find Osama bin Laden or root out Al Qaeda's terror network (except in Afghanistan, maybe), leaps forward with new demons: an axis of evil running from Pyongyang to Baghdad to Teheran.

About the Author

Bruce Cumings
Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of North...

Also by the Author

Pyongyang's bellicose posturing conforms to an old pattern, but the dangers may be greater now because tensions are rising throughout the region.

South Koreans won't be buffaloed by US beef or the Bush Administration's erratic policies.

Some axis: Iraq and Iran hate each other, the legacy of their war in the 1980s (recall the towering cynicism of Henry Kissinger, who thought the best outcome would be for them both to lose--and they did, with appalling slaughter on both sides). North Korea has barely any relationship with Iraq. It has sold missile and other military technology to Iran, but a piddling amount compared with what Washington sold to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, or sells to South Korea today. In short, the wheels of this axis are falling off in every direction. North Korea has the added attraction that its jerry-built missiles are the primary public targets of America's National Missile Defense. Today South Korea's military budget is greater than the North's gross national product, but the North must still play the Great Satan in the Bush Doctrine, enunciated with consummate diplomatic artfulness just in advance of the President's trip to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. Even the tepid New York Times editors denounced this doctrine of blunt threats and implied pre-emptive military action as a radical departure toward the promiscuous brandishing of American might.

Remember how Black September led just about everyone to imagine that the world would never be the same? Everything had changed, a caesura had opened in world history. For a while after September 11 an administration that had come in with a sweeping and assertive unilateralism seemed to have learned just how many friends it had in the world, as a collegial, multilateral diplomacy quickly unfolded. NATO resolved that the attacks on the United States were also attacks against NATO itself. Prime Minister Tony Blair gave new vigor to the special relationship between London and Washington. Various countries pledged soldiers, bases and funds to the war in Afghanistan. It looked like Russia and China had joined the United States and its allies in the common task of a global struggle against terrorism, and that a rare unity had cut across the old divisions of world politics.

But then the war in Afghanistan went quickly to its denouement, with little allied involvement--by and large the Pentagon seemed not to want it--and the inherent unilateralism of the Bush Administration reasserted itself. If, in the early going, Blair acted like a President and Bush like a prime minister, Blair's ringing condemnations of the terrorists did not bring him closer to the inner circle of Bush's decision-making. Likewise, there was little consultation with European allies on the future of Afghanistan, except that Washington wants them to shoulder the burden of peacekeeping and nation-building in that benighted country. In December the United States announced its withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, over Russia's opposition (and later, pained acquiescence), thus to get on with building its pet missile defense, bringing great domestic pressures on Russian leader Vladimir Putin and a dire threat to China's modest nuclear deterrent (which missile defense would neutralize). Then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin found listening bugs crawling all over his new Boeing 767, but chose to turn the other cheek and welcome Bush's visit.

Jiang and Bush will have plenty to talk about at the Beijing summit: America's new alliance with China's traditional ally Pakistan, the near-war in December on China's southern border between India and Pakistan (some reports had China moving as many as fifteen new divisions of troops to the border area, while others applauded China's calming role in defusing the crisis), and new American bases ringing its southwestern flanks, thus negating joint Russian-Chinese attempts to cooperate in the security of Central Asia. This will do nothing to quiet China's fears of American encirclement, but China also has its own problems with terrorism in the region, and reportedly shared important intelligence with Washington during the Afghan war. It clearly hopes to be rewarded with a new start in relations with Washington, but don't bet on it. China is the biggest bogyman on the Bush Administration's block; it's just too important as a vast Rorschach inkblot, absorbing even the wildest Republican charges. (Remember how Wen Ho Lee supposedly stole our entire nuclear arsenal?)

Like China, old allies and previous enemies have shown remarkable forbearance since Bush came into office, which has done exactly nothing to alter Donald Rumsfeld's belief that American superiority in high-tech weaponry, combined with the unipolar world that resulted from the collapse of the USSR, enable the United States to have its cake and eat it, too--to impose its will where it wants, when it wants, regardless of allied or world opinion. Rumsfeld's success in boosting the military budget by more than 40 percent since Clinton's final year in office is testimony to his influence, and to the emptiness of his vaunted revolution in military affairs. The Pentagon's yawning maw gobbles up everything it wants, like the V-22 Osprey and the F-22 fighter jet, but defense reform is dead (in the words of one expert). Secretary of State Colin Powell is an exception in his continued pursuit of diplomacy, but his plodding and lackluster attempt to bring new momentum to the Middle East peace process was an abject failure, and Rumsfeld has been much more prominent in defending the Bush foreign policy to the public.

Evildoer Kim Jong Il's long-range missile is Rumsfeld's poster child for missile defense, but it needs a shot of Don's Viagra. It has insufficient lift capacity to carry a nuclear warhead because the North lacks the technology either to lighten missile throw-weight (by using aluminum alloys) or to manufacture a sufficiently small warhead (which would require high-speed X-ray cameras that it doesn't have). Even if lighter chemical or biological warheads were installed, it is unclear that its first stage has the thrust to lift that payload fast enough and far enough to reach any part of the United States. Nor does North Korea appear to have heat-resistant technologies that would keep the warhead from burning up upon re-entry into the atmosphere--it would turn into a charcoal briquette, which happens to be what Colin Powell wants to turn North Korea into should it launch a missile at the United States [see Cumings, "The Emperor's Old Clothes," February 19, 2001].

Kim's missiles are commodities for sale, and Bill Clinton nearly succeeded in buying them out before leaving office. In a fateful month--November 2000--everything was poised for a Clinton visit to Pyongyang: The North had already agreed to forgo construction, deployment and international sales of all missiles with a range of more than 300 miles. If Clinton did Kim Jong Il the favor of a presidential visit, negotiators believed, Kim would also agree to enter the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would limit North Korean missiles to an upper range of 180 miles. In return, Washington would have provided $1 billion in food aid, presumably for several years. Clinton wanted to go to Pyongyang, and his negotiators had their bags packed for weeks in November--but as Sandy Berger, Clinton's National Security Adviser, later put it, it wasn't a good idea for the President to leave the country when they didn't know whether there would be a major constitutional crisis. After five Supreme Court votes gave the election to Bush, it was too late. Now more than a year has passed, and this remarkable progress was left to twist slowly in the wind by Bush's extraordinary diplomacy-by-dereliction, his bellicose threats and his callous disregard for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, winner of the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize. This past January Lockheed Martin sold 111 missiles of 186-mile range to South Korea, a $307 million deal that will only stoke the arms race in the region.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.