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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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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.