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You often hear that the United States no longer has big goals, the way it did when President Kennedy challenged the country to put a man on the moon. And by big goals, I mean something that costs an enormous amount of money, focuses the entire country on the objective, takes years to accomplish, and delivers more in the way of psychological and technological benefits than it gets from actually accomplishing the goal. Walking on the moon was trivial compared to the emotional and psychological boost it provided, and the technology developed along the way.

I think we already had this generation's equivalent of a moon landing, except it involved landing helicopters in Pakistan. And instead of astronauts sticking a flag in the moon, Seal Team 6 stuck a bullet in Osama Bin Laden's skull.

Killing Bin Laden cost the United States, oh, let's say ten trillion dollars, if you include everything from the opportunity costs, to the interest expense, to the Iraq war, to homeland security, and of course the war in Afghanistan. And by the time we got Bin Laden, the objective itself was trivial compared to the effort. But man, did it feel good.

In the long run, the technology developed to fight terrorism will probably be as important to the world as the technology developed getting to the moon. And like the moon race, we didn't choose the objective so much as it was chosen for us by international forces. The race to the moon was a message to the Soviet Union. The bullet in Bin Laden head was a message to anyone who thought attacking the mainland United States was a good idea.

Countries are like people in the sense that they develop personalities. Countries are the sum of their parts plus the sum of their histories. When a country does something notable, good or bad, that becomes its personality for a century. And getting the personality right has a huge economic value.

For example, Cyprus will probably have a century-long reputation as the unemployed uncle who rifled through your underwear drawer looking for your hidden sock full of money so he could buy beer. Russia is a well-dressed mobster. Canada is the guy who mows his lawn and then mows yours too because he was "...already out there, eh?"

The personality of the United States changes periodically. Sometimes we're generous and inspiring. Other times we're total dicks. It's a complicated country. But no one thing defines the personality of the United States more than our willingness to spend ten trillion dollars - and kill anyone who gets in the way - just to put a bullet in one asshole's skull. That gives me neither pride nor embarrassment; it's just a statement of fact.

This brings me to North Korea. I don't know enough about complicated international affairs to have informed opinions, so I'll put this in the form of a question from a citizen: Why isn't North Korea China's problem?

The old United States, with its old personality, probably needed a strong military presence in the area to keep things from getting out of hand. And of course we wanted to be there for our allies.

But today the United States has a different personality, and that provides different options. Today we could pack up all of our stuff, slap China on the back and say, "It's all yours, buddy. Call if you need anything. Glad to help." And we'd totally mean it.

The best part of our new personality is that Kim Jong-un understands that if someday he lobs a missile at the mainland United States, we'll spend ten years and another ten trillion dollars to put a bullet in his head. We'll even shoot his kids on the way up the stairs. And realistically, if North Korea did attack the United States, China would either step out of the way or do some regime-changing themselves in North Korea, as a favor to their biggest customer.

My observation over a lifetime is that when it comes to a fight, the craziest person has a huge advantage because he's not worried about his own losses. When Kim Jong-un's father was running North Korea, he had the craziness advantage. Today I'm not buying their act. From my dim vantage point, it looks like acting crazy instead of the real thing. If they want to see the real thing, all they need to do is send a rocket a little too far toward California.



 
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Apr 18, 2013
Another point of similarity between Israel and North Korea.
One is nation surrounded by lunatics and the other is a nation of lunatics.
 
 
+17 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 18, 2013
"But every so often something scares up.. deeply, existentially scares us..."

You mean like when the twinkie factory was about to close?
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 18, 2013
I don't mind the ten trillion dollars as much as the civil liberties.


@uww " North-Korea has no value to China except for it's role as thorn in America's side." China also mines stuff in North Korea.

 
 
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 18, 2013
"question from a citizen: Why isn't North Korea China's problem?"
Be happy that it's yours.
You have two countries you promised to defend, Israel and South Korea.
The world notices that, apart from all the other lies, turns, bullying, the making and dumping of allies (like Bin Laden), you have not played games with those two countries.

Any /remaining/ credibility your government has when it says or offers something to other countries, rests on how long you manage keep your word there.

North Korea might be too small to threaten you but letting south korea go hang means your "asian pivot" (that is, building up lots of small countries to stand up to china) is toast. Which means that suddenly asia gets reduced to a huge aggressive, nationalistic economic and soon also military superpower. Much fun with that.
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 18, 2013
Re: Why isn't North Korea China's problem?

"We are at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia".

C'mon Scott. A hypnotist should know better than to swallow the US government kool-aid.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 18, 2013
Why do you think China should have a problem with the current situation? And why should they DO anything? North-Korea has no value to China except for it's role as thorn in America's side. And I don't think that China is buying anything of Kim Jong Unh's noise.
 
 
Apr 18, 2013
Yesterday, I was watching Star Wars in TV.
In my opinion, the U.S. is like young Anakin - over-reacting, unlawful, destructive, unwise. Slowly changing to Dark Vader.
I know that the terrorism is real danger, but maybe, if the reaction wasn't so brutal, this terror period could be already over (like the previous in the 60'/70', or anarchist period in the second half of 19th century). But instead, we spend trillions of dollars /and euros/, bringing our economies to crisis, to make our democracies to be more like fascism with CTV on every corner, and torturing and power abusing became common practice of so called law enforcement.
Thanks for this.
 
 
Apr 17, 2013
You cannot have it both ways. The US is not a country, it is a dominant worldwide empire. Dominant in currency, energy affairs, the monetary system, international diplomacy and in war.

I'm not stating that to be a negative, I'm stating it as an observation. By empire logic, it is all or nothing. You either are that dominant empire, or you're not, and the costs of maintaining a worldwide empire are this high.

Against these high costs are benefits. The superior wealth of US middle class doesn't come from them being uniquely awesome, talented or harder-working than others in the world, it comes as benefits from the empire, in the form of credit expansion and cheap energy.

This isn't to say that US people are not hardworking or entrepreneurial, those are definite strengths. Still those qualities do not explain the wealth of the US compared to others.

Anyway, my thinking is that you cannot cherry pick. You cannot just have the benefits of the empire whilst stopping to be an empire.
 
 
Apr 17, 2013
I can't help but think North Korea is to China what Israel is to the USA. I mean...

Israel doesn't have the support of the United Nations, just like North Korea doesn't. The UN is constantly condemning Israel (or trying to) and the only people backing them up is the USA. Not too unlike China and North Korea.

Israel probably has nukes, and we turn a blind eye to the possibility. All of their neighbors are terrified, angry, and want something done about it. Everyone else in the world is against this. Not much different from China and North Korea.

The main difference is that Israel is OUR ally, so we think it's okay and like them anyway. The rest of the world dislikes them and thinks we should get them under control.
 
 
Apr 17, 2013
"Why isn't North Korea China's problem?"

The West's handling of Korea is stuck in 1953. The West could not allow hard-line Communist China to take over Korea. But China has changed. It's definitely not a democracy. And they have some funny ideas about capitalism -- they love the free market, as long as they're on the winning side, otherwise they want strict government controls.

Now it wouldn't matter if China annexed North Korea. But I doubt China has any interest in it any more. What is the ideal outcome for China? What is the end-game for China? At the moment, they don't want a nuclear North Korea, and they don't want to take over, or even really support North Korea. But they don't want the West to handle it either. So they are happy with the West stuck dealing with the problem.
 
 
-6 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2013
I thought that everyone had understood, by now, that Osama was a fake villain drawn from Marvel Comics.
 
 
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2013
One additional interesting point about this odd moon shot is how easily the US military toppled the Iraq dictatorship which then freaked out the other two countries in Bush's Axis of Evil (Iran and N. Korea) which I'm sure cemented their resolve to develop nuclear weapons since the US didn't even have any factual pressing reason for the invasion to topple Saddam. To the leaders of Iran and N Korea the US is the crazy force in the world after seeing what was done with Iraq.

How you have to deal with the nut job leaders it isn't just their level of craziness but also the level of their military capabilities.
 
 
Apr 17, 2013
North Korea may be China's problem, but South Korea and to a lesser extent Japan is the problem of the US. The US (ok, the UN but really) took on the responsiblity for South Korea's security after the war, and has been on the hook for Japan since the peace they imposed in WW2. Now, sure you can say that enough is enough, but the armed forces presence is less to deter North Korea than to keep the East Asian area from turning to China as the major political influence. Own anything by Hyundai, Daewoo, Samsung, they are South Korean, and I won't even start to list the Japanese manufactures that we depend on. Do you really think the US wants to give up its influence over these major international companies to save the cost of 30,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen in Korea and 35,000 in Japan?
 
 
+29 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2013
" it looks like acting crazy instead of the real thing"

I dunno, Lil' Kim has been rubbing elbows with Dennis Rodman...
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2013
That's quite a post!

This feels so prosaic in contrast, but what the heck:

Why is that that conspiracy theorists (both the sane and the not-so-much types) in the US never think that way outside our borders?

To me it makes perfect sense that China has mid-level military leaders making fortunes off the misery of the North Korean people - as they profit from illegal drug and smuggling operations. To keep the honey flowing, they spin the situation for their higher ups to make it seem as though their heroic efforts to maintain the status quo are the only thing keeping China whole.

We're perfectly capable of calling out the gun industry lobby for deliberately perpetuating a culture of fear and institutional distrust to promote sales, for example, - but we can't envision anything similar occurring in other countries? What, we think we are special that way?

We end up spouting off about how our partners, adversaries and bi-directional associates are "rational" actors - without looking any further for the source of the beliefs that drive those actions.
 
 
Apr 17, 2013
@sivartius

[well, all i could read in this post was "ra ra ra! america is the best!"]

Really. You read a blog in which the blogger says sometimes we're total dicks, we spent a trillion dollars to kill one man, Canada is nice and went on to talk about the North Korea problem for a few paragraphs and all you saw in the post was "ra ra ra! america is the best!"? Sorry, but I still dont understand whats going on in your head.
 
 
Apr 17, 2013
You're right, North Korea is China's problem. China has been propping them up for years, and would have a huge refugee problem on their hands if there was war on the peninsula. And maybe a fallout problem, too.

I think the U.S. could save a lot of money and effort if we just encourage the Chinese people (young bloggers, etc.) to ask why no action is being taken to silence Kim Jong Un. That should eventually percolate up to China's upper management and they'll solve the problem.

The U.S. has a strategic toehold in South Korea and won't be giving that up. And from an economic standpoint, I don't think China, U.S., Japan or anybody except the Koreans would want a solution to this that involves a unified Korea, but that will probably happen anyway.

 
 
Apr 17, 2013
Sometimes I think that America's personality is a lot like the frustrating home-town sports team that always seems to play up (or down) to the level of their adversary.

1940s Germany was a pretty formidable adversary with significant engineering strength, which drove us to dramatically improve our ground, sea and air transportation, and ultimately the nuclear bomb.

1960s Russia was also a strong technological adversary, which drove us to create satellites, stealth technology and modern computers.

For the past decade, our adversary has been a guy in sandals with a bomb strapped to his back. I just don't think that drives us to the same levels of creativity and scientific progress as the Russians or Germans did. It seems that the biggest technological leap we have made recently is a more effective way to kill our enemies in their houses, cars and backyards (ie beating them at their own game). Regardless of your political opinions about the use drones, they don't quite drive the sense of pride and accomplishment like a walk on the moon.
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2013
Sounds like someone ate some red meat last night.
 
 
-20 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2013
well, all i could read in this post was "ra ra ra! america is the best!" the very mindset of countries competing against each other is the whole problem, in my opinion. cliche caricatures of other countries is kind of funny, but accomplishes nothing. if we keep up this "my country is better than yours" game, we're never going to get anywhere. we have to play together.

[I thought Canada and China came off as more sensible and sane in my post. But it is objectively true that the United States will spend ten trillion dollars to kill one guy that deserves it and still feel as if we got our money's worth. -- Scott]
 
 
 
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