When Hillary Clinton laid out her plans for dealing with North Korea, she responded with one concept: "strategic patience". Time, she felt, was on her side. A spokesman for the Korean President was quoted by the NYT as saying:
“The key word” during the South Korean leaders’ meetings with Mrs. Clinton was her strategy of “strategic patience,” said Lee Dong-kwan, President Lee’s spokesman.
“Another way to put it is that time is on our side,” the spokesman said after the president’s meeting with Mrs. Clinton. “We shouldn’t go for an impromptu response to each development but take a longer-term perceptive in shaping the situation around the Korean Peninsula.”
Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post, in a somewhat more skeptical article, noted that evidence this approach was working seemed far from evident.
Now that patience is going to be tested.
Since President Obama took office, North Korea has launched missiles, conducted a second nuclear test, seized a pair of U.S. journalists and sunk a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. This week, after South Korea halted aid and trade to Pyongyang, the North said it would sever relations with its neighbor. It also warned of more provocative actions if Seoul pushes ahead with plans to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions.
Ironically the concept of "strategic patience" was invoked by strategists who wished "stay the course" in Iraq. Anthony Cordesman, in his 2007 critique of that policy said, "There is no point in pursuing failed strategies or failed policies. Iraq is a gamble, and one where even the best-managed future US policies may still fail." In the summer of 2007 "strategic patience" was bad. Is it good this time? The only justification for those who saw the wisdom of persisting in Iraq is that the enemy was eventually defeated and a relatively friendly state was established in place of a hostile one. The same cannot yet be said of North Korea.
So why was strategic patience bad in Iraq but a good thing in North Korea. More generally when is 'strategic patience' a worthwhile approach? The obvious answer is when it works or looks likely to work. Genuine strategic patience pays off at some point. A dry hole stays dry forever. The difference between the two is that only one provides a return on investment. The other is mere obstinacy. Telling them apart is a matter of judgment. Napoleon counseled, "never reinforce failure". Napoleon was constantly probing for enemy weakness at various points, but gave himself a time limit to see whether it was worthwhile or not. He was constantly judging. Patience was never a virtue in itself. A move had to show potential or he would abandon it. Unlike Hillary he was not certain that time was always on his side. "You can ask me for anything you like, except time", he said. Time was neither enemy nor friend. It worked for both sides.
But Napoleon had set himself a simpler task than Hillary. He merely wished to win over an enemy. Hillary may want to shape geopolitics. It is possible that 'victory' and 'defeat' are too simplistic to describe her universe. Her goal is to change the course of history. She said, “we shouldn’t go for an impromptu response to each development but take a longer-term perceptive in shaping the situation around the Korean Peninsula.” This complicates strategy because it forces one to sit as it were on both sides of the DMZ at once. Things have to be arranged so that one social order should seamlessly changes into another without ever passing through a period of complete chaos. Nothing like the disorder that followed the fall of Saddam should ever be endured again. That means the bricks have to be rearranged ever so slowly, ever so carefully. Thus the only thing worse than having Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang is to not have him in Pyongyang; conflicts which end without anyone on the other side are considered problematic. Diplomats talk. And if everyone on the other side is defeated, then who is there left to talk to?
But Hillary will always have at least one party to talk to whatever happens to Kim Jong Il: China. Behind Pyongyang is Beijing. Both in 1950 and 2010, China pulled North Korea's strings. It provided and provides Pyongyang with Great Power protection. It uses Pyongyang to advance its agenda against Japan and South Korea. Hillary's confident declaration that North Korea is a problem which will solve itself no longer looks so certain when one looks slightly beyond the Korean peninsula. In that context it is not terribly clear Hillary is right when she declares "that time is on our side". Once the problem is defined in terms of America's relationship with China then the timescales become comparable to those of Cold War with the Soviet Union. Suppose it is Beijing that is displaying strategic patience and not Hillary? Beijing is not likely to gloat publicly. After all Napoleon also counseled, "never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."
The really dangerous thing about words is their ability to dress up folly in the language of wisdom. When we know the difference the result is humor. Who has not, as a student, ever referred to his dinner as a spiced rissole of choice beef served between a freshly baked bread, delicately seasoned with sauce mayonnaise and toma-toh relish? It made eating a slider taste better. But when we don't know the difference it's a shot in the dark and you better know when you've missed. The Washington Post story contains this skeptical note:
Still, L. Gordon Flake, a Korea expert who is executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, said the administration and the current South Korean government "have displayed remarkable adherence to their core principles in dealing with North Korea. There is a consistency you have not seen before."
But "looking forward, I'm a bit concerned," he said. "It leads down a road where the diplomatic options are increasingly constrained. Strategic patience is a solid policy, but what if North Korea is not patient?"
Is she winning or losing? Is it a pimp taking money from a taxi dancer or is it the Danse apache?
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