It was one of those moments where both parties came together in a rare showing of collegiality and voted to strengthen sanctions on North Korea. After all, the madman in charge of North Korea just launched a long-range rocket, conducted nuclear weapons testing, and resurrected another plutonium reactor. The Senate responded by unanimously passing a sanctions bill.
Or so the media would have you believe. In reality, these moments of bipartisanship are not rare and are more the rule than the exception. This bill embodies the parties getting along well together precisely because it doesn’t really do much and won’t force Obama to do anything he is recalcitrant to pursue.
To begin with, the reason Democrats are more willing to go along with sanctions on North Korea than Iran, even though Iran is violating the terms of the nuclear agreement, is because these measures are largely symbolic. Placing real sanctions on Iran would derail the nascent treaty that Obama so fervently supports. As it relates to North Korea, the ship has already sailed because they have already acquired nuclear weapons thanks to a similar process Democrats just supported vis-à-vis Iran. It is widely believed that North Korea has up to 16 nuclear warheads.
H.R. 757 is full of directives that the White House issue reports and monitor behavior of individuals related to the North Korean regime. The only few provisions in this bill that will actually change the current reality and put the screws to Kim Jong Un are full of waivers that Obama will utilize immediately. Section 203 of the bill would require a special license to export any goods or technology to North Korea and would direct the president to cut off all aid to any country that provides “lethal military equipment” to North Korea. This provision specifically targets China. But the bill provides a waiver if the president believes it’s in “our national interest” and an exception if the assistance is “for human rights, democracy, rule of law, or emergency humanitarian purposes.”
Section 206 calls on the State Department to deny visas to anyone involved in assisting the North Korean regime’s weapons program, but this provision and many others are voided out by a plethora of waivers and exemptions in Section 208.
Everyone understands why you would insert national security and humanitarian exceptions into a piece of legislation. But that is predicated on having a president who is looking out for our interests and not siding with our enemies. To pass a new bill with so many waivers after everything we’ve seen from this president is a complete joke.
In December, Congress passed a bill requiring Iranian and Iraqi nationals with European passports to obtain a visa in order to travel to the U.S. Under current law, most European countries are exempt from the visa requirement. But they inserted a national interest waiver into the bill and within just two weeks John Kerry announced that he was exempting Iranians from the extra layer of scrutiny.
Unfortunately, there is every reason to believe that the Obama administration will continue to coddle North Korea the same way it has Iran. Obama’s State Department has refused to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terror and this bill declines to force the administration’s hand. Last year, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to North Korea’s shipment of missiles to Iran in order to protect both of them from sanctions. There is nothing in this bill that will force the hand of an administration that has already demonstrated it doesn’t view North Korea as a threat. And in some ways, Obama views them as a strategic partner in forging his alliance with Iran. Besides, why make his buddies in China mad?
In 2011, Obama did nothing after China transferred transporter-erector-launchers to North Korea. As Sen. Ted Cruz wrote in a letter to Obama, “[U]pon receipt of these vehicles, North Korea modified them with the ability to launch the KN-08, an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States from a road-mobile launch platform.”
It’s understandable why Republicans would jump at the opportunity to get this bill on Obama’s desk, but there was no reason for them to toss Democrats a loincloth and block all amendments, even those with common sense provisions tightening some of the waivers. Sen. Rand Paul was prevented from offering his amendment (#3301), which would have struck the humanitarian waivers from the bill.
The next time you see Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid back-slapping each other on passing a bill that sounds meritorious, make sure to read the fine print.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.