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Jonathan Morgenstein Headshot

Korea's Missiles, Obama's Maneuvers and Neocons' Mad-libs

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On Saturday, while the rest of the country is celebrating the 4th of July, the President's national security team will be camped out in the White House situation room. President Obama and his team will be monitoring a North Korean missile test, launched in the direction of Hawaii. We can all celebrate in peace though, assured that the administration's response to the launch will be in line with the new, multi-tooled Smart Power philosophy the Administration has employed for its first half year in office. It is a strategy that has begun to make us and the world safer.

Of course, the president won't be the only one watching the missile launch. So too will former Vice President Dick Cheney and other leading neoconservatives. Unlike President Obama, they feel the appropriate response to every national security issue is "shoot first and ask questions later" with no regard for how non-military tools could be used more effectively. After eight years of bungling virtually every foreign policy dilemma, sowing instability and mistrust across the globe, Mr. Cheney and others now sit back and heckle the president like those two cranky old guys on the balcony of the Muppet Show.

These broadsides are so devoid of any responsible and reasonable analysis, they have become like Mad Libs. Try it out: Just fill in the country or the issue, declare that President Obama is (adjective defining weakness and femininity) and then say that Obama's actions will (destroy, undermine, harm, ruin) America. The problem with these polemics is that they not only sound like rants, they are rants, and they are not constructive. These attacks are disingenuous because when the Bush Administration was in office there was never any sort of military action against the North Koreans despite the fact the North launched multiple missiles tests during their tenure. Ironically, considering all of the neoconservatives' bluster, the Bush administration's reactions to these tests of withdrawing completely from negotiations were both counterproductive and significantly weaker than Obama administration policies. In response, Pyongyang moved forward with its nuclear weapons program.

The truth is that North Korea's missile test, while unwelcome, poses minimal danger. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has stated the maximum distance these missiles could reach is 4,000 miles, or at least five hundred miles short of any Hawaiian Island. North Korea's missile arsenal may be intimidating on the surface, but its practical capabilities are flimsy.

President Obama will use a broad array of options to confront the threat. Anticipating the missile launch, the president vowed last week that America's "extended" nuclear umbrella covered South Korea. Also, the Chinese are beginning to see North Korea's provocations as a direct affront to Beijing. The president and his team noted this development and recently convinced the Chinese to support the strongest UN sanctions ever imposed on North Korea, forbidding them to export arms or import any weapons larger than rifles. The combination of Chinese endorsement of these stringent sanctions and America's nuclear pledge to South Korea is by far the strongest action ever taken by a US president since the end of the Korean War.

It is important to note however, that this tough response is also smart, explicitly trying to avoid military escalation unless absolutely necessary. Force is still always an option for the Obama administration. But it is a last resort. That is the hallmark of the Obama Smart Power approach: use all the instruments of national power to achieve your goals, not just the military.

We can see this unfolding in the Korea conflict and around the world. One striking example is the recent shift towards stronger diplomatic engagement, military collaboration and expanded humanitarian aid in Pakistan, an effort that has helped the Pakistani government do more to combat Islamist extremist groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban in the last five months than in the past five years.

In early June, perhaps the leading neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol called for air strikes against North Korea, exemplifying the reckless personalities that controlled the White House during the Bush years. Thankfully we have a new president, one who understands that the Smart Power tools: Diplomacy, Defense and Development are all at his disposal to protect our country, and he is willing to use every one of them when needed.