The episode is a fresh indication of the challenge that Clinton faces in running for the White House on her record as secretary of state
Washington has tried punishment and inducements repeatedly with North Korea and has failed to change its calculations
North Korea might not be able to reach the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon yet, but the political fallout from its claimed hydrogen bomb test is here already.
Even before the shockwaves of the 5.1 temblor triggered by Tuesday’s test wore off, Hillary Clinton was fighting off a volley of Republican attacks, GOP presidential candidates were talking tough and Donald Trump jumped on a chance to chastise China.
The episode was a fresh indication of the challenge that Clinton faces in running for the White House on her record as secretary of state, which makes it impossible for her to escape deficiencies in President Barack Obama’s national security legacy.
“If this test is confirmed, it will be just the latest example of the failed Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” crowed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is styling himself as a foreign policy expert. He argued that U.S. enemies were “taking advantage of Obama’s weakness.”
Former business executive Carly Fiorina, another outspoken GOP hawk, also slammed Clinton, arguing that the volatile Stalinist state had been spurred to up the nuclear ante by Obama administration concessions granted to Iran in return for a freezing of its nuclear program.
“Of course, North Korea would conduct a nuclear test after watching Iran willfully violate an agreement they just made without consequence of any kind from this administration,” Fiorina said in a statement. “North Korea is yet another Hillary Clinton foreign policy failure.”
Political bind for Clinton
There’s no question that as the administration in possession of the North Korea nuclear problem, the Obama White House – and by extension Clinton – are in a political bind.
Their failure to turn back North Korea’s development of its nuclear arsenal is manifest in its flurry of nuclear tests and ballistic missile engineering over the last seven years. But there is no obvious way to deter a nation that does not respond to the traditional carrots and sticks of diplomacy.
“What we’ve also seen on the part of North Koreans is an apparent willingness to accept international isolation,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday, pointing out that North Korea already had a nuclear bomb when Obama took office.
Clinton’s campaign is working to absolve her of blame for past failures and to turn her vulnerability into a strength. So the former secretary of state offered the most detailed plan of any of the candidates on how to respond.
Addressing multiple audiences, as a commander-in-chief must, Clinton accused North Korea of playing nuclear blackmail and “bullying,” offered reassurance to U.S. allies and then turned on her Republican foes, questioning their capacity to handle the situation.
The former top U.S. diplomat also defended her own work on North Korea, saying she had been responsible for getting Russia and China on board for the “strongest sanctions yet” against Pyongyang while she was at the State Department.
And she fired a warning at her Republican adversaries, particularly seeming to target the brazen Trump and youthful Rubio.
“Threats like this are yet another reminder of what’s at stake in this election. We cannot afford reckless, imprudent publicity stunts that risk war. We need a commander-in-chief with the experience and judgement to deal with a dangerous North Korea on Day One.”
Trump takes on China
Republican front-runner Trump also tried to turn the North Korea explosion to his own political advantage, further increasing the heat on China after his accusations that the communist giant has been fleecing the United States on economic issues.
“China has total control over them (North Korea) and we have total control over China, if we had people who knew what they were doing, which we don’t – we have no leadership in this country. We have China because of trade,” Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”
“They say they don’t have that much control over North Korea, they have total control because without China they wouldn’t be able to eat,” he said. “China should solve that problem and we should put pressure on China to solve the problem.”
But while China might be the key player in North Korea, the Obama and George W. Bush administrations repeatedly pressed Beijing to rein in its de-facto ally but did not shift the underlying dynamics of the standoff.
In recent years there have been signs of increasing impatience from Beijing toward Pyongyang, but China’s concerns on the issue have not changed – namely a reluctance to seeing a unified Korean peninsula allied with the United States and a potentially destabilizing flow of millions of refugees into its territory should the regime collapse.
Rubio pressed home his attack on Wednesday in Iowa, offering his own plan. He called on North Korea to be put back on the list of state-sponsors of terrorism, for new sanctions on its leaders, a hike in U.S. military spending and reinvigorated alliances with U.S. Asian allies and a renewed commitment to missile defense.
“If trends continue, this lunatic will possess a missile and a warhead capable of reaching the U.S., and we better be capable of shooting it down before it gets anywhere near us,” he warned. “We need to invest and re-commit to that again.”
Another GOP candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, used the nuclear test to argue that bad things happen when America has “withdrawn” from the world.
An intractable problem
However, so intractable has the North Korea problem been that it seemed doubtful that any of the approaches outlined by potential next presidents would work. As is often the case when foreign policy mixes with campaign politics, it can prove easier for candidates to grandstand than frame grand strategy.
Washington has tried punishment and inducements repeatedly with North Korea and has failed to change the calculations of a secretive, repressive regime that uses its pariah status to entrench its power at home and is prepared to let its own people starve rather than offer concessions to Washington.
Bush, for instance, came to office and ended Bill Clinton’s policy of engaging the Pyongyang regime. He then toughened his stance by including North Korea in his “axis of evil.”
But the strategy failed as North Korea restarted plutonium reactors frozen under a 1994 deal with the Clinton administration, while the administration accused it of building a separate uranium program. Pyongyang ultimately conducted a nuclear test in 2006.
By the end of his administration, Bush saw six-party international talks with the North Koreans as the best way to defuse the nuclear standoff.
Obama has also tried the hardline approach.
In 2010, during a visit to Seoul, he addressed the leaders of North Korea directly, warning that their pursuit of nuclear arms denied them dignity and would only lead to more of the same: “more broken dreams, more isolation.”
And he’s used diplomacy, but with no better results. During his time in office, Pyongyang has conducted at least three nuclear tests and a flurry of missile and satellite launches. And unless something dramatic changes, he will bequeath the North Korean nuclear headache to the next president.