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     Nov 30, 2010

Teetering Asian dominoes test Obama
By Victor Kotsev

"You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."
- Dwight Eisenhower, former US president

TEL AVIV - The domino theory once governed American strategic thinking with respect to communism in Asia. It was one of the main justifications for the disastrous war in Vietnam, and was discredited greatly in the wake of it. However, looking at the situation in Asia today from the point of view of the United States government, it seems that the specter of the falling dominoes is rapidly coming back to haunt President Barack Obama, if not in


its classical form, at least as a kind of a ripple effect in an already fragile region.

The crisis between North and South Korea is a good example of that. The tension that soared last week after North Korea shelled an island south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), killing four, has not subsided yet, but the ripples are being felt throughout the Asian continent.

To the current American president's credit, he doesn't bear most of the responsibility for the tough situation he is in; however, his defensive, albeit carefully-crafted, policy seems insufficient to stem the tide of reverses in Asia that threatens to undermine American influence on the continent.

It is hard to understand the logic behind North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island or China's muted response simply by stating that the North is trying to extort financial aid from the international community or that the belligerence is a way for Kim Jong-eun to prove his credentials as Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's successor just as the bombing of the South Korean cabinet in Myanmar was for his father (though these explanations certainly help). [1] After all, a blatant attack on undisputed territory for these reasons would normally be too risky even for the quirky North Korean government. It is important also to look at Pyongyang's grievances in slightly more detail.

"The North Koreans never recognized the NLL, and by the late 1950s they were already complaining about it," says Stratfor analyst Rodger Baker. "They were suggesting the creation of what they called the MDL - the military demarcation line. This would have been a line that matches more along the 12 nautical miles and runs fairly diagonally between North Korea and South Korea in the West Sea ... We're seeing now on the NLL that the North Koreans are having to step up even to a higher state of activity to be able to draw attention to the NLL ... The question is how far do the North Koreans have to go before the crisis either draws attention in the way they want or forces a response from the South Koreans and, ultimately, from the United States."

Yeonpyeong Island lies seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores (and much farther from South Korea), and thus is part of the territory claimed by the North. This contradicts the United Nations demarcation, and thus doesn't really work internationally as an excuse, but it certainly helps clarify the North's choice.

Moreover, as it turns out from the American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks on Sunday, Kim Jong-il had some real reasons to feel irked and threatened. "American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, should the North's economic troubles and political transition lead the state to implode," writes The New York Times. "The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China, according to the American ambassador to Seoul."

A military confrontation being an unsavory option for both Washington and Seoul (even without the use of nuclear weapons, the North is widely assumed capable of destroying the South Korean capital and crippling the economy, at the very least), if a rise of tension up to that line would benefit Pyongyang, it would make sense for the United States to downplay its response. A similar conclusion is reached by Michael Green writing for the Shadow blog of Foreign Policy: "The Obama administration's opening response has been smart. They have not fueled the sense of crisis in a way that would give Pyongyang more leverage, but they have shown resolve by deploying the USS George Washington to the coast of the peninsula."

According to this strategy, a victory for the Americans would mean that the North Koreans abstain from further attacks. However, defining such modest goals days after the North unveiled a new, reportedly state-of-the-art, uranium-enrichment plant, and eight months after another provocation by the North (according to most sources, including the United Nations) sank a military ship of the South and killed 46 sailors, would widely be perceived as a sign of weakness.

Domestically, with the Republicans strengthened by the November congressional elections, we must watch for an increase of attacks on Obama's record of supporting allies. Internationally, both allies and enemies will most likely exploit this and increase the pressure on the American administration.

While Japan called for a tough response and several other American allies condemned the North Korean attack strongly, much of the focus really is on the Iranian confrontation. For example, it has been reported that the uranium-enrichment facility which North Korea disclosed is very similar to Iranian facilities, and that the two countries follow identical nuclear strategies. [2] "Officials in Washington know that a failure to respond in this case would have grave strategic and international implications," writes Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai. "Iran is closely monitoring North Korea's conduct on the nuclear and sanctions front, and there are quite a few indications that Pyongyang serves as a model for emulation."

There are signs that Israel is preparing to use the distant crisis to demand that the Obama administration do more about Iran - or at least acquiesce to an Israeli military strike. "[It is] necessary today, more than in the past, to stop and to topple [North Korea's] crazy regime, and to stop their proliferation and provocations," Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's right-wing foreign minister, said in reference to the incident. This comes on top of WikiLeaks revelations that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak already put the Iranian crisis to the Americans in grim terms [3] and drew a parallel with North Korea. 

It is not difficult to imagine a collusion between domestic opponents of Obama eager to paint him as weak and cowardly and Israeli leaders trying to twist his arms and force him to take a tougher line on Iran. The worst-case scenario for the American administration would be if the violence in the Korean Peninsula escalated and it could not find an appropriate way to save face and de-escalate the confrontation.

Should a credible argument be made that he has abandoned an ally such as South Korea, Obama would find it difficult to either avoid responding harshly to Iran or stop Israel from attacking. Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia would likely add their weight to that of the Jewish state, as they were revealed to have done in the past by the WikiLeaks and other reports.

This still outlines only the start of a potential ripple effect. The situation of several other American allies is already so bad that they hardly even need a Korean paradigm to despair. Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, for example, just went hat-in-hand to Tehran [4] and started a diatribe against Israel, [5] in an apparent sign that he is ready to toe the Iranian line if that is what it will take to ensure his survival.

In Iraq, the Western-backed Iyad Allawi was elbowed out of forming a government by his Iran-backed Shi'ite rivals despite winning the popular election earlier this year. In Afghanistan, an already-alienated President Hamid Karzai [6] is looking on as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization effort to prop him up continues. [7] However as the counter-insurgence strategy employed by the American-led coalition continues to draw fire, [8] what happened to South Vietnam looms over him in the slightly more distant future. In Yemen, too, the government is getting desperate against al-Qaeda militants and Iran-backed Houtini rebels, and, according to some reports, is considering playing both sides.

All this suggests that the current patient and diplomatic strategy Obama is pursuing does not bode well for American interests in Asia. War, moreover, is unlikely to be a good substitute for a better and clearer vision, and by itself is unlikely to bring anything positive to the region. What is needed from the White House is strong leadership, and if it does not materialize, the effects will likely be disastrous.

1. Deja vu all over again with North Korea, Foreign Policy, November 28, 2010.
2. Hecker: North Korea now has same nuclear defense as Iran, November 23, 2010.
3. WikiLeaks expos้: Barak warned strike on Iran was viable until end of 2010, Ha'aretz, November 28, 2010.
4. Lebanon's Hariri seeks Iran help, ynetnews.com, November 26, 2010.
5. Lebanon PM: Netanyahu doesn't believe in peace, Ha'aretz, November 26, 2010.
6. NATO, Karzai and the relics of Kabul, Asia Times Online, November 22, 2010.
7. The incredible shrinking withdrawal date, Asia Times Online, November 24, 2010.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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