National Security is all about prioritizing tough decisions. Often, an administration can get away with avoiding the really tough calls, but from time to time, issues arise that force policy makers into pragmatic trade-offs between vital values and interests. Those choices are very instructive and insightful as to how a President sees the world. The NY Times reports that the Bush Administration faced just such a choice between its key goals of counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation:

Three months after the United States successfully pressed the United Nations to impose strict sanctions on North Korea because of the country’s nuclear test, Bush administration officials allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from the North, in what appears to be a violation of the restrictions, according to senior American officials.

The United States allowed the arms delivery to go through in January in part because Ethiopia was in the midst of a military offensive against Islamic militias inside Somalia, a campaign that aided the American policy of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.

The NYT story is quite clear about the central issue:

But the arms deal is an example of the compromises that result from the clash of two foreign policy absolutes: the Bush administration’s commitment to fighting Islamic radicalism and its effort to starve the North Korean government of money it could use to build up its nuclear weapons program.

The Administration has identified both counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation as vital national security interests. But when they happen to conflict, as in when fighting terrorists requires looking the other way on a major North Korean arms deal, we see where the Administration’s priorities lie. They would rather allow Ethiopia to purchase tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons from North Korea, providing North Korea with vital cash and circumventing UNSC sanctions limiting arms transfers out of North Korea in punishment for its nuclear test than not, so long as those weapons go to fight terrorists, and by terrorists we mean the Islamic militias in Somalia.

They had a clear choice–cut off one of North Korea’s few sources of cash on the international market or equip an allied government with weapons necessary to launch an attack on Islamist militias.

Its one of those tough choices that National Security policy-makers make that reveals their priorities and values. It is also one of those choices with real repercussions long into the future, many of which have real consequences for vital US national security interests.

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