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Words Have Consequences

What Obama's Cairo speech has wrought.

12:00 AM, Jun 16, 2009 • By SETH CROPSEY
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Muammar Qaddafi, who had become gratifyingly less belligerent since the Reagan administration's 1986 airstrikes, subsequent economic sanctions, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, came out of his box during a visit to Italy on June 11. "What's the difference," he asked in an address to Italian legislators, "between the U.S. airstrikes on our homes and bin Laden's actions?"

The difference is that the U.S. airstrikes of the 1980s were aimed primarily at military and government targets after Libyan planes fired missiles at U.S. carrier-based aircraft in international waters. The U.S. strike was also intended to punish Libya's complicity in the bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin frequented by off-duty American military personnel. Bin-Laden's attack on the World Trade Center was aimed at, and succeeded in, killing thousands of innocents as a means of expressing general hatred for the West and the U.S. in particular.

Qaddafi's equation of U.S. military responses to provocations of his own making--which followed Washington's extensive public and private warnings about American insistence on maintaining freedom of navigation in international waters--with bin Laden's surprise attack against civilians was offered up less than a week after President Obama's Cairo speech.

In this speech Obama called the 9/11 attacks "an enormous trauma to our country . . . that led us to act contrary to our ideals." Specifically, Guantanamo. The president reduced the evil of destroying several thousand innocents to a psychological episode that produced aberrant American behavior. Other parts of the same speech are equally unbalanced. "Israel must live up to its obligations" to allow Palestinians to lead decent lives. However, no such "obligation" exists for Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to exist.

No one should be surprised that Qaddafi's remarks followed Obama's so quickly. If the American president sees his international role as a great exhorter with a lot of explaining to do, why shouldn't the leaders of other countries, especially those who share serious misgivings about the role of the United States in the world join the chorus? If the "fight against negative stereotypes," as Obama put it, is what really stiffens the sinews and summons up the blood of the U.S. president, call in the speechwriters, act the role of the victim convincingly, and consider the attractive possibility that words may matter more than deeds in dealing with the United States--at least for a while.

For now this may be a largely moot issue in our relations with Libya. Oil prices haven't increased enough for Qaddafi to become a real troublemaker again, notwithstanding Obama's apologia and self-description as an arbiter between two value systems that may be regrettably locked in a stereotypically-induced misunderstanding.

But in other places around the world the transformation of U.S. foreign policy into moralistic exhortations anchored in efforts to judge national interest from a stereotype-free, neutral vantage point could have more immediate and serious consequences: the Korean Peninsula, for example.

On June 4, the day before Obama's speech in Cairo, Seoul reported that a North Korean patrol boat had violated its territorial waters off South Korea's western sea border. The same area was the site of naval clashes between the two states in 1999 and 2002, on the opposite side of the Korean Peninsula from where North Korea captured the intelligence ship, USS Pueblo in 1968.

Pueblo's mission was to monitor Soviet ships transiting the Tsushima Straits and collect signal and electronic intelligence from North Korea. She had departed Sasebo, Japan the second week of 1968 and was spotted and eventually forced by a North Korean sub chaser and three torpedo boats and aircraft into North Korean waters on 23 January 1968. Fired on and boarded, one U.S. sailor was killed in the action that preceded Pueblo's capture and detention in Wonsan. Her crew was taken to POW camps, starved and tortured before being released 11 months later. The incident sparked a feckless debate within the United States over how to respond. The ship today remains on the U.S. Navy's list of active-duty commissioned ships and sits in the harbor of Pyongyang, a reminder of a little power's ability to tweak a big one.

The United States ought to be watching carefully. North Korea seized the USS Pueblo nearly 40 years ago--in January 1968--when American international power, albeit for different reasons, was increasingly in doubt. President Johnson had declared his intention not to run for a second term. Domestic protest over the Vietnam war was rending the country. The United States, to use an enemy-coined phrase from the time, appeared increasingly as a paper tiger.

Our military today is held in much higher regard, and the nation's college campuses are quiet. But we are engaged in not one, but two wars, and the new administration appears at times to believe that the foreign parallel for narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor at home is to narrow the gap between how we treat our friends and how we treat our enemies abroad. China harasses U.S. naval vessels not once but twice: we tell the Chinese that the relationship between our two countries is more important than any other single issue. Russia announces that it will deploy SS-26 missiles in Kaliningrad if we provide missile defenses to protect Poland and the Czech Republic against possible Iranian attack: And the new administration declares that it wants to "re-set" relations with Russia. Questions about whether the Obama administration can "live" with a nuclear Iran are met with well-crafted rhetoric about unclenched fists and extended hands that sounds unmistakably like "yes." The Cairo speech was tough on our ally, France, for its restrictions on the wearing of the hijab in schools and diffident about the treatment of Muslim women in Muslim societies.

North Korea's rulers are among the most isolated in the world but if they missed the new American administration's relaxed approach to international challenges, they cannot possibly have overlooked Washington's mild response to their recent nuclear weapon and missile tests. North Korea was told that the American Secretary of State found such behavior "provocative and belligerent"--which is surely what North Korea intended. Moreover, said Secretary Clinton, such actions could spark an arms race in Asia, an observation that is as bland as it is obvious.

Could the North do anything else to demonstrate that they can tweak us with impunity? The experience of the USS Pueblo answers that question in the affirmative.

The Obama administration at a minimum should be prepared for such an eventuality. Appropriate and swift response should be available to protect and prevent American and allied lightly-armed or merchant vessels in the area from being boarded, escorted into North Korean waters, and their crews put on trial--as were the two American journalists who were convicted and imprisoned by Pyongyang earlier this month.

An attack on a U.S. vessel should be treated for what it is, an act of war. Imploring China to extricate us from the consequences of such an act of aggression would tell the world that the United States is no longer ready to defend itself and must, like a small state, ask for help from others in an emergency. A worse outcome cannot be imagined.

If North Korea attacks a U.S. vessel we should also decommission USS Pueblo and sink her. One captured U.S. vessel in a North Korean harbor is one too many. The Obama administration will eventually have to draw the line somewhere. The North Koreans may leave well enough alone. But if Pyongyang considers our preoccupation with two Middle Eastern conflicts, judges that American political leadership's will has returned to its dispirited 1968 level, and if the recent incident with the South Korean patrol boat turns out to be a rehearsal the Obama administration will be offered an opportunity to undo the confusion that the Cairo speech sowed. It should be prepared.

Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and was deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and as a Naval officer for 20 years.