Vexing the U.S. government again, basketball star Dennis Rodman has made a repeat visit to North Korea to visit its leader Kim Jong-un. After his last trip, which brought howls of protest from Washington’s foreign policy establishment and self-righteous screaming by media pundits about his coddling of a despot, I wrote one of the few pieces in defense of Rodman’s trip. After that, he jokingly refers to me as his "foreign policy advisor," but I had no role in his decision to visit the hermit nation again or in the planning for it. Yet, I must, for a second time, rise to his defense.
Critics correctly point out that North Korea, under Kim’s young reign, has been fairly hostile toward America and the West and has continued its abysmal human rights abuses. Yet it is dangerous to demonize even harsh dictators, such as Kim, because that it makes it more likely that the United States will eventually feel the need to use war to "take them out." For example, the United States first demonized and then ousted Manuel Noriega in Panama, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Forebodingly, the US government has also demonized Bashar al-Assad in Syria and is now pushing for armed attack on him. American foreign policy often hypocritically and haughtily ostracizes autocrats toward which it has less than amicable relationships, while turning a blind eye toward and supporting the actions of friendly despots – for example, the Shah of Iran, who had the worst human rights record on the planet when he was a U.S. client state and more recently in Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt, which have governments that have forcibly put down "Arab spring" uprisings. The United States has also supported the Saudi Arabian monarchy, which has one of the worst human rights records in the world, and other authoritarian Persian Gulf states that float on a sea of oil.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that gassing your own people, as Assad may well have done, or running appalling gulags and committing other human rights abuses, as Kim has done, are OK. The US government and media should rightly condemn such practices, but it is very difficult for the United States to change such dictators’ internal transgressions without itself committing a violation of international law by attacking or invading a country without self-defense as an excuse. And even then, US intervention is likely to make a mess of things, as it has in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
In Syria, we have the ridiculous situation of an impending US military strike only after Assad used poison gas to kill about 1,400 people, while ignoring his killing of more than 100,000 with bombs and bullets. In fact, while the US strike is pending, Assad will probably kill another 1,400 in the same place – East Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs – by his recent resumption of heavy aerial bombardment as an "in your face gesture" toward America. And as Milsosevic did in Kosovo in 1999, after the United States began bombing the Serbs, he ratcheted up the ethnic cleansing and killing of Albanians because he no longer had anything to lose. Similarly, Assad could taunt the United States after any US strike by launching even bigger chemical attacks on his own people.
Likewise, US military exercises usually trigger a hostile response from North Korea. It is not good that North Korea probably has a small stockpile of nuclear weapons and acts up periodically to get more Western aid. But trying to isolate, politically and economically, an already paranoid nuclear weapons state is not productive – if nothing else, because a poor North Korea, desperate for money, then would be more likely to try to sell its nuclear technology abroad. And threatening militarily, or even attacking, a state with nuclear weapons has always been a really bad idea.
If the US foreign policy establishment were smarter, instead of condemning Rodman for his efforts at basketball diplomacy, they would use the valuable back channel to talk to Kim’s isolated regime. In fact, the United States doesn’t have much else going for it with North Korea, as the cancellation of American diplomat Robert King’s scheduled trip indicates. US containment policy has failed, and it has few other interlocutors with that regime.