- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Thought-free analysis is not only the specialty of the Twitterverse, it is actually practically a requirement for success there. The only thing that trumps brevity is speed and so what one tends to get around big breaking events is the pundit equivalent of a quick-draw contest in the old West — occasions that were known primarily for their inaccuracy and casualties.
Last night, within moments of the announcement of the death of Kim Jong Il, the fastest brains in the West were firing away with clever comments about how the 2011 deaths of Kim, Qaddafi and Bin Laden reflected well on President Obama and were somehow linked. Some threw in the deposed despots of the Arab Spring for good measure. And while it certainly could be said that 2011 was not a good year for bad guys, the analogies were more or less insight-free.
Whereas President Obama deserves some measure of the credit for the death of Bin Laden and for the downfall of Qaddafi (he almost certainly does not deserve any blame for the melee that resulted in the Libyan dictator’s death), the death of Kim falls into an entirely different category. Not only was his death the result of a long struggle with illness, Kim’s demise marks not the end of a challenge for the U.S. president but the beginning of one. The transition that will follow, the power struggle around Kim’s young untested, unready son Kim Jong-un, will create both opportunities and profound risks. With tens of thousands of U.S. troops minutes from the North Korean border, an active North Korean nuclear program, and the threat the starving Hermit Kingdom poses to South Korea, the Japan and, via proliferation, the world, what happens in North Korea remains profoundly out of proportion to the country’s size, economic or military heft. (This is, perversely, one of the triumphs of the late Kim. He bankrupted his country and ruthlessly crushed its will, but he kept it relevant against all odds.)
Fortunately, President Obama has a first rate team that has been deeply involved in North Korea from the get go. There were even U.S. diplomats in North Korea as the news broke, there to negotiate an agreement to provide food to the country in exchange for nuclear arms concessions. (As I have noted before, Bill Clinton once captured the gestalt of the arrangement when he said that nuclear weapons were North Korea’s only cash crop.) Hillary Clinton’s close confidante, now Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, is a Korea expert who played a key role in the U.S. opening with that country in the late 1990s. The Asia team at State led by Kurt Campbell has demonstrated itself to be one of the department’s best. And the military and intelligence community teams focused on the peninsula are also first rate.
That said, given the changing dynamics of our time, it is far more likely that North Korea will be contained better and nudged more certainly toward reform by its other neighbor, the People’s Republic of China, than it has been in half a century of military pressure from the U.S. and the South. This in and of itself, is both a potential relief to the President (another crisis zone in which the burden will necessarily be shared among several powers) and a real challenge as it necessarily diminishes U.S. influence and will be subject to the morally neutral, ultra-self-interested diplomacy of the Chinese. My sense is that it is an area in which changes in China will drive changes in North Korea in a direction that ultimately serves the interests of the entire region and the world and that the main job of the U.S. will be to ensure that as that slow process takes place that potential interim risks are contained.
That said, we do also come back to the real lesson of 2011 when it comes to the fall of despots: Be careful what you wish for. We can all be thankful that Bin Laden, Qaddafi, Kim, Mubarak, Saleh and their lot are gone. We can even hope that 2012 brings the end for another batch of baddies from Assad to Chavez to Ahmadinejad. But as we look across the Middle East in the wake of this year in which you could barely hear yourself think for the sound of discredited regimes and bad actors clattering to the ground, we also see new, sometimes more complex threats emerging. Al Qaeda has been decapitated, but new leaders are emerging and new groups are picking up the slack, sometimes in new and dangerous places like sub-Sahel Africa, the Arabian peninsula or the mountains of Pakistan. The dinosaur dictators of North Africa are gone but we have the possibility that in their place a new cadre of leaders may emerge — elected by their people — who find a way to both institutionalize and legitimize less tolerant, more extreme views. (The "promise" by Hamas to eschew violence may be seen as a positive development, unless it is really tied to a shift to win support of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and others like them who, once in power in Egypt and elsewhere, may make the challenges posed by Islamist democracy more daunting those posed by Islamist radicalism or crony kleptocracies. These new groups will have the mandates of their people and thus will be much harder to dismiss by the West even as they spread their methods and alliances more effectively across the region.) Alternatively, democracy will get quashed by military thugs like those in charge in Egypt now and the west, fearing what they might get with the democracy they long sought may grow silent, complacent and thus complicit again in another wave of abuse against the people of the region. That’s not a good outcome either.
Such choices and complexities may await in North Korea as well. As a consequence, by now 2011 should have taught us that despite all natural impulses to the contrary, we really must try to suppress the instinct to celebrate too vigorously the deaths of very bad men.