[VIEWPOINT]Korea and the U.S. electionThe tea-leaves of the U.S. presidential contest deserve study by Korean experts, for they may portend long-term shifts in the U.S. security posture. Not right away, but after 2008, changing American perceptions could transform the U.S.-Korea military alliance and U.S. troop deployments on the Korean peninsula.
The four leading Democratic candidates ― Senator Kerry, Governor Dean, General Clark, and Senator Edwards ― all back President Bush’s “war on terror.” None of them questions the need to root out al-Qaeda and other terrorists, using every weapon in the U.S. arsenal: diplomacy, intelligence, covert strikes, and regular military forces.
But where the Democrats and President Bush sharply part company is over Iraq. Democrats dispute that the United States had any business launching a second Gulf War and deposing Saddam Hussein. The important subtext of the Democratic position ― and this is where the tea leaves get interesting ― is ambivalence over Bush’s signature pledge, repeated in his State of the Union message, that “America is committed to keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes.”
Democrats welcome Iran’s new policy of admitting nuclear inspectors into its diffusion plants. They applaud Libya’s pledge to abandon mass weapons. But for Democratic presidential candidates, those weapons are first and foremost a matter for diplomacy. They do not subscribe to Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war. They do not see the “axis of evil” as an American military priority.
One might argue that the Democratic party will return to its hawkish roots. It’s plausible to contend that a Democratic president would see global threats in much the same way as President Bush.
But I read the contemporary U.S. political scene differently. According to my crystal ball, a Democrat in the White House would put a different spin on the U.S.-Korea military alliance because of a different view about global security threats.
To be sure, if the North Korean regime persists in actively advertising its nuclear and missile capabilities, a Democratic president would put the same high priority on taming Kim Jong-il as President Bush has done. But if the North Korean regime returns to its erstwhile policy of quietly acquiring nuclear weapons, without brandishing them every step along the way ― in other words, if North Korea adopts the nuclear style of Israel, Pakistan and India ― I doubt that a Democratic president would put North Korea on his tier-one list. On the other hand, if President Bush is re-elected, and if he is succeeded by another Republican, my guess is that any North Korean regime that continues to develop nuclear weapons, even if very quietly, would remain a star target.
That brings to mind other scenarios that could elicit different Democratic and Republican responses, although I am now deep into the tea leaves. Suppose that the North Korean regime collapses from within, in the pattern of the old Soviet Union, or mellows into an authoritarian capitalist state, in the pattern of post-Mao China. While the North Korean nuclear threat might diminish, tensions on the Korean peninsula would scarcely vanish. Rivalries between China, Japan, Russia and Korea would remain a dominant theme, as would China-Taiwan tension.
A Democratic president might respond to these scenarios with an emphasis on peaceful economic ties. Consistent with this view, the White House might, with careful staging, initiate troop withdrawals from Japan and Korea. No American wants to be accidentally embroiled in Asian conflicts. A Democratic president would certainly not ignore military developments in Northeast Asia, but he might put greater emphasis on naval and air power to protect American security interests.
By contrast, a Republican president would put together a different package. The elements would be the same ― economic ties, diplomatic thrusts, and military presence. But a muscular military presence would have greater prominence, both to prevent war through deterrence and for a quick response if necessary. A Republican president would probably be less likely to initiate troop withdrawals. If Japanese or Korean leaders requested a reduced American military presence, any U.S. president would comply. But there’s a huge difference between initiating troop withdrawals and responding to host country requests.
Koreans can do little to shape U.S. election outcomes and, in the 21st century, the converse is also true. But it’s worthwhile for each nation to consider the security implications of domestic political forces at work in the other country.
* The writer is Reginald Jones Senior Fellow at the Institute for International Economics.
by Gary Clyde Hufbauer