What lies behind North Korea’s saber-rattling?

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT — As I have watched Kim Jong Un making more outlandish pronouncements each day, until he sounds crazy enough to genuinely like Dennis Rodman, I’ve wondered what his game is. Wrapping up an international conference in Bahrain and then visiting old friends in Kuwait may have provided me with a perspective fresh enough to throw some light upon it.

Seeing military assets streaming to the Pacific Theater (and especially seeing it while in the Arabian Gulf), I can’t help but be reminded of Iraq in the early 1990s. The international community had imposed crippling sanctions on Saddam Hussein; he was locked in a cage, as tightly as was practicable. Increasingly intrusive U.N. inspections were getting closer to discovering his military secrets.

When the pressure became too great for him to bear, he started making feints to the south, accompanied by bellicose statements threatening a renewed invasion of Kuwait. In September of 1994, the Clinton administration broke with established practice and delayed the arrival of one aircraft carrier group for several weeks after the departure of the previous carrier. This was an effort to save a few million dollars in defense spending.

Saddam knew that without a carrier group or a combined exercise, Kuwait was left with only a few hundred U.S. military advisors and no organized U.S. fighting force, so he immediately threatened a full-scale invasion. He positioned hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, fuel, and ammunition on the border, causing the greatest rush to a military buildup since the war. Tens of thousands of American troops deployed to the region, along with a wing of A-10 “Warthog” ground attack jets, two wings of fighter jets, and a carrier group.

Saddam backed down, but replayed his feint every couple of months for a while. Each time he rattled his cage, U.S deployments to pacify him cost the Defense Department about a billion dollars. Eventually it became clear that he had no intention of attacking Kuwait again: he just enjoyed playing with us, as with a cat and a piece of string. And he enjoyed watching us spend financial and human resources as a result of his whims.

In the Gulf countries today, all international tensions are examined in the light of Iranian ambitions, and with good reason. Iranian adventurism is plain to see here, from the fiercest military intervention in Syria by Hezbollah and the Iranian Republican Guards; to weapons, ammunition, and money supplied to Iran’s puppet government in Syria; to financial, political, and rhetorical interference in Bahrain, aimed at inflaming sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shias; to recognition and cooperation with the new governments or activist groups in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya; to threats to close down the Strait of Hormuz. All this is playing out, of course, against the livid backdrop of accelerated Iranian nuclear development and an administration policy see-sawing between carrots, threats from “Shotgun Joe” Biden, and the exposure of the sources and methods of our most sensitive and successful intelligence operations.