Obama’s Triple Headache: Syria, Iran, North Korea; + ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ (Review)

US President Barack Obama is still reluctant to intervene in Syria, despite claims that the regime of Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons recently. Obama has good reasons to be cautious, for he does not wish to see America get bogged down in another war in the Middle East. For its part, the Pentagon is apparently reluctant to see an air campaign against Syria, in view of that country’s heavy air defences, and the idea of sending in a ground force of 75,000 troops (a number cited as necessary to secure Syria’s chemical weapons) would surely be difficult to ‘sell’ to the American public in view of the heavy casualties sustained in Iraq, and the fact that there are still tens of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan.

Syria Less Pressing Than Iran And North Korea

Another probable reason why the US wishes to avoid war in Syria is that it needs the flexibility to respond to a new crisis involving Iran or North Korea, which would arguably be more dangerous than the situation in Syria. Although Syria’s civil war has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and substantial refugee flows, and has become a proxy conflict between pro-regime Iran on the one hand and pro-rebel Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other, it is still relatively contained. By contrast, a new crisis with Iran or North Korea could escalate into a full-scale regional war. Although Iran’s nuclear programme and speculation about Israeli airstrikes against it have faded from the headlines lately, the matter could gain greater urgency once Iran’s June 14 presidential election is out of the way. This will especially be the case if a vocal hardliner is elected president of Iran, and the new administration fails to adjust Tehran’s nuclear stance in current negotiations with the ‘Great Powers’.

As for North Korea, the shrill rhetoric from Pyongyang seems to be subsiding somewhat, and it is a little surprising that the country refrained from carrying out new missile tests in April, as many had anticipated. However, we expect tensions on the Korean Peninsula to linger at least until July 27, when the two Koreas will mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War (1950-1953). No doubt, the North, which regards itself as the victor of that conflict, will use the occasion to play up its military strengths, and this could entail a new rocket or nuclear test. As ever, we warn that the real danger lies from a skirmish with the South escalating to a limited war as a result of miscalculation. Since the US is committed by treaty to South Korea’s defence, it must be ready to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops to the country in the event of war.

Yet whenever the US undertakes major military operations, it reduces the amount of domestic and international political capital and military resources available elsewhere. The ‘strange’ thing is that although Russia and China vigorously oppose US intervention in Syria, Moscow and Beijing would probably benefit from seeing Washington getting stuck in a new quagmire. China, in particular, would probably interpret US involvement in Syria as distracting Washington from its stated intent to ‘pivot’ towards Asia, something that Beijing – correctly in my view – regards as being aimed at counterbalancing China itself.

In addition to the above, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute between Japan and China is far from resolved. It remains a key flashpoint in East Asia, one that could drag in the US, since America is also committed by treaty to Japan’s defence.

Overall, events in Syria, Iran, and North Korea are all connected. Iran is Syria’s main ally in the Middle East, and maintains a degree of military cooperation with North Korea. The dynastic regimes in Pyongyang and Damascus have also developed friendly relations over many decades. If any of the three regimes were to collapse, for whatever reason, then it would be a psychological blow to the other two.

Olympus Has Fallen

On the subject of North Korea, this writer saw the film Olympus Has Fallen last night. When I first saw the poster of this film on the side of a London double-decker bus, I was adamant that I would not see it. The image of the White House aflame seemed clichéd to say the least. However, when I heard about the North Korean angle, it piqued my curiosity.

Olympus Has Fallen is essentially Die Hard in the White House, with elements of Air Force One thrown in. Basically, North Korean terrorists storm the White House during the US President’s summit with the visiting South Korean premier, and hold the US President as well as senior cabinet officials such as the Secretary of Defense hostage, while demanding that the US withdraws its forces from South Korea and handover codes for America’s nuclear weapons. The terrorists’ leader, Kang Yeonsak, wants to reunify the two Koreas, although it is somewhat unclear if he is acting independently of the North Korean government. Fortunately, a member of the President’s secret service team who knows the White House’s secret passages exceptionally well manages to ‘take out’ the terrorists one by one, a la Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

The film is entirely unoriginal, clichéd, outrageous, and preposterous (not to mention violent), and for these reasons I feel somewhat guilty for often finding it entertaining. Naturally, there are absurd moments, such as when a rogue US secret serviceman who has assisted the North Koreans in the siege tells the president that he was motivated by a hatred of ‘globalisation and Wall Street’. There are at least two bloopers, such as when chief terrorist Kang calls upon the US navy to withdraw from the Sea of Japan (Koreans refer to it as the East Sea), and when a television news banner states that ‘Southeast Asia on the brink of war’ when it means Northeast Asia. It is also fair to say that the characters lack… character. For example, both the hero and the chief villain lack the wit or personality of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in Die Hard. The film has also been criticised for its allegedly anti-Asian tone – indeed, there aren’t any sympathetic Asian characters.

Olympus Has Fallen is, by my count, the fourth big-release Western film to feature North Koreans as villains after Die Another Day (2002), Team America: World Police (2004), and the remake of Red Dawn (2012). It would be interesting to hear of how the regime in Pyongyang reacts to the film. Clearly, the film would be seen as an extreme form of American propaganda against North Korea (even though the Kim regime isn’t named). Nonetheless, the film also ‘credits’ North Koreans with remarkable operational capabilities, and thus, in a way, flatters them.

Postscript: The North Korean raid on the White House had a precedent, namely the North Korean attempt to attack the Blue House (South Korea’s presidential residence) in 1968. It failed, but dozens of people were killed in the incident.