Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Puffer Fish Problem

Kim Jong Un - the only fat man in North Korea.

Korea's in turmoil again and the diplomats are all a-flutter. Unfortunately, given the apparent philosophy under which our current diplomatic corps operates, we may see the situation escalate rather than improve if the Obama State Department tries its usual disastrous tactics.

The administration is fond of a tit for tat strategy of diplomacy with us being the "tat" and the tat being too little, too late. Tit-for-tat is also sometimes called mirroring. It’s a mistake to use mirroring as our primary diplomatic strategy, especially with N. Korea. Such an approach places all the power in the hands of the North Koreans.  They know now that we will only do back to them exactly what they do to us.  Kim Jong Un figures he can win a conflict like that because his people will see the US as the bad guy and rally behind him. By luring us into a retaliatory game of tit for tat, he expects to inflame North Koreans against the US by casting us as the aggressor. He assumes that his people will endure any damage we do to him.  He also believes, like the Japanese did prior to the Second World War, that Americans will not tolerate having their hands spanked, but will surrender almost immediately and give the aggressor whatever he wants. Why not? It's worked for Hamas.

Mirroring as a diplomatic strategy makes the misguided assumption that your opponent wants the same things you want. Americans want freedom and prosperity through our own efforts. North Koreans are starving,  Kim Jong Un wants the international version of food stamps. North Koreans don't have the same ideals that we do. It’s woefully short-sighted to believe they do.

A couple of  examples from history show where the politicians got it wrong by expecting their nation's rival nation-states to want the same things their own citizens wanted.
  • Chamberlain wanted peace.  Hitler wanted conquest.
  • The US wanted peace.  Japan wanted conquest of the Pacific.
  • Queen Elizabeth I wanted open trade and competition for colonies in the New World. She was willing to divvy things up with Spain. King Philip wanted world domination.
It all led to war.

Many small dictatorships and leaders like Kim Jong Un adopt what I call the Puffer Fish Tactic when dealing with large Western democracies.  Like the puffer fish, they blow themselves up to look far larger and more dangerous than they really are in order to win concessions from their enemies.  They assume that our leaders are working from the same motivation that they are – the acquisition and maintenance of personal power.  If there is an imbalance between what motivates the two sides in any negotiation, mirroring becomes a useless negotiating tactic.
This happened to me last year with a client.  I made a proposal for a grant-writing project. The Client accepted it and then proceeded to negotiate a 20% decrease in my hourly rate and rejected my retainer fees.  I tried to accommodate the client assuming the client was interested in writing a good grant and turning it in on time.  After I went ahead and invested 30 some hours of unpaid time, the client canceled the grant and proceeded to trash me to my agency.

I thought the client wanted the same thing I wanted – the success of the grant.  I acted from that assumption.  I bent over backwards to make the thing happen, invested time and energy to insure we could hit the ground running.  My client’s motivation as it turns out was evidently not the success of the grant.  I trusted the client. The client did not trust me.  There’s nothing more frustrating than arguing at cross purposes.
The experience was not without value, however.  In my work on the feasibility part of the grant, I discovered that the grant was likely to fail.  The work that had supposedly been done had not been done. The financial capacity of the partner was limited and there appeared to be some problems with its operational history that the client was anxious to gloss over.  It appears to me the client, who said she was a grant writer, wanted to hire some help because she was in over her head. I think she had charged the lead agency for her services and needed me to turn in work so that she could turn in work and be paid for it.  It would explain, given the tiny budget of her unregistered nonprofit agency, why she was unable to pay my retainer and why she was reluctant to have me talk with the lead agency.

My purpose was saving the grant.  I mirrored her behavior based on the assumption that her purpose was the same.  Her purpose seems to have been saving her ass and that’s why my actions made no sense to her.  I was not helping her save her fuzzy butt, so she turned on me.
There is a powerful lesson there with regard to diplomacy.  The error to which the liberal left and the libertarian Ron Paul right fall into is assuming that Islamic dictators, terrorists and Islamo-facists want the same thing we do – peace and prosperity.  Ronald Reagan understood far better than any president since Teddy Roosevelt and possibly Dwight Eisenhower how to deal with evil people.  When Libya bombed an airliner full of civilians we didn’t conduct an embargo, file a protest and leave it there.  We didn’t shoot down one of their airliners.
We flew a bunch of F-111s to Libya, wiped out their air defenses, left them defenseless and bombed Muhammar Ghadafi’s house to boot.  Colonel Ghadafi shut up, quit running terrorist ops against Americans. When GHW Bush ran Iraq out of Kuwait, Ghadafi promptly apologized for the Pan Am bombing. When GW Bush overran Afghanistan and Iraq, Muhammar publicly disavowed his nuclear program and started trade negotiations with the West.
That’s how you negotiate with evil men and evil governments.
There isn't anything else that works.  The Libertarian policy on defense and foreign policy is wrong-headed.  It's basically the same policy as the liberal left.  It presumes "they" want what "we" want.  If you pay attention at all to history, you'll quickly see that this is not true.

  • We wanted peace and free trade, the Japanese wanted to rule the Pacific and Asia.  The result -  Pearl Harbor.

  • Neville Chamberlain wanted peace and assumed Hitler did too.  Result - the Anschluss, blitzkrieg, Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain.

  • America wanted to restore nations and have peace and free trade and Russia wanted to "bury" us.  The result - almost 50 years of Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

  • We assumed China wanted peace and would work out its own government.  Chairman Mao wanted to run China according to his own peculiar ideology.  Result - the Great Leap Forward and hundreds of millions dead.

  • We want peace and free trade and the libs (both kinds) assume the Islamic world does too.  The beating heart of Islam wants the coming of the Caliphate and the submission of all nations to Shariah Law (read it, it's in the Koran).  The result - repeated attacks on Israel, terrorism and the political expansion of the Muslim world in every corner of the globe.

If our global neighbors were like us, we could stand down our armies and cuddle up together behind our borders without fear.  Unfortunately as more than a billion people discovered too late to save themselves in the 20th century - not everyone out there loves peace and free trade.

That's just how it is.  The diplomatic tactic of tit-for-tat or "mirroring" only gives a tin-pot dictator like Kim Jong Un a tool for manipulating the United States into a conflict of his choosing.  If we do that all over the world, we get another Cold War and buy time for the lunatics out there to rebuild their strength.

Reagan had the right idea.  Don't mirror.  Do as Sean Connery told Kevin Costner in the movie "The Untouchables", "If they come at you with a knife, you bring a gun.  If they send one of your men to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue."

The Chicago Way turns out to be an effective diplomatic tool as demonstrated in Libya and with the ending of the Cold War. As a great power we're really the only ones on the planet who can maintain any sort of peace. Really, we're the only ones who can do it, and if God gives you a job, you shouldn't refuse it just because it is hard.

Much as many of us hate the idea of a Pax Americana, what's the other choices?  A Pax Russia? A Pax China? Worse yet, a Pax Islam?  When Islamist say their religion is a religion of peace, they are talking about the kind of peace that Napoleon, King Philip, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, the Caesars and all the rest wanted. No ten-toed steel and clay United Nations is ever going to be able to insure peace. Their soldiers don't carry loaded weapons and they wear helmets that make them easier to see. How's that going to work?

© 2014 by Tom King

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