It's late at night when the phone rings at the White House: Kim Jong Il, the ruthless oddball dictator of nuclear-armed North Korea, is dead. His apparent successor is his 20-something son, about whom practically nothing is known. South Korean officials have rushed to put the nation's military forces on high alert.
Do we want Mitt Romney answering that phone call? Newt Gingrich?
We learned Sunday night what happens when Barack Obama is on the receiving end of unsettling news from one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. There's a round of consultation with allies, a carefully worded official statement, an assessment of the status of diplomatic efforts to defuse North Korea's nuclear program -- in other words, a cautious and measured response.
Implicit in Obama's actions is the recognition that nothing a U.S. president says or does at this moment is likely to influence North Korean events in a positive way. Intemperate words or deeds, however, could be destabilizing at a moment of sudden transition. This is no moment to apply sharp pressure to a hermetically sealed, supremely paranoid regime that considers itself perpetually besieged and happens to possess nuclear weapons.
All this is lost on Romney, who came out guns blazing with what sounded as a call for regime change.
"Kim Jong Il was a ruthless tyrant who lived a life of luxury while the North Korean people starved," Romney said in a statement. "He recklessly pursued nuclear weapons, sold nuclear and missile technology to other rogue regimes, and committed acts of military aggression against our ally South Korea. He will not be missed."
Dancing on the dictator's grave is hardly presidential. How can anyone be certain what approach is most likely to lead to reform in North Korea until we know more about Kim's son -- Kim Jong Un, the "Great Successor"? Or until we can ascertain who now controls the nuclear weapons?
Romney is eager to show that he would somehow be tougher than Obama in foreign policy -- a high bar, given Obama's record of killing Osama bin Laden and helping orchestrate the demise of Moammar Gadhafi. It's possible that Romney understands what his responsibility would be if he faced a similar circumstance as president. But if you take his words seriously, the former Massachusetts governor sounds like a dangerous hothead.
That's nothing compared to Gingrich, whose past statements about North Korea have been shot from the hip. In 2009, Gingrich said the United States should have used force to prevent North Korea from testing a new long-range missile. "There are three or four techniques that could have been used, from unconventional forces to standoff capabilities, to say, 'We're not going to tolerate a North Korean missile launch, period,' " he said.
No, there are not any "standoff capabilities" that could have been used, at least not without starting a nuclear war. Gingrich has expressed his enthusiasm for a laser-beam weapon that the Pentagon tried to develop, but that program was radically scaled back. We could have just destroyed the missile on its launch pad, perhaps with a cruise missile strike, but the North Koreans might well have responded by destroying Seoul.
During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton famously asked whether Obama was ready for the 3 a.m. phone call about a foreign crisis. Kim's death reminds us that it's always 3 a.m. somewhere in the world.