What lies behind North Korea’s saber-rattling?

Bart Marcois Public Affairs Consultant
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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.

Equally unfortunately, these events also are playing out against the backdrop of the abject failure of the administration and the Senate to produce a budget, as mandated by law. The budget sequester — with its looming defense cuts — has made international headlines for months now.

In this context, the North Korean actions become clearer. The alliance between Iran and North Korea is strong, and strengthening by the day. They have a shared interest in weakening American influence, because only America stands between them and their goals of complete regional dominance: the Korean Peninsula on the one hand, and the Middle East on the other.

Is it too much to imagine that someone in Iran or North Korea or both remembers how successfully Saddam Hussein toyed with American military might? Or that Iran thinks diverting American attention and military assets away from the Gulf is in its best interests, as it comes down the home stretch to full nuclear capability? Is it beyond belief that they remember that President Reagan broke the Soviet Union by overpowering it economically, not by direct military confrontation?

How much is the current rush of assets to the Pacific costing us, in both dollars and diplomatic currency? We already gave up yet another prize to Vladimir Putin, early in the game, when Defense Secretary Hagel redeployed anti-missile batteries from East to West, to defend the U.S. coastline. What else is this costing us? When will policy makers — or voters — see the connection between our national security and our national debt, and decide that it’s time to just stop spending so much money?

I fear we are spending ourselves into bankruptcy, and that we will have spent all our resources on trivial matters, or matters best left to individual initiative, when we suddenly come to crunch time. We may end up like the old Soviet Union, too broke and bankrupt to take care of our vital interests. What North Korea is doing will not bankrupt us; but when we are already on the edge, every unexpected expenditure will cause wildly disproportionate harm.

And neither North Korea nor any other foreign country forced us to the edge; we’re doing that to ourselves.

Bart Marcois was a career Foreign Service officer, serving in four Middle Eastern countries. He is the former principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs.