First, out with the old name; in with the new. I inherited the title “Counterpoint” from the previous editor and have never fully embraced it, to use some hackneyed politico-speak. It has a sort of musty, old-school, tit-for-tat feel — kind of like my least-favorite public-radio program, Justice Talking, which manages to make the process of discussing crucial, passion-provoking legal subjects more grinding than reading actual legal opinions. (Truly. Judges often exhibit a pleasingly dry gallows humor.) Or like presidential debates, in which the format ensures that nuanced topics will be discussed in phrases you could fit on one of those gradeschool textbook covers sponsored by local businesses. Nor am I looking for the Massacre-at-Wounded-Knee-style ambush that passes for political coverage on Bill O’Reilly’s watch. What I’m interested in are questions and dialogue, in putting the constant flow of new information and old history together in creative ways that might help us build a better future. So, welcome to the Mashup.
The value of dialogue and creative thinking should be apparent in the afterglow of North Korea’s nuclear test. Charlie Rose tackled the new world order Monday on his public-television talk show. His four guests were able to agree on one point: “… our administration has been strangely feckless in this regard,” is how former assistant defense secretary Ashton Carter put it, and the NYT’s David Sanger was even more direct, observing that “there’s a very real question that the administration was quite distracted along the way. The North Koreans threw out the international inspectors who were in the country in early 2003 just as we were headed into Iraq.”
Now we are faced with a situation in which a truly rogue nation with a reputation for selling everything it can get its hands on or manufacture on the black market — including some stunningly authentic-looking American currency — to prop up its totalitarian regime can locate a ready-and-willing customer base for portable nukes in the quagmire formerly known as Iraq. Or more precisely, among the growing number of desperate insurgents catalyzed by the U.S. occupation of a major Middle-East country. When you add the recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate concluding that the Iraq war has not made the world safer from terrorists to the coalescing threat of a nuclear North Korea, we are facing a future that seems even more terrifying than the Cold War days of old.
How you think our government should handle Kim Jong-Il probably depends to some extent on whether you think the Soviet Union collapsed primarily because it favored military build-up at the expense of economic development or because Ronald Reagan pulled his best movie-star turn at West Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate with “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and within that lie some useful parallels with North Korea.
Before those heady days of 1991, Americans were inclined to imagine Soviets as some combination of brainwashed automatons standing docilely in bread lines and malevolent autocrats who only refrained from bombing us into oblivion because our stick looked bigger than theirs. But the vast majority were simple human beings, of course, who yearned to live free from fear (of their own government and ours), who wanted to pursue a better life for themselves and their children. These very common human desires lie at the foundation of human progress. The North Korean population, cowed by fear, privation, and with little access to the outside world (sound familiar?), is no doubt similarly human, and will, at some point, move their society in a more progressive direction. The question is, how can we aid and catalyze those elements while controlling and containing the autocratic government?
Of the four guests at Charlie’s table on Monday, only one, Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy, had recently returned from North Korea, where, among many other conversations, he spent six hours with the vice foreign minister who handles nuclear affairs. His opinion, that North Korea moved ahead with its nuclear-weapons program because it believed Bush’s regime-change threats and that the country would be willing to trade the program for substantive economic aid, was largely rejected by his fellow guests. But those guests also acknowledged that a military move against North Korea at this point would be folly — we no longer know where the weapons are, for one thing — and that they don’t know what the Koreans want. So, why don’t we, for a change, try out the advice of someone who’s been traveling between Korea and China and open real negotiations with the newest member of the nuclear club? Or, we could just send Condy in to flash that 10,000-watt smile and say that when it comes to an endless, ambiguous “War on Terror,” the U.S. has “no better friend” than Kim Jong-Il.