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Who Let North Korea Get the Bomb?

I enjoy a good anti-Bolton hatchet job as much as the next man, but David Sanger’s effort in the New York Times (Sanger & Broad, U.S. Had Doubts on North Korean Uranium Drive, March 1, 2007) inspires more disgust than admiration.

The short version of the purported scoop is this: the U.S. let engagement with North Korea collapse in 2002 because administration hardliners insisted on confronting Pyongyang over a uranium enrichment program that is probably mostly vaporware. North Korea took advantage of the breach to reinitiate and rush ahead with its plutonium program, explode a bomb, and stockpile material for several more.
Moral: It’s John Bolton’s fault that North Korea got the atomic bomb.

Or, as the Times puts it:

“The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently,” a senior administration official said this week.

(Insert sound of daggers thumping into back here)

Later on the article:

Two administration officials, who declined to be identified, suggested that if the administration harbored the same doubts in 2002 that it harbored now, the negotiating strategy for dealing with North Korea might have been different – and the tit-for-tat actions that led to October’s nuclear test could, conceivably, have been avoided.

Nonsense.

President Bush, with his prating about the Axis of Evil, his doctrine of military pre-emption, and the invasion of Iraq, is the person who imbued the North Korean nuclear program with a sense of existential urgency.

I yield to no one in my distaste for the mustachioed one and his dangerous obsession with regime change as the solution to all of America’s problems.

However, the fact remains that the North Korean nuclear program derived its impetus in 2002 from America’s strategic posture, and not John Bolton’s negotiating position or dubious intelligence findings.

To imply that sweet words from the State Department could have counterbalanced the understandable trepidation in Pyongyang concerning America’s avowed crusade against the Axis of Evil is simply foolish.

January 20, 2002 is a long time ago, but here’s what President Bush said about the Axis of Evil in his State of the Union address:

By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction. We will develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect America and our allies from sudden attack. (Applause.) And all nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.
We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons. (Applause.)

Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun. This campaign may not be finished on our watch — yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch.

It’s pretty clear what was driving our relations with North Korea back in 2002. It wasn’t diplomacy. And for the State Department weathervanes that promptly pivoted to align with the pre-emptive war policy to pretend otherwise is sheer hypocrisy.

In this environment, North Korea did acquire centrifuges from A.Q. Khan’s illicit proliferation network, centrifuges whose sole purpose was the production of weapons-grade uranium.

That’s bad.

On the other side of the column, one might claim that enriching uranium is fiendishly hard and expensive and beyond the means of the North Koreans; that the science of making a uranium bomb that can be delivered by missile is, relatively speaking, terra incognita; and that A.Q. Khan’s manufacturing and procurement network was rolled up before the North Koreans could establish a useful enrichment facility.

Nevertheless, the program was not illusory, it was a clear indication of duplicity and bad faith by the North Koreans, and it demanded a response.

Bolton’s response-to use the breach as an excuse to pursue his long cherished goal of forcible regime change in North Korea through U.N. sanctions and a de facto economic blockade-was wrongheaded and dangerously destabilizing and, given the unequal contest between China’s intensity of purpose in North Korean matters vs. America’s distracted floundering, utterly impractical.

But in the context of an avowed U.S. policy of confronting the Axis of Evil -remember “time is not on our side…I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer”-Bolton’s continuous push to escalate the confrontation and provoke a crisis was completely defendable and consistent.

Bolton simply played the cards that George Bush-and the North Koreans–dealt him, albeit with reckless abandon.
What I think is at work today is an urgent effort to bayonet the neo-con wounded who were defeated on the strategic and ideological question of whether to engage with or confront North Korea.

The neo-cons lost that battle and Condi Rice, probably itching to win a bureaucratic struggle for the first time in her Washington career, wants to make sure they lose the war as well.

The North Korean deal is not a glorious piece of work for the State Department.

It was a desperate giveaway that duplicated the conditions of the Clinton freeze deal, but with a bitter aftertaste of capitulation and betrayal of our allies, particularly Japan, who had doggedly supported Bolton’s quixotic strategy.
It sent a clear message of American decline in Asia with the unambiguous acknowledgement that it was the good offices of that competing power, China, and not U.S. economic, diplomatic, or military muscle, that secured the agreement.

So it’s in the interests of the State Department to pull a bait and switch, and excuse a badly done deal by claiming that a fatal error-Boltonian instransigence-gave North Korea the bomb and dictated this rather embarrassing and humiliating outcome.

There were plenty of other outcomes available, perhaps better ones that would have required more time, determination, and, yes, possibly intransigence, but none that would have enabled Rice’s frantic putsch, by which she seized the fleeting opportunity offered by the mid-term elections to change the direction of America’s foreign policy with a quick deal on North Korea.

Tarring John Bolton as the father of the North Korean atomic bomb can also be considered as a pre-emptive strike to discredit the confrontational neo-con orthodoxy and forestall its re-emergence on the matter of Iran.

This stunt also nips the emerging Dolchstoss meme in the bud, inoculating the State Department against the charge that Christopher Hill & Co. betrayed America’s principles and interests. In fact, it neatly reverses it, claiming that neo-con dingbats stabbed the realists in the back instead of the other way around.

And, as a gift for President Bush, it places the blame for accelerating the North Korean nuclear program on John Bolton-instead of the man who appointed him, who singlemindedly defined and practiced the regime-change doctrine, and who sits in the Oval Office and pays Secretary Rice’s salary.

Fortunately David Sanger was available to step up and retail Secretary Rice’s version of events to a credulous world.
Perhaps Secretary of State Rice can maintain the initiative and use the fact of her victory over John Bolton, if not over North Korea, to promote a policy of peacefully muddling through the Iran crisis.

President Bush, if he has finally reconciled himself to accepting his limitations of character and ability in the interests of leaving office with at least one seemingly praiseworthy accomplishment-zeroing out the Axis of Evil through appeasement instead of bloody victory–may let her.

And if that achievement has to be established on the shaky foundation of a self-serving lie, well, it wouldn’t be the first time for this administration, or for Condi Rice.

CHINA HAND edits the very interesting website China Matters.

 

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