The Cable

Obama chooses missile defense critic for advisory post

President Obama today nominated of Philip Coyle, a leading critic of Bush administration missile defense schemes, to be a top White House scientific advisor.

Coyle, who was the head weapons tester at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, was nominated to become the Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. There he will lead a team tasked with giving scientific advice to Obama on a range of national security issues and will report to Director John Holdren.

Since his last tour at the Pentagon, Coyle has been a leading analyst on weapons systems for the Center for Defense Information, a component of the World Security Institute, a defense-minded think thank. From that perch, he's been actively involved in several of the national security debates involving advanced technology and a staunch watchdog on the missile defense system the Bush administration rushed to deploy throughout its tenure.

Coyle has often pointed out that the testing done by the Pentagon on ballistic missile defense components since 2001 has been either shoddy or thin. Moreover, he has repeatedly questioned the basic rationale for investing billions to deploy ballistic missile defense around the world, especially in Eastern Europe.

"In my view, Iran is not so suicidal as to attack Europe or the United States with missiles," he testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee in February, "But if you believe that Iran is bound and determined to attack Europe or America, no matter what, then I think you also have to assume that Iran would do whatever it takes to overwhelm our missile defenses, including using decoys to fool the defenses, launching stealthy warheads, and launching many missiles, not just one or two."

Coyle has often argued that the Bush administration rushed to deploy missile defense systems around the world to build momentum and keep money flowing into the program. He has repeatedly said that the Missile Defense Agency has been amassing hardware that is either not aligned with the threat or can't be relied on in case of an actual emergency.

Over $120 billion has been spent on ballistic missile defense since its inception during the Reagan administration.

Coyle's views line up with Ellen Tauscher, who was then the subcommittee chairwoman but who is now Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, which oversees missile defense diplomacy.

Tauscher was part of the decision making process that led to huge changes in the Bush administration plans for missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Obama plan now calls for more short and medium range systems, most of them mobile. These are changes Coyle has also supported.

Coyle must now be confirmed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The vetting and confirmation process could take months.

The Cable

Low expectations for quick resumption of Six Party Talks

Don't expect huge progress toward a resumption of multilateral negotiations to deal with North Korea's nuclear program, just because U.S. and North Korean officials hung out in San Diego this week.

While it's significant on its face that State and Defense Department officials met with Ri Gun, North Korea's nuclear negotiator as part of "track two" discussions in the context of the Northeast Asia Security Dialogue, there is little chance that real negotiations took place or that a resumption of the Six-Party Talks is in the offing, experts say.

"This was not a prep meeting for the official process; it's more of a long-term thing to promote relationships," said Susan Shirk, the director of University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, which hosted the conference.

The various officials from Japan, China, the United States, Russia, South and North Korea held off-the-record discussions, ate meals together, and broke off in various different groupings, she said, but emphasized that all officials were there in a private capacity.

"Nobody's here representing their government," she said, although she told reporters following Tuesday's session there was some discussion between Ri and the State Department's Sung Kim about denuclearization and North Korea's security. (Derek Mitchell represented the Pentagon at the conference).

Media speculation about a possible deal to resume the talks, from which North Korea withdrew in April, has been rampant. In the previous administration, then lead negotiator Chris Hill was known for backroom discussions that led to surprise announcements of deals - leading to some criticism that he kept other officials out of the loop.

The Obama administration is more process-based, however, and decisions are made only after consultation and coordination. But so far, there have been few decisions to make, as there is no indication that either the United States or North Korea has moved at all from their basic stances, which are clear and far apart.

The U.S. maintains that bilateral discussions with North Korea can only move forward after Pyongyang agrees to return to the Six-Party Talks and recommits to the September 2005 agreement where Kim Jong Il agreed in principle to denuclearization.

For its part, North Korea seeks recognition of its nuclear status and then a resumption of talks based on the principle of "mutual disarmament," which for the U.S. is a complete nonstarter.

Without one or both sides making the strategic decision to alter its stance, which none of the discussants on Tuesday is empowered to do, a genuine resumption of the multilateral process won't be possible.

"It has nothing to do with format; it has everything to do with the content of the talks," said Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, a think tank that focuses on Northeast Asia.

"I've seen no indication the North Koreans are willing to resume negotiations in the context of the Six-Party Talks, which is really the key question," he said. "So far I don't think the North Koreans have shown any leg at all on that front."

Even the Chinese couldn't get any significant concessions from Pyongyang during the recent visit to Pyongyang by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Flake said the U.S.-North Korea discussions in San Diego yesterday and New York last weekend are meant to show that the Obama administration is serious about its willingness to engage and also to deflect the criticism often hurled at the Bush team that American intransigence was responsible for the lack of progress in solving the crisis.

"But unless Ri Gun is authorized to do something substantial that I don't think he is, I don't see any movement," said Flake.

Behind the scenes, there has long been a feeling that the North Korea negotiating team never has any real room to make concessions, meaning that only direct contact with the highest officials in Kim's regime could bear fruit.

The appointment of Stephen Bosworth to a title that covers all of the North Korean issue, while leaving Sung Kim as the official head of the U.S. delegation to the Six Party Talks, is seen as an attempt by Obama to allow Bosworth to leapfrog officials such as Ri Gun, if and when a time for serious bartering comes.

The North Koreans have repeatedly invited Bosworth to visit Pyongyang but the State Department has refused to answer that invitation, waiting for a time when the visit could produce justifiable results.

Meanwhile, Bosworth has been making good progress repairing relationships over the issue with allies Japan and South Korea, another casualty of the Chris Hill era.

There will be one more opportunity for U.S. and North Korean officials to chat in New York on Friday, in a forum hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, an old-school think tank run by Donald Zagoria.