If North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test was indeed a dud, we will hear another round of jokes at the expense of Kim Jong Il and his clown haircut. But while mocking an eccentric dictator is always fun, he has equal reason to chortle at the Bush administration’s erratic foreign policy, which has stumbled into a dangerous corner.
Back in January 2002, George W. Bush invited the world to judge him according to a single crucial objective. That was when the President first denounced the “Axis of Evil,” which included Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and vowed that the United States would not tolerate their acquisition of “weapons of mass destruction.” The result has been a disastrous war in Iraq, which had no such weapons, and a diplomatic stalemate with Iran and North Korea that encouraged those states to continue their nuclear weapons programs.
By invading Iraq on the pretext of disarming a hostile regime, Washington sent an unmistakable message to the two remaining members of the so-called axis, which was reinforced by the American refusal to engage in bilateral talks with Tehran and Pyongyang. Only military power, underscored by the actual possession of nuclear weapons, could guarantee survival against a superpower bent on “regime change.” Both regimes took the hint and did precisely the opposite of what Mr. Bush said he wanted.
Over the past five years, the Bush policy toward both Iran and North Korea has vacillated between threats and negotiations. Sometimes the White House tries to rally world and regional powers toward solutions through multilateral talks, and at other times the administration appears to prepare for violent confrontation with one or both countries. With our military strength diminished and our forces distracted by the Iraqi sand trap, however, that destructive option no longer seems realistic, if it ever was.
That won’t stop the usual chorus of right-wing extremists, who maintain their influence on American policy despite the debacle they have created in Iraq, from banging their war drums. (They don’t know how to do anything else.)
These opportunists will claim—as Senator John McCain immediately did—that the hapless Bush policy is somehow the fault of Bill Clinton, who left office six years ago. These geniuses will insist—as they did on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal—that more economic pressure should be inflicted on the impoverished North Koreans by China and South Korea.
And these experts will advise us—as the neoconservative writer David Frum did on the op-ed page of The New York Times—that the United States should also accelerate construction of its missile defense system, which doesn’t work; curtail humanitarian aid to North Korea, which could starve millions and precipitate a crisis on the Chinese border; and encourage Japan to drop out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which might destroy that highly effective agreement and instigate a new arms race in dozens of countries that have refrained from nuclear weapons for decades.
Such chest-puffing exercises require ignorance or oblivion of certain central facts, including our current financial dependence on the Chinese, and the potential impact on the world economy of a sudden North Korean implosion that cripples China.
The right-wingers unanimously argue that the United States must not, under any circumstances, engage in direct talks with North Korea or Iran. To agree to bilateral discussions with either of those rogue states would merely reward their bad behavior, they insist, and not without reason. But of course that is because our own government has backed into a corner where negotiations become a “victory” for the other side and Mr. Bush’s bluster is exposed as hollow.
At a time when the gruesome realities in Baghdad have begun to penetrate even the dimmest minds in Washington, with hints of new policy alternatives being dropped by Presidential friends like James Baker III, perhaps the Bush administration should abandon bloody fantasies of toppling Tehran and Pyongyang. Change can and should come to those countries, but neither war nor the threat of war is the most effective way to achieve reform.
Decades ago, American policy refused recognition to China and U.S. military planners mulled a nuclear first strike against Beijing when Mao Zedong proclaimed his intention to build atomic weapons. Today, although China remains far from ideal in its progress toward human rights and democracy, we are deeply engaged with that country and seek its assistance in coping with the North Korean problem. Whatever progress we have made in our relations with China—and whatever progress China has made toward decent government—has resulted from diplomacy, engagement and endless discussion rather than isolation and belligerence.
Our government and its allies should take measures to discourage the treaty violations of Iran and North Korea. But ultimately we will have to talk with those regimes, too—and the sooner we face that reality the better.