What If Obama Has Nobody to Engage?

Kim Jong Il has always been pretty wacky, with his bouffant hair and awkward habit of kidnapping actresses while starving his people, but at least the diminutive Dear Leader was someone you could talk with now and then. Today, with a stroke-damaged Kim apparently in eclipse and North Korea erupting out of control again, Barack Obama has a serious problem. As much as he might like to, it doesn't look as if the president has anyone to engage with, even in North Korea's traditional language of blackmail.

The puzzle in Pyongyang is bad enough for Obama, but it's just one part of a larger problem now facing Washington.

On a number of perilous fronts—Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Mideast—this most diplomatically oriented of American presidents, who came into office four months ago eager for "engagement," has few responsible or dependable parties with whom he can negotiate. As a result, despite Obama's best intentions, each of these foreign-policy problems is likely to grow much worse—possibly disastrously worse—before it gets any better. (Story continued below...)

Kim's on-again, off-again receptiveness proved especially useful after North Korea's 2006 nuclear test; his willingness to talk led to two years of welcome calm and a near agreement between Washington and Pyongyang. That calm has been dramatically shattered by North Korea's sudden spate of nuclear and missile tests and its recent burst of rhetorical belligerence. The emerging consensus is that both are signs of a power struggle in the Hermit Kingdom, with the half-century-old family business that is North Korea going through some kind of rocky transition.

"My gut sense is, all this is being driven from the inside," says Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at Georgetown who served on George W. Bush's second-term National Security Council. "The thing we don't know right now is where this [succession] process is taking place. Is it at the beginning or the end?"

The series of threats from the North has been without precedent in its swiftness and has not been a response to any U.S. action, says Cha, indicating that regime insiders are trying to outdo each other in demonstrating their hardline credentials. Whereas in 2006 the nuclear standoff was resolved in part because of Chinese contacts with the North, now "maybe the Chinese don't know who to talk to," Cha says.

That assessment does nothing to clarify the challenge facing Obama. At a briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declined to venture a guess beyond Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comment during her trip in February that U.S. officials may need to prepare for the post-Kim era. "I just am not prepared to characterize the political situation," he said. U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth was "engaged," Kelly declared. The problem is, Bosworth is mainly engaged with other U.S. officials back here in Washington.

If North Korea presents what is arguably the most immediate danger, Pakistan is a close second. There, President Asif Ali Zardari is deeply unpopular and weak, and Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani—despite much importuning from Washington—is strenuously avoiding hard decisions about shifting the nation's strategic focus from India to the growing jihad in its backyard. It's not at all like the old days of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who even if he was a dubious ally occasionally proved a decisive one.

In neighboring Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai is drifting along at a low ebb of both power and reputation. Karzai is thought to have a fair chance to win reelection in August, but the Obama administration has all but given up hope that he can regain control of his country by political means alone—one reason Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently named a renowned Special Forces hunter-killer, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to take command there.

Not far away, Tehran's nuclear program is barreling ahead, while Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is making threatening noises about it. Obama is, again, asking for time to talk, indicating he'll give Tehran until the end of the year. But it's impossible to say what kind of regime will emerge in Tehran after the rigged-but-real Iranian presidential election on June 12. Even if the winner is the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the balance of power may remain in flux for longer than Netanyahu wants to wait.

Finally, the Obama administration has said it would like to link progress on Iran with progress on the Mideast peace issue. But neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is in any political condition to make the concessions needed to deliver on Obama's hope. The hardline Netanyahu is hobbled by his right-wing governing coalition, which will refuse to give up any West Bank settlements, a Palestinian precondition for moving talks forward. The moderate Abbas, meanwhile, is hamstrung by his stalemate with Hamas, which still owns most of the guns and still refuses to recognize Israel. Once again, there's no one for Obama to talk to.

The result of all this one-sided talking is likely to be stasis, drift and a certain amount of incoherence, as spokesman Kelly demonstrated this week. Repeatedly questioned about U.S. policy toward North Korea, Kelly said the Obama administration still believed a "multilateral approach" in the form of six-party talks was the best way forward—even though his boss, Clinton, recently told Congress that she thought the likelihood of Pyongyang returning to those talks was "implausible, if not impossible."

Perhaps we should just talk among ourselves.