Dennis Rodman, the retired Chicago Bulls star, rabble-rouser, and all-around weird guy got the red-carpet treatment on his bizarre trip to North Korea, improbably becoming perhaps the highest-profile American to meet with new leader Kim Jong Un, apparently a big roundball fan.
Vice, the magazine that sponsored this fantastic voyage, has already written up a brief and possibly drunken account of an exhibition game played by a couple Harlem Globetrotters and some North Korean stars, noting, "Following the game, Rodman gave a stirring speech that extended an olive branch to the Hermit Kingdom. The VICE crew is currently having a reception at the Supreme Leader's house, and Duffy has invited Kim Jung-un to America for a tour of the VICE offices."
And now, the North Korean state press has weighed in. Here are some shots from Rodong Sinmun, better known for its grandiloquent denunciations of U.S. imperialism and threats to turn Seoul into a sea of fire. It seems a good time was had by all:
According to the Washington Post's Chico Harlan, the headline reads, "Roughly, the great KJU watched a basketball game of mixed teams and then met former NBA star(s)." And the account says, "Rodman went up to the auditorium to bow to Kim Jong Un. Warmly welcoming him, Kim Jong Un let him sit next to him. ... The players and audience broke into thunderous cheers, greatly excited to see the game together with Kim Jong Un."
At the reception, it looks like Rodman, ever the clothes horse, embraced the crowd's uniform attire of black with pink accents (and is that a Cosmo to match the Worm's scarf?).
Interestingly, North Korea watcher Adam Cathcart notes, seated two seats away from Rodman in the top photo is Kim Gye-gwan, North Korea's top nuclear negotiator. What that portends is anyone's guess.
President Barack Obama has taken some heat over the news that his administration may cut America's nuclear arsenal by "at least a third," according to FP contributor R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity. As Republican operative Michael Goldfarb tweeted, "Good timing for Obama's State of the Union announcement of unilateral nuke cuts." Just after the test, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte issued a press release headlined "Now Is Not the Time to Reduce Our Nuclear Deterrent," and a few other senators made the same link in Tuesday's Senate committee hearing vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense.
And indeed, the timing for such an announcement didn't seem politically wise, given that North Korea just tested its own nuclear device -- which may explain why the president didn't mention the cuts on Tuesday night, aside from a vague pledge to seek bilateral reductions with Russia.
But what about the substance? Just how does Obama's pile of nukes stack up against Kim Jong Un's? I asked Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, which tracks these issues closely. Here's what he said:
The total combined yield of all the warheads in the US nuclear stockpile is an estimated 1,400 Megatons. Warhead yields range from 0.3 kilotons to 1.2 Megatons per warhead.
North Korea doesn't yet have an "arsenal" in the form of deliverable warheads, but might have enough fissile material for less than 10 weapons. If their three tests are an indication, then an estimated combined yield of 20-50 kilotons might be a reasonable estimate. That is assuming yields of 4-6 kilotons per warhead.
Here's what that looks like in one handy chart:
Call me crazy, but I think we can handle the cuts.
French President Francois Hollande landed in Mali Saturday, and received a hero's welcome in Timbuktu, which until recently was a jihadist stronghold. Can you imagine a U.S. president doing this?
Hollande was greeted by Malians sporting shirts with the flags of both countries and banners reading “Thank You France” before being presented with a camel and wading into a crowd in the desert city. He was accompanied by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canfin.
Apparently the camel was extremely vocal in his support for the French leader, as you can see from this video.
The Washington Post editorial board asks: Is this Hollande's "Mission Accomplished" moment? My question: What is he going to do with the camel?
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
It's probably not the most important thing in the world. But I feel duty-bound to point out that the new bio for Secretary of State John Kerry, posted this afternoon on the department's website, needs work.
Two parts are particularly problematic. The first is this terrible, endless sentence in the seventh paragraph:
As a Senator, Kerry served since 2009 as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman where he became a Senate leader on key foreign policy and national security issues facing the United States including Afghanistan and Pakistan, nuclear nonproliferation, and global climate change, building on his previous Senate work that included helping to expose the Iran-Contra scandal and leadership on global AIDS.
Next, there's the double use of "best-selling" to describe Kerry's books and the questionable use of the word "which":
Secretary Kerry is the author of best-selling books, including A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America and This Moment on Earth, a best-selling book on the environment which he co-authored with his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry.
There are other minor copy problems -- missing commas and the like -- sprinkled throughout. But there are also matters of judgment, such as the unusual (and awkwardly phrased) inclusion of the following laudatory quote:
The New York Times wrote that through his service as Chairman, "Kerry now practices his brand of diplomacy as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee but also, remarkably, as a kind of ex-officio member of Obama’s national security team, which has dispatched him to face one crisis after another in danger zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan."
That's from a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile by James Traub, who also writes a weekly column for Foreign Policy. Kudos to my colleague Jim for the shoutout, but isn't it kind of strange for America's top diplomat to be patting himself on the back like this?
UPDATE: There's also a factual error in the bio, a reader points out:
As Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in 2010, John Kerry was instrumental in renewing the New START Treaty, a vital nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia that helps steer both countries away from dangerous nuclear confrontations.
Not only is "New START Treaty" an example of the deadly RAS Syndrome in action (think "ATM machine"), but it wasn't renewed -- it was new!
There's a ridiculous debate going on in the wonkosphere about an outlandish idea: minting a trillion-dollar coin so that President Obama can avoid the upcoming debt ceiling, which Republicans are threatening to use as leverage to extract major entitlement cuts. To make a long story short, there's supposedly a loophole in the law that allows the Treasury Department to mint platinum coins of any denomination, so the president could order up a trillion-dollar coin to pay the federal government's bills. Et voilà -- no worries on the debt ceiling.
Like it or not, the debt ceiling is legal. Congress has the power of the purse. On the other hand, using a ridiculous loophole in a statute about commemorative and bullion coins in order to evade the debt limit isn't legal. Seriously, folks: just forget it. I know I'll never have to pay up on a bet over this since it will never be tested, but this would go against Obama 9-0 if it ever made it to the Supreme Court.
But there's a much more serious debate going on in Washington right now, one that could ultimately prove a lot more important: the debate over another trillion-dollar COIN operation, the war in Afghanistan. In a nutshell: How many troops will the United States leave behind after 2014, and what will they do? The White House is said to be deciding between 3,000 and 9,000 troops, according to the New York Times. David Barno, the retired lieutenant general who headed the U.S. war effort from 2003 to 2004, writes this week that President Obama might decide to go down all the way to zero -- and White House Ben Rhodes acknowledged Tuesday that the "zero option" is on the table.
Supporters of the war in Afghanistan are apopleptic about this possibility. One of them told me today that even 6,000 U.S. troops would essentially be zero, since they would be generally confined to Bagram Air Base and Kabul. In his estimation, the CIA's base at Khost would become untenable, and then the United States would have to conduct drone strikes inside Pakistan from much further away, with a concomitant decline in effectiveness. In other words, the notion that we'd be able to simply continue doing counterterrorism work at the same level is a chimera.
I have some sympathy for this view. There are a lot of bad dudes across the Durand Line in places like Waziristan, and they want to kill Americans. It would be naive to think that they would simply give up the fight because we left. Jihadi groups, including al Qaeda, will undoubtedly proclaim a huge victory, boosting their recruiting. They'll be right.
And here's where historical analogies break down. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, we weren't worried about North Vietnamese communists and Viet Cong cadres blowing up car bombs in American cities. They took over the South, and that was a shame, but the so-called domino effect proved vastly overblown. You know the story: Henry Kissinger cleverly exploited the "Sino-Soviet split." And today, Vietnam is a budding American ally against a rising China.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, the bad guys really will come after us. That may sound alarmist. But left unmolested, they will increasingly have the means to do so. Drones are hugely unpopular in Pakistan; they don't seem like a sustainable long-term option, particularly after the United States leaves. And what, then, will prevent al Qaeda and friends from coming back? The Afghan military? Eventually, the region's poison will drain. But there will be many dangerous years ahead of us before then.
I'm not saying we should stay in Afghanistan. After all, it's been more than a decade, and the U.S. military and intelligence community have achieved precious little for all the blood and treasure that has been expended there. It hardly makes sense to spend tens of billions of dollars propping up an ungrateful, kleptocratic narcostate. This ain't postwar Germany or Japan, or even South Korea, however hard war supporters try to sell that analogy. "The juice ain't worth the squeeze," as one officer put it. But recognizing that doesn't solve our problem across the border in Waziristan.
Staying in Afghanistan doesn't make much sense. Leaving doesn't make sense either. What should we do?
The more I think about it, the more I think John Kerry was a great choice for Obama's second-term secretary of state. Granted, he wasn't the president's first choice. But Obama may have stumbled into a pretty good decision.
The main reason is that Obama's second term is going to involve a number of lines of sensitive, patient diplomacy that could be politically unpopular at home, or at least easy to attack. Let's take them one by one.
First, there's the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which may or may not involve serious discussions with the Taliban. If it happens, and depending on the parameters of that conversation, that's going to be hugely politically risky, and controversial even within the Obama administration itself. I'm not as optimistic as David Ignatius, but there are already signs that at least some factions of the Taliban are willing to come to the table, if only to explore their options. Kerry knows this terrain well, having managed to develop good relations with both Karzai and the Pakistani leadership.
Second, Iran. Kerry has long thought that the United States needed to find a way to strike a deal. He's skeptical that military action will work. He understands all too well the limits of sanctions. I think he's willing to get creative, and really try to exhaust all options before he signs on for a bombing campaign. He won't just check the diplomacy box -- I think he will really give negotiations a chance to play out.
Third, North Korea. The Obama administration's approach has been "strategic patience" -- a fancy way of saying do little and hope for the best. There were some good arguments for waiting out the North Koreans, chief among them that the South Koreans wanted to take a different tack. But it hasn't worked, and now even the conservative president-elect, Park Geun-hye, wants to explore engagement once again. The United States will be under pressure to join in.
Fourth, Syria. If the administration is serious about brokering some kind of negotiated solution (and it's far from clear this is the case), it will require some pretty deft multidimensional diplomacy with the regime, various factions of rebels, the neighbors, the Europeans, the Iranians, and the Russians. File this one under "mission impossible." But Kerry has been out ahead of the administration on Syria, at least. Maybe he'll be able to make the case for a more less terrible strategy.
Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a dog of an issue, and it seems very far from solvable at the moment. Obama would be foolish to have another tilt at a peace deal. But the Middle East has a way of dragging you in against your will. As long as it is propping up the Palestinian Authority and sending hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Israel, the United States won't be able to walk away from this mess. Kerry will need to find a way to at least credibly pretend that the Obama administration has a strategy -- and above all, work to prevent things from getting worse.
These are hard problems, and they are exactly the sorts of thankless tasks that Kerry excels at -- the kind that Hillary Clinton was either too busy thinking about 2016, spread too thin, or too disempowered by the White House to do much about. Remember: She wasn't a diplomat when she took the Foggy Bottom job; she was a politician. Yes, she has excelled at public diplomacy -- "townterviews" and the like. That was important in the wake of the Bush years. And yes, the State Department has done some solid diplomatic work in Asia under Clinton's watch. But there are only a few episodes (that we know of) where the secretary's personal, private involvement was crucial to a deal. In one of these cases, the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, she had a strong incentive to get involved -- because not to give her all to get Chen released would have been a stain on her legacy. But on the really tough issues, she's worked through envoys, a tactic that minimized the risks to Clinton herself. (And it worked: Nobody, for instance, seems to blame her for the administration's spectacular failures on the Israel-Palestinian front, or for its less than vigorous Syria policy. Even Benghazi hasn't really affected her reputation.)
Kerry is of course also a pol, but he has nothing left to lose. He's already run for presidency and lost. He seems at peace with himself. He'll shrug off personal attacks. Yes, he can be pompous and long-winded at times. But I think he's going to throw himself into this task, and the arc of his career shows a man willing to take risks when the moment demands it. And the moment certainly demands it now.
I don't have much to say about NRA chief Wayne LaPierre's remarks about the Newtown shooting. I'll leave that to the domestic guys. But my ears did perk up at this bit:
With all the foreign aid, with all the money in the federal budget, we can't afford to put a police officer in every school? Even if they did that, politicians have no business -- and no authority -- denying us the right, the ability, or the moral imperative to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm.
Grousing about how much taxpayer money goes to foreign aid is one of America's great traditions. But Americans tend to have a wildly exaggerated sense of how much they spend on foreign aid each year. There are many different ways to count, but $50 billion is a good ballpark estimate, when you include military aid and various programs spread across the U.S. federal government. You could also exclude the military stuff and just count the State Department and USAID budgets, which works out to around the same amount. Either way, it's roughly 1 percent of the budget -- not 25 percent, as Americans routinely tell pollsters.
How much would it cost to put "a police officer in every school?" According to economist Justin Wolfers, about $8 billion annually. On average, he says, around 20 kids are killed in schools each year. "Implies: $400m per *potential* kid saved," he tweets.
So, would Americans be willing to take $8 billion out of the annual foreign aid budget and devote it to possibly saving 20 kids per year? I suspect many parents will take that trade, but to a policymaker, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Oh, and one more thing: Columbine High School had armed guards.
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