Un­think­able wars in far­away places

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - By David Shrib­man NEA Con­trib­u­tor

As the United States and North Korea — both armed with in­cen­di­ary rhetoric and nu­clear weapons — taunt and chal­lenge each other, the cri­sis in East Asia un­der­lines an im­por­tant, im­mutable but much-ig­nored law of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions: Pe­riph­eral dis­putes have a dan­ger­ous ten­dency to grow into prin­ci­pal ar­eas of con­flict.

A cen­tury ago, few Amer­i­cans gave even a fleet­ing thought to Korea. The na­tion came up a hand­ful of times on the Sen­ate floor in 1919, pri­mar­ily over the ques­tion of Korean self-gov­er­nance, but a res­o­lu­tion sup­port­ing an in­de­pen­dent Korea failed to be re­ported out of the rel­e­vant com­mit­tees of both the House and Sen­ate, and the topic was swiftly for­got­ten. No one would have guessed that the United States, al­ready on the rise as a world power, would face a nu­clear-armed North Korea in a deadly stand­off a cen­tury later.

The dis­pute be­tween the United States and North Korea is one of sev­eral un­likely turns in diplo­matic af­fairs, a re­minder that the most im­prob­a­ble cor­ners of the world can be the most fertile grounds for in­ter­na­tional strife. From the Congo cri­sis of the early 1960s and the Falk­lands War of 1982 to the French com­bat in Chad in 1983 and the brief Amer­i­can con­flict on the Caribbean is­land of Gre­nada only months later, the ma­jor pow­ers have of­ten found them­selves in dif­fi­cul­ties in dis­tant, re­mote lands.

It has hap­pened for years. The Bri­tish fought the Boer War at the open­ing of the 20th cen­tury, and the French and Ger­mans nearly came to blows in the Agadir Cri­sis of 1911 in Morocco. Afghanistan, some­times re­garded as the grave­yard of em­pires, has been fought over by the Bri­tish three times and the Rus­sians twice; it en­gaged Canada for about a dozen years and has en­snarled Amer­i­cans for 15 — and count­ing.

Amer­i­can pres­i­dents have faced un­likely crises in un­likely places since Thomas Jef­fer­son joined the Tripoli­ta­nian War in the Bar­bary States of North Africa in the first years of the 19th cen­tury. Some 175 years later, Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter found his ad­min­is­tra­tion con­vulsed in a cri­sis in Iran, where Amer­i­can diplo­mats were held hostage for 444 days by stu­dents and prison guards sup­port­ing Ira­nian theocrats.

The cur­rent cri­sis in­volv­ing North Korean nu­clear weapons and in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles — which by some es­ti­mates make a large por­tion of North Amer­ica vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack — is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of this phe­nom­e­non, pre­sent­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump with a clas­sic co­nun­drum. But un­like the An­gloZulu War of 1879, the Crimean War of 1853-1856, or the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763 (fought in part in North Amer­ica, then a far­away out­post of the Bri­tish Em­pire), this po­ten­tial con­fronta­tion puts mil­lions of peo­ple at risk.

“This is a se­ri­ous cri­sis,” said Bruce W. Ben­nett, se­nior in­ter­na­tional re­searcher at the RAND Corp., a think tank re­spected in diplo­matic cir­cles. “There are all these mis­siles be­ing launched by what can gen­er­ously be de­scribed as a ‘third-world coun­try.’ This is a big test for Trump.”

At the heart of this con­flict is Kim Jong Un, who, like his pre­de­ces­sors Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, con­sid­ers the Korean War still to be in progress. There was an armistice in 1953, to be sure, but North Korea main­tains the con­flict still rages, with the re­cent set of sum­mer­time provo­ca­tions merely be­ing an ex­ten­sion of a war that be­gan two-thirds of a cen­tury ago, in 1950.

A mere 48 days be­fore the out­break of the Korean War, the United States for­mally — though not par­tic­u­larly vis­i­bly — agreed to pro­vide mil­i­tary aid to France in its strug­gle in In­dochina.

The Pen­tagon Pa­pers, the in­ter­nal Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment study that 21 years later would be the sub­ject of a ma­jor Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tional dis­pute over its re­lease, set out the con­text and im­pli­ca­tions of that agree­ment, which was sup­ported by Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man. The lan­guage from the Pen­tagon Pa­pers is stark:

“The de­ci­sion was taken in spite of the U.S. de­sire to avoid di­rect in­volve­ment in a colo­nial war, and in spite of a sens­ing that France’s po­lit­i­cal-mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion in In­dochina was bad and was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. More­over, pre­dic­tions that U.S. aid would achieve a marked dif­fer­ence in the course of the In­dochina War were heav­ily qual­i­fied.”

U.S. Sec­re­tary of De­fense Louis A. John­son ex­plained the sit­u­a­tion for Tru­man, telling him, “The choice con­fronting the United States is to sup­port the le­gal gov­ern­ment in In­dochina or to face the ex­ten­sion of com­mu­nism over the re­main­der of the con­ti­nen­tal area of South­east Asia and pos­si­bly west­ward.”

John­son was ousted six months later, but that fate­ful sen­tence con­trolled, and later sum­ma­rized, Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy in Viet­nam for a gen­er­a­tion.

“Prior to 1950, Viet­nam wasn’t im­por­tant to Amer­i­can strate­gists at all,” said Ed­ward Miller, a Dart­mouth Col­lege ex­pert on the Viet­nam War and a prin­ci­pal ad­viser on the war to Ken Burns, whose 10-part, 18-hour doc­u­men­tary series on Viet­nam be­gins air­ing on PBS Sun­day evening. “The United States had no nat­u­ral ties with In­dochina. No one from here traded with Viet­nam and no one vis­ited it. The idea that the United States would fight a huge war in Viet­nam was un­think­able.”

Now, of course, the word of­ten ap­plied to a war with North Korea in­volv­ing pow­ers pos­sess­ing nu­clear weapons is “un­think­able.” It is a re­minder that what was con­sid­ered un­think­able in one decade — in places re­garded as pe­riph­eral — can sud­denly and chill­ingly seem plau­si­ble in an­other.

David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­man@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shrib­manPG.

David Shrib­man

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