05/03/2013 06:43 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

Crises Also Fade

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We live in a crisis-ridden age. But as fast and furious as the crises seem to come, it's important to remember that crises fade, too.

In crisis mode today it's about getting to the bottom of the Boston Marathon bombings. That, and the reported use of chemical weapons by Syria's Assad regime against Syrian rebels, who began as protesters in the Arab Spring of early 2011. President Barack Obama had called any use of chemical weapons there "a red line" that cannot be crossed.

Last month, it was the Korean Peninsula crisis. Which featured North Korea, having just tested a more advanced nuclear weapon, issuing an endless string of colorfully dire warnings that would seem very much at home in a comic book, including impending missile launches and even the threatened nuking of US bases. And of course the time-honored classic of "drowning Seoul in a sea of fire."

In extremely good news, yet another day has passed without a North Korean missile launch. The annual US/South Korean military exercises, which I suspected might have been agitating the young tyro who now reigns in North Korea, ended with the end of April.

The crisis seemed to cool even before the end of the two-month long Exercise Foal Eagle, after Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo. Kerry pushed hard for China, which provides utterly crucial support for the Pyongyang regime but whose earlier criticism of North Korea's precipitous moves seemed to fall on deaf ears, to weigh in anew with its client state. Which China evidently did.

Of course, a stray thought of gamesmanship compels one to ask if North Korea is simply obstreperous on its own, or if it is "out of control" long enough for assistance from China to become a critical element of US strategy. For there is a chess game underway as the US executes its geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with the vast and rising Asia-Pacific region. (You can see my related pieces in the Pivot archive.) And China, whose extraordinarily expansive claims of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea -- claims that are extremely vexing to China's far less powerful neighbors -- can be blocked by the US Navy, may have mixed motives.

An actual war on the Korean Peninsula would be bad for China. In addition to the chaos and death that war brings, its ally North Korea, despite having one of the world's largest armies, would lose in the end to South Korean and US forces, likely reunifying the current two Koreas under a government allied with the US. Unless China itself intervened, as it did over 60 years ago, leading to a bloody conflict with the US which could end in world war.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the US is considering giving weapons to Syrian rebels, even as study continues into the reported limited use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

But Obama has already eased off on his "red line" rhetoric. He previously stated that use of such weapons by the Assad regime would constitute an unacceptable "red line" behavior. My sense of American politics is that the appetite for direct US military intervention in Syria is very slight.

Obama doesn't seem to want to intervene in Syria, nor do other allies. Even most congressional warhawks are wary of potentially getting in another big war in the Middle East.

Perhaps Obama should be more careful about what he calls a "red line." Dictators are not impressed by empty threats.

Would there be support for a multi-national effort to secure chemical weapons stores? Maybe, though that could quickly spiral into something else. Especially since those stores appear to be quite dispersed.

If Syrian chemical weapons get out beyond Syria, however, or are used against Syria's neighbors, that seems a very different matter.

Assad may be testing the limits of what he can get away with inside Syria.

Would his wholesale use of chemical weapons against the rebels trigger a major response? It's an open question. Monstrous as that would be, it's not easy to see a big constituency for another open-ended war. And Syria, unlike Iraq, has some important allies, including Iran and Russia.

But this crisis, like others, may also fade.

Not that fading means ending, necessarily.

Because, even though the threatened dramatic missile launches haven't taken place, North Korea seems to have another mechanism to keep things perking, albeit at a much lower level of anxiety. A Korean-American arrested in murky circumstances has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for "hostile acts against the state."

He organizes tours of North Korea, a venture which, frankly, had not occurred to me.

Never underestimate the zany factor.

It's like those UC Berkeley students who set out for a hike a few years ago and wandered into Iran. Oops.

What are these people thinking?

Actually, I may know exactly what they are thinking.

Back when there was still a Soviet Union, before the ayatollah took over in Iran, not long after I graduated from college, I thought to backpack through the Middle East and Central Asia. Although there was a lot of bus travel involved, it was a great adventure, which went so swimmingly that by the time I reached one of the most pleasant of the outlying provinces of the USSR, the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic (today's Kyrgyzstan), I thought to press my luck a bit by pressing next door into the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (now Kazakhstan).

Why? To try to find the famed Soviet space complex called Baikonur. That's where the space age began, with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Even today, it is the biggest space complex on the planet, still controlled by Moscow.

But, even though a U2 spy plane had located it, the Soviet space complex was still shrouded in mystery at ground level. In part because what was called "Baikonur" was, in furtherance of "maskirovka" deception strategy, hundreds of miles away from the actual town of Baikonur.

So when I showed up in Almaty, looking to get to Baikonur, I attracted some attention from the authorities. Fortunately the Russian higher-ups had a better sense of humor about my being a Star Trek fan from California than the Kazakh security troops who initially picked me up. But all agreed that it was wisest for me to continue my own earthbound trek elsewhere.

Which I suppose is something of a parable about how Americans can blunder into trouble around the world. Too bad the Korean tour guide isn't a Star Trek fan.

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