In August, I wrote a couplet on the US military commitment to South Korea, trying to illustrate arguments for both a US retrenchment and for staying. I am happy to say that these posts swung me an invite to a roundtable discussion at US Forces Korea (USFK) to present my arguments. I also got some feedback from my friend, veteran Korea-watcher Dave Maxwell. Some of this sheds extra light and deserves a response.

At USFK, unsurprisingly, most of the listeners strongly supported the retention of the US military in Korea. There seemed to be two main sets of concerns, one specific to Korea and the other about the US position in Asia and the world.

First, there is definitely a concern that South Korea is not ready to defend itself without US assistance (a concern I think Dave Maxwell and many others share). This is why the proposed 'OPCON' transfer (transferring wartime control of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul) is now tied to South Korean capabilities, rather than to an arbitrary date.

Whenever I talk to US military personnel in Korea at conferences and such, I always come away nervous that the ROK is more vulnerable than a lot of us think. Particularly on things like missile defence and C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), there seems to be a strong consensus in the US professional military community that the ROK cannot do this alone, and may never be able to. Specifically, a lot of the C4ISR assets the US shares would be exorbitantly expensive, if not impossible, for Seoul to try to recreate on its own, thereby heavily impinging on readiness. So there is a strong efficiency argument for simply continuing the current relationship in which US 'networked battlefield' technologies are a powerful force multiplier, in particular for the South Korean Army.

I can buy some of this. I do see the obvious efficient/multiplier arguments. South Korea is never going to have the intelligence or satellite apparatus the US does, so 'lending' it is a fairly inexpensive way to boost Korean defence.

But the more general concern that South Korea is not 'ready' does not persuade me, because this is almost certainly a product of leaning too much on the US. In other words, claiming South Korean unreadiness as a reason not to retrench puts the cart before the horse, because it is probably the US presence that allows South Korea to continue to be unready. As I have said before, it is really important to get America's Asian allies to start taking their own defence way more seriously, even if the US still provides some C4ISR services.

Second, there was a general concern about the signals (of weakness) a US retrenchment would send to allies and opponents, especially in the region (ie. to Japan and China). These sorts of arguments about credibility and signaling are endemic to the US national security establishment, and I find them unpersuasive. You often here the argument that we must adhere to 'red lines' at all cost, that US 'credibility' is constantly at stake in every commitment around the world, any retrenchment signals weakness which in turn invites aggression and so on (basically everything Panetta said in his painfully unimaginative interviews last week). I find the academic work against this logic — helpfully summarized by Andrew Sullivan and Peter Beinart — convincing.

Pivoting to Dave Maxwell, he argues that I am not really laying out a realist argument based on core US national interests in Korea. Instead, I got sidetracked going after liberal internationalists and neoconservatives over US hegemony and interventionism (probably true). He also says I come down on the side of retrenchment.

In response, I guess I would say that I am still not sure what direct national interest the US has in ROK security today. I get it that South Korea is a liberal democracy facing off against a tyrannical government. But that's a liberal argument, not a realist one. And I get it that North Korea is a horrible, worse-than-Nineteen Eighty-Four state which we should push into the dustbin of history as soon as possible. But that's also a liberal/humanitarian argument. Neither are about US interests.

I also get it that South Korea is important for the US position in Asia and dealing with/hedging/containing (or whatever it is we're doing with) China. But that's more a neocon argument in which US hegemony, instantiated in our global basing network, is an end itself. But if hegemony means allied free-riding (see: NATO) and getting chain-ganged into conflicts with states like North Korea or China, then realists would say hegemony should be scaled back, because it is not serving the national interest.

American hegemony is only valuable if it serves the national interest; it is not an end in itself. (Daniel Larison makes this argument a lot.)

Finally, I get it too that North Korea's destruction of the South would be a horrible tragedy, a humanitarian nightmare, a boon to autocrats and tyrants everywhere and would give new life to a horrible regime. But those reasons are so big and 'metaphysical' that they violate the realist demand that the national interest be something direct, tangible and immediate. It cannot credibly be the purpose of US foreign policy to stop tyranny or humanitarian catastrophes everywhere in the world. However morally attractive that is, it is a sisyphean task that means perpetual war by the US all over the planet. This was thrust of President Bush's soaring second inaugural, which just about everyone derided immediately as an impossible flight of crusading fancy.

So, what, exactly, are America's national interests in South Korean security? North Korea is not going to invade the US. The Cold War is over, so South Korea is not a domino about to fall as communism chews its way through the Free World. South Korea does not export anything that the US absolutely has to have, like oil, which keeps the US tied to the Persian Gulf no matter how much we want to get out.

There is also no anti-American terrorism problem out here.

I do not say all this to be testy or contrarian. My own gut feeling, per my USFK experiences above, is for the US to stay in Korea. This is probably because I think North Korea is just about the worst place on earth. I am open to being convinced on this, and I kinda want to be. I imagine a lot of people instinctually feel the same way. But that's not a replacement for clear, obvious need for the US to be here.

As I said in part one of this debate, this is the big hole in the conversation. The US is in the Middle East because of oil and terrorism. It is in the Caribbean littoral states because they are our neighbours and their problems become our problems. The US is in Japan because China is a genuine emergent hegemonic challenger to the US. But Korea? I am not so sure. Even the reasons I gave in part 2 in favour of retaining USFK are somewhat vague, with nothing as crystalline as, say, helping Mexico defeat its super-violent drug cartels so that they do not penetrate the US. 

So give me your best shot. I'm open to it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Don McCullough.