Ignoring the elephant in the room

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on January 3, 2003

The latest offering from "Columnist of the Year" Paul Krugman is amazing in its inanity because of Krugman's neglect of the biggest, most relevant issue when it comes to the current nuclear standoff with North Korea.

Krugman's "analysis" (I think this is an appropriate time for the infamous scare quotes) of the North Korean situation is fundamentally flawed by his failure to come to grips with the simple fact that Kim Jong Il has been actively pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons for more than eight years -- in violation of an agreement brokered by former President Jimmy Carter.

[W]hat game does the Bush administration think it's playing in Korea?

That's not a rhetorical question. During the cold war, the U.S. government employed experts in game theory to analyze strategies of nuclear deterrence. Men with Ph.D.'s in economics, like Daniel Ellsberg, wrote background papers with titles like "The Theory and Practice of Blackmail." The intellectual quality of these analyses was impressive, but their main conclusion was simple: Deterrence requires a credible commitment to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior.

I know, it sounds obvious. Yet the Bush administration's Korea policy has systematically violated that simple principle.

I'm curious to see how a reputedly intelligent man can come to this conclusion. For eight years, the U.S. rewarded the appearance of good behavior, i.e. not developing nukes, by providing food, fuel oil and agreeing to build two nuclear reactors. Though they signed the agreement, it is obvious now that the North Koreans never intended to abide by it. Why? I would argue that it was the Clinton administration that systematically violated Ellsberg's principle by not offering a credible commitment to punish bad behavior.

Let's be clear: North Korea's rulers are as nasty as they come.

Ahh, the obligatory condemnation, albeit extremely weak, of a government that starves its people and executes Christians while spending the vast sums to build ICBMs and nuclear weapons. You'd think that a peace-loving liberal like Krugman would be harder on a militaristic government like North Korea's. However, Krugman, a card-carrying member of the "blame America first" club apparently fails to appreciate that the greater of the two evils (in his eyes) is the North Koreans, and not the Bush administration.

And, you know that following the condemnation sentence there is always a ...

But unless we have a plan to overthrow those rulers, we should ask ourselves what incentives we're giving them.

Someone help me understand this. One paragraph after arguing that the Bush administration's foreign policy is flawed because there is no "credible commitment to punish bad behavior," Krugman is asking us why we aren't rewarding them despite their bad behavior? We need to present them with some sort of carrot because they've violated an arms-control agreement?

So put yourself in Kim Jong Il's shoes. The Bush administration has denounced you. It broke off negotiations as soon as it came into office. Last year, though you were no nastier than you had been the year before, George W. Bush declared you part of the "axis of evil." A few months later Mr. Bush called you a "pygmy," saying: "I loathe Kim Jong Il -- I've got a visceral reaction to this guy. . . . They tell me, well we may not need to move too fast, because the financial burdens on people will be so immense if this guy were to topple -- I just don't buy that."

Moreover, there's every reason to take Mr. Bush's viscera seriously. Under his doctrine of pre-emption, the U.S. can attack countries it thinks might support terrorism, whether or not they have actually done so. And who decides whether we attack? Here's what Mr. Bush says: "You said we're headed to war in Iraq. I don't know why you say that. I'm the person who gets to decide, not you." L'état, c'est moi.

So Mr. Bush thinks you're a bad guy -- and that makes you a potential target, no matter what you do.

This logic only works if the recent news out of North Korea was that they were going to restart their nuclear program because Bush had: A) stopped delivering fuel oil; B) stopped providing food; C) refused to build nuclear reactors. Unfortunately for Krugman's little formulation, none of these items is true. Remember, North Korea has been pursuing nukes for decades without ceasing.

Also, how is Bush violating Ellsberg's principle of deterrence if, as Krugman claims, "under (Bush's) doctrine of pre-emption, the U.S. can attack countries it thinks might support terrorism," and North Korea is already on notice?

On the other hand, Mr. Bush hasn't gone after you yet, though you are much closer to developing weapons of mass destruction than Iraq. (You probably already have a couple.) And you ask yourself, why is Saddam Hussein first in line? He's no more a supporter of terrorism than you are: the Bush administration hasn't produced any evidence of a Saddam-Al Qaeda connection. Maybe the administration covets Iraq's oil reserves; but it's also notable that of the three members of the axis of evil, Iraq has by far the weakest military.

So you might be tempted to conclude that the Bush administration is big on denouncing evildoers, but that it can be deterred from actually attacking countries it denounces if it expects them to put up a serious fight. What was it Teddy Roosevelt said? Talk trash but carry a small stick?

I'll explain this to Krugman, because to everyone outside the ivory towers of academia, it's pretty simple.

Yes, Iraq is the weakest militarily, so it makes sense to start with them to season your troops. Second, Iraq does not (yet) have nuclear weapons. It's better to get rid of a menace and tyrant like Saddam before he has nukes, rather than waiting until he obtains them. To normal people, it makes sense to pick the low-hanging fruit first -- whether or not they have oil. Also for Krugman's information: North Korea has not launched a full-scale invasion of any of its neighbors in the past forty-odd years. Iraq, however, has.

Your own experience seems to confirm that conclusion. Last summer you were caught enriching uranium, which violates the spirit of your 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration. But the Bush administration, though ready to invade Iraq at the slightest hint of a nuclear weapons program, tried to play down the story, and its response -- cutting off shipments of fuel oil -- was no more than a rap on the knuckles. In fact, even now the Bush administration hasn't done what its predecessor did in 1994: send troops to the region and prepare for a military confrontation.

Violates the "spirit" of the agreement? If Krugman were a lawyer, he'd never be able to prove anything.

And Krugman, after decrying the Bush administration's saber-rattling is now complaining that they aren't saber-rattling? Apparently logic is no longer part of the requirement for Times' columnists.

So here's how it probably looks from Pyongyang:

The Bush administration says you're evil. It won't offer you aid, even if you cancel your nuclear program, because that would be rewarding evil. It won't even promise not to attack you, because it believes it has a mission to destroy evil regimes, whether or not they actually pose any threat to the U.S. But for all its belligerence, the Bush administration seems willing to confront only regimes that are militarily weak.

Say what? We aren't offering North Korea aid because it's obvious to anyone who isn't named Paul Krugman, that they have no desire to cancel their nuclear program -- no matter what! What we've learned since the 1994 "agreement" is that we can't trust Kim Jong Il. Krugman's "even if" is meaningless.

Also Krugman doesn't understand that, compared to every other military on the face of the Earth, they're all "militarily weak." All of them. None can hold a candle to our military prowess. Could any other country do what we did in Afghanistan as quickly and with as few casualties? Even at the height of its power, the Soviet Union couldn't pull off in 10 years what we did in a few months in Afghanistan.

Krugman also doesn't listen to the news, because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been saying for weeks that we can fight a two-front war, if that becomes necessary. Krugman's argument is based in a fantasyland that bears no resemblance to the real world.

Krugman assails Bush for preparing for war on Iraq, arguing that we must give diplomacy a chance, then turns around and assails Bush for pushing diplomacy in the case of North Korea when he should be preparing for war.

Krugman's lack of consistency (or at least a credible explanation for why he must be inconsistent) proves that the Times' golden boy is nothing more than a blindly partisan, intellectually vapid, attack machine.

Which will ensure he has a long career at Howell Raines' Times.


The @sdutOpinion Editorial pages used to be fairly mainstream conservative. When I applied for a letters editor opening there in the mid-00s, I was asked if there's an editorial I wouldn't write. I replied: a pro-abortion one. 1/

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