North Korea: What the Obama Doctrine Has Sown

by James Jay Carafano

No place is less aptly named than the Land of the Morning Calm. Artillery duels are not tranquil. Neither is news that North Korea has a new covert nuclear facility.

Blame the president for all the tumult, at least partly. The Obama doctrine — a.k.a. the “anything but Bush” approach — relied on international institutions and “soft power” diplomacy to solve our most fundamental foreign-policy challenges.

It was a lovely doctrine. But then Obama discovered a harsh truth: Reality bites. Faced with real-world foreign-policy messes — from GITMO to deadlines in Afghanistan — the president found himself backtracking into a “Bush-lite” foreign policy.

Now Pyongyang emerges as the final nail in the coffin of the Obama doctrine.

When North Korea stepped on the outstretched hands of friendship and negotiation, the White House found it had to reverse course and get tough. It had no choice. The North Koreans regard accommodation as weakness, not negotiation.

Admittedly, in practice Obama’s policy toward North Korea has been better than Bush’s, maybe a lot better. So Pyongyang is pushing back: raising a ruckus in hopes that Washington will back down and buy them off — again.

What makes them think they can still push America around? The message the White House is still sending to the rest of the world. While the Obama doctrine has fallen by the wayside in practice, its rhetoric remains alive and well.

That equivocal face offers Pyongyang and other restive regimes hope that America will be the pushover the Obama doctrine suggests. It’s hard for North Korea to take the commander-in-chief seriously when he chooses to slash 44 percent of the missile-defense interceptors meant to protect the U.S. homeland from Pyongyang’s missiles. A policy of minimalist missile defense looks pretty ridiculous to a hostile nation that announces, out of the blue, that it has built another massive nuclear facility while we were beating our shields into plowshares. Who know what else Pyongyang is hiding — or when it will tell us?

President Obama’s push to win lame-duck approval of the New START nuclear deal with Russia looks lame in the shadow of Pyongyang’s actions. Why focus on advancing a greatly flawed treaty that offers no advantages for protecting and defending the United States, while real threats like North Korea demand laser-like attention?

Obama has also been silent about proposals to gut defense spending in the name of balancing the budget. How can the president expect America’s enemies to take America seriously when accountant-strategists talk about closing our overseas bases and sharply reducing our ability to project power?

The president has done nothing to squelch talk of defense cuts. Secretary Gates has spoken up, but his voice has been overwhelmed by silence from the White House. To defend defense, to acknowledge that America needs a strong military, would fly in the face of the Obama doctrine of a peaceful world gained mostly through talk.

If the Northeast Asia, or the world in general, is not as calm as it used to be, part of the blame rests with the “nuanced” naivety of the Obama doctrine.

James Jay Carafano is a senior foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.