In Syria crisis, a lesson for KoreaInternational reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to put off a military strike on Syria has been divided. A commentator in the London Telegraph called the delay, “the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy since records began.” In contrast, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has welcomed the Obama administration’s willingness to work with Russia and the other members of the UN Security Council on a diplomatic resolution. In Washington, the overwhelming body of opinion, even among Democrats, appears to be that the president’s response to Syrian use of chemical weapons has been ham-handed: perhaps not “the worst day” since records began, but a net loss for U.S. leadership - unless the Russian proposal for stockpiling President Bashar al-Assad’s weapons miraculously works or the U.S. president convincingly puts force back on the table.
When U.S. leadership in international security affairs causes such uncertainty, there are inevitable ripples across the globe. The story is still unfolding, but it is worth considering the implications for security on the Korean Peninsula. There are five potential consequences.
First, we have to be concerned about the impact on Pyongyang’s assessment of deterrence. Assad has now used chemical weapons on a large scale in defiance of an American president’s red line. North Korea reportedly has an even larger chemical arsenal than Assad, and even lower scruples about violating international norms. Previously, North Korea had to consider the possibility that the United States might use its entire spectrum of capabilities in response to use of WMD. The danger now is that the North may see more scope for limited tactical use of chemical weapons for terrorist purposes in a crisis.
Second, the president’s inability to bring along the U.S. Congress and the American people will inevitably raise questions about the competence of the United States in national security. No president in modern history has gone to Congress for support on the use of force without knowing the outcome. It was a last minute, politically ill-considered move with potential strategic implications. If there was a constitutional basis for going to the Congress (and there was not, since the War Powers Act gave the administration the authority to act and consult afterward), then how does one explain that the president did not go to Congress before supporting a much more sustained use of force against Libya? The administration will have its work cut out restoring the confidence of the American public and the international community. This will require reaching out to Congress to demonstrate bipartisanship on foreign policy, which still exists in Washington on many issues, including Asia policy.
Third, the decision to explore the Russian proposal will inevitably raise hopes in Beijing and Pyongyang that Washington might agree to a similarly unverifiable and interminable process with North Korea on nuclear weapons. Russia opposes any UN Security Council resolution that would impose consequences on Syria for non-compliance, denies there was even chemical weapons use in the first place, and continues arming the Assad regime on a daily basis as the supposed diplomatic track gets under way. The prospects for a successful diplomatic outcome seem unlikely, and the Obama administration may very well return to a decision to use force in the next few weeks, as the president implied in his speech on Sept. 10. In the six-party talks meeting China has convened for next week in Beijing, it is likely that Chinese hosts will urge the U.S., ROK and Japanese delegations to follow the same diplomatic path with North Korea that we now have with Syria. Still, I think the Obama administration is likely to be more - not less - wary of an open-ended diplomatic process with North Korea given the criticism at home and abroad of the Russian proposal on Syria.
Fourth, there is a danger that the international community may identify the U.S. Congress as much more isolationist than in the past. This would be an overstatement of what happened the past two weeks in Washington. True, the American people are weary after a decade of war in the Middle East, and yes, the debate on Syria seemed to unite neo-isolationists on the right like Senator Rand Paul and anti-war liberals on the left. But many of the members who opposed the president did so because they did not understand the administration’s rationale for using force. On the one hand, they were told the strike would be so limited that it had no impact on the Syrian civil war; on the other hand, they were told that Assad’s actions were a grave threat to international peace and security. The muddled message from the administration accounts for the resulting chaos in the Congress more than isolationist sentiments among members.
Fifth, there could be some question among allies like Korea about whether this episode signals a softening of the American commitment to defending treaty allies. On this front, there should be no concern. In the case of Syria, the United States was not directly attacked, nor was a U.S. treaty ally, nor had anyone in this administration or the Bush administration identified Syria as a vital U.S. interest. Korea, on the other hand, is a treaty ally, with U.S. troops and large numbers of American civilians on the ground, and established defense plans based on a consistent articulation of security on the peninsula as a vital U.S. ally.
The American president’s management of the Syria crisis has been deeply problematic, and it may be interpreted in the wrong ways by North Korea, particularly with respect to the red line on use of WMD. But the president has not ruled out force in the case of Syria and will still have an opportunity to demonstrate either through diplomacy or cruise missiles that there are consequences for regimes that do what Assad did. Meanwhile, it is important to understand that the events of the past week do not indicate any diminishment of the U.S. security commitment to Korea. If anything, the public is even more supportive than ever before.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
By Michael Green