False Choices

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

In typical fashion, the media’s attention can only focus on one or two issues at a time. Further, events that complicate ideological narratives pose problems for editors, policy makers and politicians. The first narrative goes something like this: The brutal dictatorship of the Assad dynasty was a bad actor in international relations. They house chemical weapons and commit human rights atrocities. We won’t mention that they tried a break out into nuclear weapons because that problem was solved by the Israelis, who are currently a bugbear for the American left. The Assad regime then used chemical weapons on its own population until the Russians helped them save face with a promise to give them up. The rising narratives now are the various trial balloons that suggest that although Assad is a bad guy, he is not as bad as the Islamic State group and we have a devil’s bargain between siding with him or letting them run rampant.

The inconvenient story is that there are credible reports confirmed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (the body the implements the Chemical Weapons Convention) that Assad is using chlorine barrel bombs against civilians. This includes attacks against hospitals suspected by the Syrian regime of giving medical treatment to “rebels.”

It is always an amazing act of immoral rationalization that the world was unmoved by tens of thousands of deaths by the Assad regime when they used bullets, mortars, tanks and conventional bombs – but when they used chemical weapons, they had to be stopped. In the typical thinking of liberal internationalism that was solved by the deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but any deal will do: The Syrians give up their chemical weapons, and then they are free to kill with conventional means. Now, even that twisted philosophy is turned on its head by the use, again, of chemical weapons.

The choice is not and never was between supporting the Baathist dictatorship in Damascus, or the evils of Islamic extremism. This is a false choice, given by moral and political cowards who are only interested in the appearance of a solution.

The next inconvenient narrative is that of North Korea. Most of the left wing is not childish enough to consider the Kim dynasty as deal-worthy as the Assad dynasty. Instead, they hide behind international relations realism arguing that at the end of the day the Kim family will make rational choices based on self-interest. Although Secretary of State John Kerry is shocked at the horror of the regime during his recent trip, one has to wonder where his history books have been since 1950. There is nothing new going on in Pyongyang and to suggest otherwise is to create a false reality.

The new story is North Korea’s claim to have developed the capability of launching submarine based missiles, which could someday be tipped with nuclear weapons. Although there is extreme skepticism about the veracity of this, a South Korean defense official said earlier this month that the communist North could have a “fully operational submarine armed with ballistic missiles in the next four to five years.” This would dramatically change the security calculation for the United States, South Korea and Japan as it would allow North Korea to attempt to attack with weapons of mass destruction with little warning, most dramatically against the United States.

What media attention this has generated has been devoted to the possibility of doctored photographs and possible timelines of the communist regime’s ability to deploy. However, this is all a question of when, not if. Amid all of this are reports that North Korea has a current arsenal of 20 nuclear weapons and has accelerated its enrichment capabilities. Many are linking the North Korea’s current posture to the proposed deal between the United States and Iran. Adm. Bill Gortney, the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, confirmed the assessment that North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a warhead and place it on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Just as is in the case with Syria, the false dichotomy being proposed is that the only choice regarding North Korea is war or appeasement. In other words current and some past policymakers have created the mindset that unless we cease hard pressure on North Korea we will get a war on the Korean peninsula. Thus, the only palatable alternative is to desperately find ways to appease the communist regime so that we avoid this worse fate. The 1995 KEDO agreement was the high point of this. The United States became party to a pact whereby we would purchase communist promises not to make nuclear weapons in exchange for food, oil, and ultimately nuclear energy. This was heralded as the highpoint of Clinton era diplomacy since the “alternative” was war. The result of all this, was the first breakout possession of nuclear weapons of a rouge regime in the history of international relation s.

There are two lessons to be learned from the North Korean experience: First, the only time North Korea takes the West seriously is when forceful action is threatened. They played the Clinton administration for all they were worth which bought them the time to create the nuclear program of today. Second, unless we wish to see Iran in a few years reach the point where North Korea is right now with weapons of mass destruction we must have zero tolerance for any new nuclear armed states.

Finally, readers should always question the standard dichotomies in foreign affairs. Operating here is the old adage is that you create three scenarios, two of which are so absurd as to ensure the third (usually bad) one is chosen. In these cases tell the public that the choice is between nuclear war or surrender unless we engage in a horrendous policy decision, only made palatable by the other two options. This is what we are being told over Syria and North Korea. The electorate should not accept being treated like children. There were and are viable alternatives in both cases. However, as each day passes, the number of options declines until the least bad option will sound good.