In matters of war and peace, one of the most difficult questions to get right is correctly calibrating the response to a provocation. A provocation that results in a significant number of dead sailors is even more vexing. This is the dilemma faced by the South Koreans as it becomes increasingly obvious that the Cheonan was deliberately attacked and sunk by the North. Of course, any attempt at trying to fathom the "why" and "why now" questions that surround this attack will end up circular, for there is no explanation for the actions of the Kim Jong Il regime except that they are the actions of the regime - there is no external logic.
This is going to be very difficult for the South Koreans to game out. Given Kim's tendency for hysterical overreaction, it's difficult to assess what the result of any South Korean response might be, and of course the possibility of all-out war can never be discounted. But unlike many other cases, there is also a definite, measurable risk involved in doing nothing. SOMETHING made the North Korean regime decide to attack the Cheonan, and whatever might be the basis for that decision is still at play, at least in the minds of Kim's inner circle. No one can be certain of the status of Kim's health, and his impending death leaves him with two challenges that he'd wish to address before passing - his legacy and his succession. One might think that Kim would not want to go gently into that good night with the geopolitical status quo on the Korean Peninsula unchanged throughout his entire reign. And he also knows there are powerful political forces in play that might alter or undermine his chosen successor, and he'd likely want to do what he can to effectively cement Kim Jong-un's position as the next Dear Leader.
If the South takes ANY military action, they run the risk of the most brutal of unintended consequences, and with the firepower the North has arrayed around Seoul, a bustling modern city of over 20 million people, the costs of a miscalculation are horrific to consider. But clearly the regime in the North took the action against the South Korean navy for some reason, and if they don't get the reaction they expected, they can be counted upon to raise the stakes further until they do. There are no realistic economic or diplomatic steps that can be taken against the Hermit Kingdom, so the South is left with choosing between a military response and nothing.
My guess is that they will attempt a limited naval response, perhaps an attempt to capture or sink a North Korean patrol boat. If they use radio jamming equipment and act in the dead of night, they may be able to present their response to the Cheonan's sinking as a fait accompli and thus force the North to decide whether to retaliate rather than to act in defense. Either way, it's a reminder that we're never far from the next bloodbath...
This President's personnel choices have been all over the map. From retaining Bush SecDef Bob Gates, a choice I found inexplicable, but one I have to admit has turned out better than I had hoped, to the execrable Dennis Ross to sudden, brilliant perfection, represented by Obama's nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the DoJ Office of Legal Council. Remember, it is that previously esoteric backwater that provided the platform for such creatures as John Yoo and Jay Bybee to provide a legal framework allowing for arbitrary torture and indefinite detention, areas of well-settled law that were so often the basis for determining who were the international "good guys" and calling out the worst of the globe's despots. The OLC's last, best chance to regain some measure of credibility and honor was contained in the Johnsen nomination. She was clear, articulate, powerful and unhesitatingly honest. And now, under pressure from the minority Republicans who have resisted her nomination along with any other attempt to return to the rule of law, after a year of waiting and jockeying without a confirmation vote, she has withdrawn her name from consideration.
Mr. President, if I may address you directly, this is a resounding defeat. Excuse me, let me be more accurate. This is ANOTHER resounding defeat. In your measured rhetoric and unwillingness to engage in political dogfighting you have once again allowed the discredited minority to define your Presidency and prevent you from providing the kind of governance the people desperately asked you to provide when they elected you. I fear your legacy will be one of weakness, passivity, failure and a horrific kind of acceptance, even enablement of the Bush/Cheney administration's outlaw style of criminal overreach and unaccountability.
One last chance. Barely a year into the Obama administration and already they are facing a kind of existential challenge. Justice Stevens has announced his retirement, and we await President Obama's nomination with a kind of trepidation. Will he try to appease the radicals on the right again, nominating someone 'safe', another center-right academic, another dispassionate technocrat who will weigh cost against compassion, who will consider corporate profits ahead of human suffering? Or, in light of the Dawn Johnsen debacle, will he finally recognize that he'll have to fight no matter what, so it's time to make the fight ABOUT something? Will this be the moment when he realizes that there's no hope of winning over the right, and repeatedly trying to do so is only losing the left?
We'll see. From the stimulus to heath care reform to Cap and Trade to Financial Regulation to EFCA to cabinet appointments, Obama has shown a disturbing tendency to give up too much in his opening position and then give up more in return for nothing. We don't need a 'nice, fair guy' in the White House. And at this point, bipartisanship is stupid, clichéd joke, yet another Sunday Peanuts feature where Lucy promises that THIS time will be different, THIS time he'll really get to kick that football. It's time for Obama to stand up and say "the doctrine espoused by the Republicans has been demonstrated to be a failure - there's no reason to compromise with a discredited ideology". It's time to represent the best ideas from the brightest people, to do better by the American people, even at the cost of a few dollars in Corporate profits or another new strategic bomber.