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Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon on North Korean, Israel/Iran, and Afghanistan

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HH: Right now, it still stays very, very serious. Joined by Michael O’Hanlon, fellow at the Brookings Institution, Michael, welcome back.

MO’H: Thank you.

HH: Three big issues – Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. Let’s start with North Korea and this missile launch. What should we be looking for over the next couple of days?

MO’H: Well, it’s obviously an attention-seeking kind of behavior by North Korea. There’s no particular reason for them to do it otherwise, except to get on President Obama’s radar screen, and maybe see if they can make the first move in their relationship with him, and maybe get him to overreact a little. Then tend to do best when they can pit Japan, the U.S. and South Korea against China and Russia, make us seem like the extremists and get China and Russia to prop them up. And that’s often their M.O. And so I think President Obama should express his disapproval of this, but not get so overworked about it that he winds up essentially playing into North Korean hands, because as bad as this is, it’s not anywhere close to the worst thing that they could or have done. And so I’d rather see him take his time, be a little cool on this one as I think he will be, and develop a broader strategy with our allies before we react too strongly to any particular, relatively mid-sized provocation.

HH: Now sometimes the North Koreans aren’t so good at the technology they unleash. What’s your recommendation if this thing is remotely likely to get into either American or Japanese airspace?

MO’H: Well, you’re right, that is a serious issue to think about in advance. If the rocket breaks up, and you see a big piece of it coming to Earth, of course you shoot it down, and you obviously take as much data as you can on the launch in advance so that you can prove to the North Koreans, if they had any doubt, that you were only responding after the thing broke up, because again, I’m not trying to sound defensive towards the North Koreas, but I think they are looking for a little bit of a fight. They’re trying to be provocative. And if we protect ourselves, as we have every right to do, of course, under the situation you describe, I’d just as soon do it in a matter of fact way, and explain to them that’s what we were doing. I don’t think we should shoot it down unless there is a problem, and so I just want to be clear on that with them if possible. My guess is, though, that if it malfunctions, it will malfunction shortly off the launch pad, or in that final stage. And so it probably won’t create the scenario you’re describing, but you’re still right to worry about it in advance. We’ve obviously got to have a contingency plan.

HH: Let’s turn to subject number two, which is Prime Minister Netanyahu has very blunt talk for Iran in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic. I’m not sure if you’ve read it or not, but it’s been widely publicized. What do you make of that?

MO’H: Well, obviously the Iranians, and this particular Iranian president more than any other, have been extremely provocative towards Israel. And any Israeli prime minister’s got to worry about that and take it seriously. And I understand why Prime Minister Netanyahu, even though he’s not my favorite Israeli prime minster, would feel that kind of obligation, and that kind of right. And so in that regard, I can’t blame him. But I also think that frankly Israel doesn’t have the true military capacity to do an airstrike correctly, and they shouldn’t be making this kind of a decision on their own anyway, because they’re going to implicate us if they do it in a number of ways. And so I’d rather see this decision about any possible military option made in Washington, where I think ultimately most of the responsibility’s going to be placed by Iranians and others, regardless of who starts the strike. My guess is overall, frankly, that a strike would not be effective enough if undertaken even by us, and therefore that we should concentrate on the economic measures where I think we have some potential to convince the Iranians at least to put the program on ice. And that’s my preferred policy.

HH: Okay, I’ve got about a minute left. I’ve been praising the President’s Afghanistan policy along the line credit where credit is due department. What do you make of it?

MO’H: Yeah, I agree. I’m glad you say that. You know, I’m a big fan, also, of Senator McCain’s, and last year was a presidential race where I had the most positive feelings towards both candidates, probably, in my lifetime. And I think Senator McCain’s usually pretty thoughtful as well. I thought he was a little bit too critical in the Senate hearings yesterday where he talked about this policy as one of incrementalism, just because the commanders may wind up wanting a bit more force than has originally been proposed. The direction of this is clearly the correct one – a lot more resources, a lot more serious focus on protecting the Afghan people and building up their own institutions so that over time, the Afghan army and police can protect the Afghan people. There are plenty of specific issues that I still have with this strategy, but the overall thrust is certainly in the right direction.

HH: Michael O’Hanlon from Brookings, look forward to many more conversations as the new Obama administration unfolds its foreign policy, from the Brookings Institution.

End of interview.


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