So North Korea tested…something, maybe a hydrogen bomb although there’s reason to be skeptical about that, but something nuclear, on Wednesday, and Republican candidates are lining up to unload on President Obama and Hillary Clinton over it. Which, hey, it’s an election year, this is what happens. But when the talk turns to what any of them would do differently to disarm North Korea…well, see if you can pick out a pattern among the six national frontrunners.
Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, argued on Fox News that China had the unique ability to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China has long been a benefactor to North Korea and is its primary foreign ally, though the two countries have diverged over Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and disruptive regional policies.
“China has … total control over North Korea,” Trump said. “And China should solve that problem. And if they don’t solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult for China.
“We are holding China up,” he added. “They’re taking so much money. They’re draining our country, and they’re toying with us with North Korea. China should do it. They say they can’t, they ‘don’t have that power.’ They’re toying with our politicians, who don’t know what they’re doing.”
Trump said he would also lean on the US’ economic ties and military alliance with South Korea. He lamented that in his view the US got “nothing” despite placing thousands of troops in South Korea.
“I’d get South Korea — that’s making a fortune, they’re our trading partner, if you want to use the word ‘partner,'” Trump said.
He continued: “We get almost nothing for what we do. We defend the world. We defend so many countries. We get nothing. They get everything. We get nothing. South Korea’s going to have to start ponying up, OK? And we’ll do it in a very nice manner. They’ll like us even more than they like us now.”
Asked how a Cruz presidency would respond to North Korea, the candidate said he would pressure China to “cut off their client state,” and “to continue to isolate North Korea, to continue to cut off North Korea, to raise the costs of their belligerence.” But he warned that “every bad actor would get worse” until Obama was replaced.
“If this test is confirmed, it will be just the latest example of the failed Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” he said. “Our enemies around the world are taking advantage of Obama’s weakness. We need new leadership that will stand up to people like Kim Jong-un and ensure our country has the capabilities necessary to keep America safe.”
Ben Carson said China must put pressure on North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, to end illegal nuclear activity.
“In order to keep [Jong-Un] under control I think we need to work with China,” Carson said today.
Rubio’s critique was echoed by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who decried Obama’s “weak response” to North Korean nuclear aggressions under his watch. “Three out of the four nuclear detonations that the North Koreans have done have happened under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s watch,” Christie said during an appearance on Fox and Friends. “They have just not acted strongly at all around the world. This is just another example, piled on top of Iran, on top of Syria, on top Crimea and Ukraine … this is what weak American leadership gets you.”
And you get similar responses from candidates further down in the polls.
To the extent that you can pinpoint anything in these responses other than simple criticism of Obama, they all say pretty much the same thing: “If I were President, I’d stop North Korea’s nuclear program by ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”
Obama is weak, and these guys will all be strong, and ipso facto all our problems will go away. What does “strength” look like in this case? What specific things would any of them do to demonstrate that strength? Who knows? They’ll “stand up” to North Korea…how? “Raise the cost of their belligerence”…how? More sanctions on the most isolated country in the world? War with a country that can nuke Seoul and probably Tokyo? No, wait, we’ll pressure China to make things better…how? What if China says no? What if they say yes and it turns out they don’t have the leverage over Pyongyang that we all thought they did? Trump even wants to pressure South Korea, like South Korea isn’t taking the threat of North Korean nukes seriously enough. “South Korea’s going to have to start ponying up”? What the hell is he even talking about?
Look, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to criticize Obama over this. Not that he’s somehow responsible for the North Korean nuclear program–that’s a problem that definitely predates his presidency. But proliferation was–is–one of Obama’s big interests. Early in his first term, you may recall, Obama delivered an address in Prague where he talked about “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” and he’s obviously made nuclear issues a major part of his foreign policy, from the New START Treaty with Russia–back when US-Russia relations weren’t horrible–to the Iran nuclear deal. Obviously Obama wasn’t going to rid the world of nuclear threats. But his administration has done relatively little about North Korea from either a carrot or stick perspective, suggesting that they just never figured out how to approach Pyongyang and decided to leave it for the next president to worry about.
North Korea was and is the primary “rogue state” nuclear threat to the world, as well as the number one nuclear weapons proliferation risk, so Obama’s failure to make even the most basic progress with them can and should be considered a failure. So criticize away, by all means. But if the 823 people running for the Republican nomination want to be taken seriously as future presidents, they need to do better than just criticizing; they need to start explaining what, exactly, they would do differently if they’re elected. And in case you’re wondering, “I’d be tougher” or “I’d make China fix it” isn’t actually a thing.
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