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Heavy-Handed Politics

"€œGod willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world
without the United States and Zionism."€ -- Iran President Ahmadi-Nejad

Saturday, October 14, 2006

U.S. Vulnerability and Windows of Opportunity

"Iraq and Afghanistan have absorbed a large percentage of U.S. ground combat capability, limiting U.S. military options elsewhere. An internal political crisis has further limited the Bush administration's options. With the outcome of the November midterm elections uncertain, outside powers have a window of opportunity in which to take risks.

This week, the North Koreans took advantage of that window of opportunity. At this moment, it is not clear what Pyongyang actually has achieved: We do not know whether the apparent test of a nuclear device went as planned, was a fizzle or was a ruse carried out with conventional explosives. For the sake of this analysis, however, it does not matter. What matters is that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea decided this was the perfect time to jerk Washington's chain. In Pyongyang's view, the risks were small. The geography of the region precludes a U.S. nuclear strike, even if Washington were so inclined. A conventional airstrike potentially could prompt North Korea to open massive artillery fire on Seoul, just past the border -- and the United States has drawn down its ground forces in South Korea in order to reinforce troops in Iraq. Moreover, the administration has been too preoccupied with other regions and internal politics to frame an effective response.

We recently have seen a similar dynamic involving Russia and Georgia, a U.S. ally: A dustup over espionage allegations prompted Russia to blockade Georgia's air, rail, sea and postal services. How the affair started and who started it is less clear than the fact that the Russians have responded with a general disregard to American views on the subject. Quite the contrary: The fact that the Americans do have views on the subject has increased Russian intensity on the matter. The Russians do not fear U.S. responses. The United States needs the possibility of Russian backing on issues involving North Korea and Iran. If the Russians do lend assistance -- which is unlikely -- they certainly will not do so while the United States is intruding into what they regard as their sphere of influence. However slim the chance of real Russian collaboration might be, the United States can't afford to provoke Moscow. The Russians are not concerned about U.S. responses to their behavior; they see themselves as having a degree of freedom of action that they lacked when the United States was in a stronger position.

For the United States, the crucial problem is that this freedom of action -- for the Russians and others -- could be indefinitely extended. Assume, for instance, that the Democrats win both houses of Congress in November. Using budgetary powers, they could reshape U.S. policies and take them beyond the White House's control. And if the Democrats win only one chamber, they could block White House initiatives and throw the government into gridlock, leaving foreign powers with a two-year window of opportunity to press their own agendas.

While there is clearly a domestic political problem, the heart of the matter is military. Regardless of the political constellation in Washington, the military reality on the ground in Iraq severely constrains U.S. options around the world. That, in turn, constrains U.S. diplomacy. Diplomacy without even the distant possibility of military action is impotent. North Korea is a perfect example of what multilateral diplomacy without a unilateral military option looks like: The United States has recruited Russia, China, Japan and South Korea for diplomatic initiatives with North Korea as it partnered with Russia and European powers for dealings with Iran. Since the interests of these powers diverge, the possibility of concerted action, even on sanctions, simply does not exist. Since the possibility of unilateral action by the United States also does not exist, neither North Korea nor Iran need take the diplomatic initiatives seriously. And they don't."

--- Stratfor Intelligence


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