The launch of the North Korean missile has implications that go way beyond Asia. The reaction by the United States to the North Korean launch will have an impact on the Middle East. Jeffrey Goldberg’s well publicized interview with new Israeli Premier Bibi Netanyahu showed that Bibi expects Obama to react strongly to rogue nations developing nuclear capability:
“The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told me. He said the Iranian nuclear challenge represents a “hinge of history” and added that “Western civilization” will have failed if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
In unusually blunt language, Netanyahu said of the Iranian leadership, “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”
History teaches Jews that threats against their collective existence should be taken seriously, and, if possible, preempted, he suggested. In recent years, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has regularly called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and the supreme Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, this month called Israel a “cancerous tumor.”
Israel is watching the United States’ next move with North Korea and that may determine how long Israel will give for diplomacy to work. If it is perceived as weak, Iran will be emboldened and Israel will shorten its time line:
Obama’s NK Reaction: More Talks
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Prior to North Korea’s launch yesterday of a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, President Barack Obama declared that such an action would be “provocative.” This public statement was an attempt to reinforce the administration’s private efforts to urge the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) not to fire the missile.
That effort failed, as have countless other attempts to deal softly with Pyongyang. Incredibly, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen Bosworth revealed — just a few days before the launch — that he was ready to visit Pyongyang and resume the six-party talks once the “dust from the missiles settles.” It is no wonder the North fired away.
Once the missile shot was complete, the administration’s answer was hand-wringing, more rhetoric and, oh yes, the obligatory trip to the U.N. Security Council so that it could scold the defiant DPRK. Beyond whatever happens in the Security Council, Mr. Obama seems to have no plan whatever.
In 2006, when Pyongyang last lit off a volley of missiles and then exploded a nuclear device, the Security Council responded unanimously with Resolutions 1695 and 1718, which imposed extensive military and some economic sanctions. Unfortunately, the impact of these resolutions was dramatically undercut by subsequent Bush administration diplomacy, which effectively let North Korea off the hook. By re-engaging Pyongyang diplomatically rather than increasing the external pressure, George W. Bush relegitimized the North and gave it yet more time to bargain.
Yesterday’s launch is attributable to prior failures, but the global consequences now unfolding are Mr. Obama’s responsibility. In fact, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is expected to announce today deep cuts in the U.S. missile defense program, an extraordinarily ill-advised step.
The initial draft Security Council resolution responding to yesterday’s missile launch, written by Japan and the U.S., is weak. It essentially only reaffirms Resolutions 1695 and 1718, and minimally tightens existing enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, China and Russia made it plain before the launch they had no interest in stricter sanctions — even arguing with a straight face that Pyongyang was only interested in peaceful satellite communications.
What the Security Council will ultimately produce is of course uncertain — but resolutions almost never get tougher as the drafting and negotiations proceed. Even worse than a weak resolution would be a “presidential statement,” a toothless gesture of the Council’s opinion. Either way, North Korea has again defied the Security Council, gotten away with its launch with the support of Russia and China, and now will likely confront only pleas by Mr. Obama and others to return to the six-party talks.
Those talks are exactly where North Korea wants to be. From them ever greater material and political benefits will flow to Pyongyang, in exchange for ever more hollow promises to dismantle its nuclear program.
So far, therefore, the missile launch is an unambiguous win for North Korea. (Although not orbiting a satellite, all three rocket stages apparently fired, achieving Pyongyang’s longest missile flight yet.) But the negative repercussions will extend far beyond Northeast Asia.
Iran has carefully scrutinized the Obama administration’s every action, and Tehran’s only conclusion can be: It is past time to torque up the pressure on this new crowd in Washington. Not only is Iran’s back now covered by its friends Russia, China and others on the U.N. Security Council, but it sees an American president so ready to bend his knee for public favor in Europe that the mullahs’ wish list for U.S. concessions will grow by the minute.
Israel must also be carefully considering how the U.S. watched North Korea rip through “the international community.” The most important lesson the new government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should draw is: Look out for No. 1. If Israel isn’t prepared to protect itself, including using military force, against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it certainly shouldn’t be holding its breath for Mr. Obama to do anything.
Russia and China must also be relishing this outcome. They will have faced down Mr. Obama in his first real crisis, having provided Security Council cover for a criminal regime, and emerged unscathed. They will conclude that achieving their large agendas with the new administration can’t be too hard. That conclusion may be unfair to the new American president; but it will surely color how Moscow and Beijing structure their policies and their diplomacy until proven otherwise. That alone is bad news for Washington and its allies.