Threatorama: North Korea and Iran!

The public forum debate topic for our national qualifying tournament asks us to resolve the issue of “North Korea poses a more serious threat to United States national security than Iran.”  The answer to this question must be “Of course North Korea poses a more serious threat!” because, as demonstrated just a few days ago on The Daily Show with President Ahmadinejad criticizing the crackdown on Libyan protesters, Iran has weaponized irony — which may be a threat, but is definitely not serious.

What does seem rather more serious would be North Korea’s military actively shooting at our allies who are hosting our troops, or their launching of missiles in our general direction, or their possible sale of nuclear technology to other people we also don’t like, or — and this would be the point that I’d talk up the most — their counterfeiting of our currency.  But how serious is North Korea if they can be placated with “flowers and chocolates” for years on end?

By way of comparison, Iran has an Ambassador of Death, is already supporting terrorist organizations, is the fourth largest oil exporter in the world (and can thus screw with any nation that has a petrol-dependence, such as ours) which kind of limits our ability to sanction them for their nuclear program which may well be hidden in Ahmadinejad’s tunnels.  But Iran, with its larger population, is having trouble keeping said population adequately oppressed, so it isn’t clear that they’re in a position to seriously and overtly threaten our national security.  Really, sending two warships through the Suez Canal is hardly in the same league of threat to our national security as firing a few missiles at us, right?

Those are the basic arguments I would expect to see if I were going to judge this, which I don’t intend to because of the complex and bias-creating arguments that I’ll publish here… now!  Because my teams won’t be using them in their negative case.

The resolution requires two things of the affirmative: that they prove that North Korea poses a serious threat to the United States’ national security, and that the threat is more serious than that posed by Iran.  We on the negative maintain that North Korea isn’t a serious threat to the United States’ national security, and that the affirmative couldn’t prove it in comparison to Iran regardless.  We believe, in direct opposition to the default framing of the resolution, as Roosevelt said: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  And we agree with President Obama’s National Security Strategy released May 2010 that being secure “starts by recognizing that our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home” and that by trying to compare pundit-sized narratives about Iran and North Korea that this debate actually facilitates, as Eisenhower warned about, “the dangers that arise from our own failure to analyze and understand the implications of various economic, social and political movements among ourselves.”

The Korean war that started in 1950 (effectively ended for the US by Eisenhower) didn’t end in surrender or even peace.  Technically, North Korea has been at war with South Korea for 60 years — if you weren’t aware of that, consider it a tribute to its trailing insignificance.  North Korea has a third of the population of Iran on a tenth of the land (without so much of the oil that we might be errantly lusting after) and a tenth of the GDP.  They are short on electricity, malnourished to starving, with their aggressive behavior being part of a known pattern akin to a toddler throwing a tantrum.  We’re not a fan of North Korea and especially not a fan of its film-making soldier-playing dictator, but our National Security — on that front defended by, per our National Security Strategy, our “unmatched military” — is not seriously threatened by them.

Let’s put our national security in perspective.  Our department of defense has some 3.2 million employees, not inclusive of the contract workers, working with an annual budget of $895B — almost half of the defense budget of the entire world and over twenty times the economy of North Korea, as well as most of our $1.25T deficit.  If small, cold and starving North Korea could seriously threaten our national security, then I assure you that we’ve got more existential concerns than North Korea.

Which we do.  As detailed in the May 2010 National Security Strategy (page 9) “Our national security begins at home.  What takes place within our borders has always been the source of our strength… Our prosperity serves as a wellspring for our power… Yet even as we have maintained our military advantage, our competitiveness has been set back in recent years.  We are recovering from underinvestment in areas that are central to America’s strength.  We have not adequately advanced priorities like education, energy, science, technology, and health care — all of which are essential to U.S. competitiveness, long-term prosperity and strength.”

So while the resolution apparently wants us to go — and unfortunately necessitates the affirmative going — on a fear-o-rama trying to make you increasingly and alternately afraid of North Korea and Iran, neither of them are serious threats, especially not North Korea which didn’t even warrant its own sub-point in our National Security Strategy like Iran did on page 26.  No, we’re negating the resolution because our National Security Strategy makes it quite clear that looking elsewhere for serious threats to our national security has allowed our domestic strength to falter.

We could talk about how Iran is the world’s fourth largest oil exporter so good luck to us getting the international community to successfully pressure them against their nuclear ambitions, but it seems to me that you’re probably more immediately concerned by ongoing unemployment with increasing job insecurity due to budget shortfalls resulting in domestic unrest as we just saw in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

There is no serious threat in the world compared to our ability to collapse in upon ourselves, and looking elsewhere — looking at small, cold and starving North Korea — to inspire fear so that we won’t have to make hard choices about and difficult compromises on domestic policy only increases the seriousness of the threat that we pose to ourselves.  Small, cold, and starving North Korea is insignificant compared to Iran and both of them put together are nothing compared to the threat posed by the mindset that gave us this “look over there!” debate topic.

You might be a bit concerned about the evidence that the other team presented, but do recall that our last major international fear-o-rama resulted in us going into Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction which the prime informant admitted were utter fabrications, supported by intelligence fixed around a policy of military action as recorded by the July 2002 “Downing Street Memo.”  This is common.  When somebody — President Bush describing an Axis of Evil or every High School Public Forum debate team trying to not lose half of their rounds — needs to make some country into a serious threat, the evidence can be produced.  Just as Cardinal Richelieu reportedly claimed “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him,” our intelligence agencies vie with each other to produce the most useful — that is, policy-oriented — intelligence.  USAF Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, formerly of DoD’s Near East and South Asia Directorate, explains, “It doesn’t matter what administration we’re talking about, if that [policy] customer’s not pleased with the intelligence, the intelligence producer runs the risk of becoming marginalized… There are thirteen different intelligence agencies. You don’t tell ‘em what they want to hear, and they will go to other sources.”  What this means is that all of the fearmongering evidence effectively suggesting that we can ignore domestic collapse because small, cold and starving North Korea is supposedly both a serious threat to our national security and a more serious threat than Iran was cherry-picked to make the case that North Korea is the pre-eminent part of the super-scary Axis of Evil.  It wasn’t particularly believable when President Bush made that kind of claim in 2002 and frankly it has even less credibility today.

Don’t lose your focus on the real threats to national security:  the domestic threats, the threats that undermine us, the threats in Wisconsin.  Don’t be distracted by the petty dictator who would rather be a film-maker, whose ambitions were slaked for years with flowers and chocolates from the Clinton administration.  His tantrums do not pose a serious threat to our national security, and the claims that he presides over massive counterfeiting of our currency is based on, no surprise, shaky evidence.

Small, cold and starving North Korea does not pose a serious threat to our national security, certainly less of a threat than Iran whose size and influence was cause of particular concern in our National Security Strategy, but was still far less relevant than our need to be introspective and make the decisions and investments that will restore and grow our domestic capability, strength, prosperity, and national security.

So this is odd. We’ve got a debate topic which is more legitimate in its meta-state (which skews negative due to the wording of the topic) than it will be in its common usage.  Compare to the analysis on a bit of wind-up poli-TV:

They both represent two sides of an argument where everyone is wrong. Neither point of view has any merit or honestly any legitimate resource… This polarizing argument is meant to silence dissent and provides only two polar views. That is the point of political commentary I guess.

So while this topic does a good job of making kids think, if not research, on two polarities, the narrowness of the affirmative and expected narrowness of the negative is designed to stifle actual inquiry into what constitutes a threat and what’s the threshold for being a serious threat.  The conclusion of a typical round won’t be one team wins and the other loses, but rather one team has determined which regime we should squander American money, blood and body parts toppling while the other team’s preferred regime will just have to wait — and getting kids to do that sort of thing as the matter of winning an argument strikes me as reprehensible in an Ender’s Game via 1984 kind of way.  As far as I’m concerned, the more honest debate would be “Resolved: Eastasia poses a more serious threat to Oceania national security than Eurasia.”