The Washington Post is making a big production out of the fact that Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen refused yesterday to call North Korea's sinking of a South Korean warship (which cost 46 sailors their lives) an "act of war." The Post's Anne Flaherty pressed the two on the subject during yesterday's press conference, using the words "act of war" in no less than three separate (leading) questions:
Which makes one wonder exactly what the newspaper's trying to accomplish beyond getting a flashy headline like "SECDEF: KOREA SHIP SINKING 'ACT OF WAR'", right?
SEC. GATES: Anne.
Q Does the United States consider the sinking of the South Korean warship an act of war? And seeing as the United States has vowed to defend South Korea, what do you plan to do about it? What are your options?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, we certainly support the findings of the Korean -- the South Korean investigation. We obviously are in close consultation with the Koreans. The attack was against one of their ships. And we will -- naturally they would have the lead in determining the path forward. They've laid out some paths forward, and we will be consulting very closely with them as we move ahead.
ADM. MULLEN: I spoke to my counterpart yesterday. And we've been engaged with them since the incident, not just from here, but also Admiral Willard in PACOM, as well as, obviously, General Sharp. And we are all focused on that region, the stability in that region -- that needs to be sustained -- and at the same time very focused on supporting our strong ally in the Republic of Korea.
Q But could you say whether or not you agree that -- with the South Koreans that it is in fact an act of war? And can you go over some of the options that you have to
SEC. GATES: I think that -- I think basically what we've said is about all there is for us to say. We accept the findings and support the findings of the investigation. The Republic of Korea has outlined several paths forward, and we will be consulting very closely with them going forward.
Q Admiral, could you address that too, please? It's clearly an act of war, isn't it?
ADM. MULLEN: Again, I think the secretary -- we've said all we want to say on this right now. Certainly we're concerned about it. We've supported them. We've helped them in the investigation and we agree with the conclusion. They're a great friend and great ally, and we'll continue to do that.
Leaving aside the pretty obvious answer to why the press would be interested in inflammatory, provocative, and frankly dangerous pronouncements from senior policymakers, what about the real substance of all this: how does this all shake out? Obviously the U.S. response is conditioned on what the South Koreans decide is necessary, but what would the Jim Inhofes of the world have us do?
How does South Korea defend itself against the aggressive actions of a nuclear-armed neighbor? Does anybody believe that a sort of tit-for-tat, you sink ours, we sink yours kind of reaction is going to accomplish a whole lot, or make something like this less likely in the future?
Seeing as we've all pretty much decided that the North Korean decisionmaking process and apparatus is entirely obscure to us, I'm not going to bother wondering out loud what the hell the DPRK gets out of something like this. Is retributive action necessary to avoid setting some sort of pussified precedent, to avoid emboldening Kim Jong Il and whoever else is running stuff up there to push even harder?
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) says "we cannot allow North Korea to take the lives of 46 South Korean sailors with a torpedo attack and pretend it didn't occur," and I'd tend to agree with him. But that doesn't get us any closer to figuring out what we do instead, and I don't have any bright ideas.