We're all accustomed to those many political debates over the last couple decades in which there was one conventional wisdom in Washington and another one altogether outside the beltway. We're now seeing a new twist on that paradigm in the mounting debate over the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
On one side, you have most of Washington's chattering classes, an assortment of blowhards and yada-meisters, telling a story about Clintonian appeasement and the current administration's steely-eyed determination to deal with yet another run-amok rogue regime.
On the other side, you have most folks who follow politics and geo-politics in Asia, and especially in North Asia. You also have most politicians and diplomats from the region itself. They tell a rather different story: how the Bush administration blundered its way into this crisis by casting about for two years with loose threats it was in no real position to make good on. It is also a story about how the administration committed itself to what was effectively a policy of no negotiations rather than trying to toughen, and thus improve, the deals the Clinton administration had cut in 1994 and thereafter.
I've mentioned so many times before the Nelson Report. I'd like to quote the whole thing verbatim today. But the most interesting passage is that in which Nelson describes a dawning realization -- seemingly even within the administration -- that the administration committed a major strategic blunder in equating negotiations with appeasement. Now they're trying to find a face-saving way to get out of this jam by asking the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, the South Koreans -- just about anyone who has the North Koreans' phone number, it seems -- to let the North Koreans know that we'd really like to get back to the bargaining table if only they'd give us something to help us save a little face.
This is one of the many embarrassments of the situation we're now in. Usually it's the weaker party that needs to save face when backing down from some untenable position. But here we're the ones who need to save face.
What got us into this situation was our refusal -- a refusal based apparently on principle -- to talk with the North Koreans or to assuage their security concerns. And now we're looking for a face-saving way to get back to what we previously refused on principle to do. I've said it countless times now, but really, how on earth did we manage to get ourselves into a position like that? Who was watching the store? Who thought this policy through?
It's a serious embarrassment. And more important than that it's gotten us into a really dangerous situation.
Having said all this, let me direct you to what strikes me as the clearest and most concise statement yet on this topic. It's Fareed Zakaria's column on the North Korea crisis in the new issue of Newsweek. No one would accuse Zakaria of being either a partisan or a dove. And he captures a good bit of the problem in a very few words. The White House is long on moral clarity -- calling the North Korean regime evil and barbaric and so forth. But they simply don't have a policy for dealing with the problem. To the extent that they have a policy it has been one of tossing around loose threats that everyone knew, or should have known, we weren't in much of a position to follow through on. Now we're in a jam and we have to look for some face saving way to get back to something that looks a lot more like the Clinton policy than the one this administration has been pursuing for the last two years. Don't waste any more time on my summary. Just read Zakaria's piece.