President Bush claims that his tough, confrontational approach to the bad guys of the world has made America safer. But on his watch, the world’s most dangerous regime — North Korea — has openly declared that it is building nuclear bombs as fast as it can. It may already (experts speculate) have as many as a dozen, and it shows signs of preparing its first nuclear bomb test. Nukes in the hands of this paranoid, impoverished regime — which is also building long-range missiles and seems quite capable of selling nukes to Al Qaeda — represent a vastly greater threat to American cities than Saddam Hussein ever did.
It’s unclear whether any president could have prevented this, short of war. But it’s hard to imagine anyone doing much worse than Bush has done. Looking to the future, would John Kerry do better? The answer may turn on a blood-curdling choice: Would it be better to pin all our hopes on peaceful negotiations that seem less than likely to stop North Korea from building a vast nuclear arsenal? Or should we threaten — and, if necessary, launch — pre-emptive bombing attacks that could lead to another all-out Korean war and even the nuking of South Korea and Japan?
Bush set his course on North Korea in March 2001, when he slapped down Secretary of State Colin Powell for having sensibly said that the administration would continue President Clinton’s carrot-and-stick negotiating strategy with North Korea. Instead, seeing the Clinton approach as capitulation to nuclear blackmail, Bush put talks with North Korea into the deep freeze. In the process, he humiliated visiting South Korean President Kim Jae Dung, whose own "sunshine" policy was closely linked to Clinton’s. Bush later included Kim Jong Il’s odious tyranny in his "axis of evil.""We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it," Dick Cheney reportedly said in one key meeting on North Korea. That hard-line approach would have made sense if Bush had a strategy for defeating or dictating terms to North Korea. But Bush had no such strategy. No carrot, no stick, no nothing, except for a half-hearted, multilateral negotiating process that went nowhere for more than three years. Meanwhile, North Korea has mocked the Bush administration’s March 2003 threat that it "would not tolerate" a North Korean nuclear arsenal by announcing that it is building one.
Bush finally changed course this June. Yielding to intense international pressure, he offered to provide a "provisional" nonaggression guarantee and economic aid in exchange for North Korea’s dismantling its nuclear programs. But this may be too little, too late. By becoming militarily bogged down and diplomatically isolated in Iraq, while North Korea has been arming itself to the teeth, Bush has put America in a far weaker bargaining position than before."At various points during the escalating North Korean crisis, the Bush administration’s position has seemed confused, reactive, or vacillating, [a] defiant but nonetheless largely passive posture of refusing to give in to North Korean blackmail," according to an article in the August 30 Weekly Standard co-authored by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. This from an expert who shares the Bush hard-liners’ conviction that North Korea is extremely unlikely to disarm voluntarily.So John Kerry had good reason to blast Bush on September 12 for letting "a nuclear nightmare" develop in North Korea.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s standard retort — that the Clinton administration had been "duped" and its policy had "failed" — was less than convincing.
Compared with the Bush approach, the Clinton policy was a roaring success. It was forged during the crisis of 1993 and 1994. North Korea, which was already believed to have reprocessed enough
spent fuel from its Yongbyon nuclear complex to make bomb-grade
plutonium for one or two nuclear bombs, ejected International
Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and prepared to make more bombs.
While implicitly threatening a pre-emptive military attack,
Clinton saw negotiation with the evil and duplicitous North
Korean regime as the least bad option. His administration worked
out a deal, the "Agreed Framework," in October 1994. North Korea
agreed to freeze its nuclear program and open its nuclear
facilities to inspectors. In return, the U.S., South Korea, and
Japan would supply North Korea with fuel oil and two relatively
safe light-water nuclear reactors to generate electricity.This agreement had a troubled history, with North Korea
engaging in provocations, including missile tests and exports;
with suspicions that it might be cheating (to nobody’s great
surprise) on its nuclear commitments; and with work on the
light-water reactors falling far behind schedule. By the end of
the Clinton administration, evidence was accumulating that North
Korea might be secretly enriching uranium from which bombs could
All this, plus the North Korean regime’s
atrocities against its own people, helps explain Bush’s loathing
for Kim Jong Il and his distaste for the Clinton policy. The
uncompromising Bush approach seemed superficially vindicated in
late 2002, when — confronted with evidence by a State
Department envoy — Kim’s regime defiantly admitted that it had
been enriching uranium. This violated both the Agreed Framework
and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The U.S. then suspended
talks and fuel-oil deliveries. And North Korea withdrew from the
nonproliferation treaty and (it has said) resumed reprocessing
fuel rods into plutonium and making nuclear weapons.But Clinton’s Agreed Framework did freeze North Korea’s
reprocessing of fuel rods into plutonium and nuclear bombs —
the most urgent danger — for eight years. Otherwise, "North
Korea could today have 50 to 100 nuclear weapons," as William J.
Perry, who was Defense secretary from 1994 to 1997, wrote in a
July 2003 op-ed. That would have been more than enough to tempt
North Korea to export nukes to terrorists or others. It could
also have provoked a dangerous regional arms race, in which
Seoul, Tokyo, and even Taiwan might have gone nuclear, and the
collapse of the nonproliferation regime. Now these dangers have
again become pressing.
Bush has done some things
right. He has engaged China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea in
multilateral talks to increase the pressure on North Korea and
share the burdens. And as noted above, since June, Bush has
adopted a variant of the Clinton carrot-and-stick diplomacy that
he had previously disdained.
Kerry has suggested that
he would be more effective in negotiations than Bush. That’s
certainly worth a try. But "unless the United States can find a
way to cause Kim Jong Il to fear a unilateral military attack,
no negotiated settlement is likely to prove possible," writes
Graham Allison in his new book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate
Preventable Catastrophe. That’s very bad news, if true.Allison, a Harvard professor, high-level Clinton Defense
Department alumnus, and Kerry supporter, says the president
should not only offer an unambiguous nonaggression pact and
major economic assistance, but also threaten that unless Kim
Jong Il agrees to disarm, "the United States [will destroy]
North Korea’s known nuclear facilities in a precision-bombing
campaign" — and, if Kim retaliates, will destroy his regime as
Many other experts, Democratic and Republican
alike, say that such a pre-emptive attack on North Korea "is not
a practical option and would be very, very dangerous," in the
words of Joseph Cirincione, of the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace. An all-out war in Korea would take hundreds
of thousands or even millions of South Korean lives and many
thousands of American lives.
Allison’s candidate, Kerry, seems unlikely to implement Allison’s suggested strategy.
Indeed, for those who want to scare North Korea straight, Bush
may be a better bet. The president — notwithstanding his
passivity so far on North Korea — seems by nature and
reputation far more likely than Kerry to launch a pre-emptive
attack and thus to be credible in threatening one.The most likely scenario is that given the strategically weak
position into which Bush has maneuvered us, neither Bush nor
Kerry would go to war to disarm North Korea — and North Korea
knows it. For the same reason, the price of bribing it to
promise nuclear disarmament has no doubt gone up.
The situation in Iran, the other axis-of-evil regime that is racing
to go nuclear, is much the same. "Because it lost time and
squandered resources," as James Fallows wrote in the October
Atlantic Monthly, "the United States now has no good options for
dealing with either country. It has fewer deployable soldiers
and weapons; it has less international leverage through the
‘soft power’ of its alliances and treaties; it even has less
intelligence, because so many resources are directed toward
Such is the legacy of the president who says
he is building "a safer world."