Monday, April 17, 2017

North Korea Crisis is not Cuban Missile Crisis

Comparisons across time are never perfect but they can serve to give us a grip on current events. By the same token, inapt comparisons can make things more confusing. That is the case with comparing the U.S.-North Korea confrontation right now with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which The New York Times is pushing.

While all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise — for starters, President John F. Kennedy dealt with the Soviets and Fidel Castro in a perilous 13 days in 1962, while the roots of the Korean crisis go back a quarter-century — one parallel shines through. When national ambitions, personal ego and deadly weapons are all in the mix, the opportunities for miscalculation are many.

I don't see anything shining. The Cuban Missile Crisis had its roots in the Bay of Pigs, which JFK inherited and did not want. The North Korea situation now has its roots in Donald Trump's undiplomatic and unwise tweeting. JKF's ego/manliness was not particularly tied to the crisis--he felt he had to respond because in the Cold War context, he would get hammered at home and, he felt, the Soviets would feel emboldened.

Timing is therefore a lot different. Trump could've achieved a lot more by staying quiet and working with the Chinese. Instead, I get the impression that he's following some predetermined series of negotiation steps that worked when he built apartments in New Jersey or something. He actually intentionally sparked this crisis himself when he didn't need to. I can't imagine JFK wanting to do the same with Cuba, which he preferred not to hassle with.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved by skillful back-channel diplomacy. Since "skillful" does not apply to the current administration's diplomatic repertoire, we can only hope someone with sense is given the task of working with the North Koreans through the Chinese. And indeed, that is the other problem with the comparison--we don't have easy back-channel avenues for North Korea.

Instead, we have Mike Pence going to the DMZ and talking tough:

"We're going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience. But we're going to redouble our efforts to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on North Korea. Our hope is that we can resolve this issue peaceably," Pence said in an exclusive interview at the DMZ.

I have no idea what "this issue" is. There are myriad issues with North Korea and the U.S. cannot force any of them without going to war. With JFK, there was only one issue--remove the missiles. I doubt North Korea even knows what Trump wants. I am not sure Trump knows what Trump wants. That's really the problem.


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