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Several days ago we

Several days ago we predicted that the Bush administration's awkward climb-down would end with their embracing a policy close to, if not identical to, that pursued by the Clinton administration: i.e., a mix of threats and offers of aid to induce the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program. And now we have the other shoe dropping. After a meeting with South Korean officials this morning in Seoul, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly said that "Once we get beyond nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., with private investors, with other countries to help North Korea in the energy area." It's a grudging statement. But the interpretation of Lee Chung Min, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Yonsei University, quoted in the Washington Post has it just right. "It is a concession, a change of position. It's an indication of the Bush administration really wanting to settle this diplomatically and probably under a lot of pressure to do so."

Weve already been noting

We've already been noting the unseemly manner in which the Bush administration and those close to it have started picking a fight with South Korea in part because of the administration's inability to grapple with the crisis with North Korea. Now -- predictably I guess, since this is the responsibility era -- at least one "senior Bush administration official" is telling the Washington Post that it's all Bill Clinton's fault.

In fact, the article itself doesn't include any clear argument on the part of the senior official as to why it's all Bill Clinton's fault. But to shed more light on this, let's look at some emerging information about just when the US became aware of the North Koreans' clandestine uranium-enrichment program.

Last week in The Nelson Report -- which is becoming the source for information on this whole evolving story -- Chris Nelson revealed that the Clinton administration first found out about the illicit program in 1999, though at the time the much more pressing issue was North Korea's ballistic missile program. Nelson quotes a staff source saying "The Clinton Administration was near an agreement on cutting off missile production, as well as a resolution of the [uranium-based] nuclear program, to ensure North Korea did not become a nuclear power."

Now, what sort of agreement were the Clintonites near in 1999 or 2000? I don't know. Nelson's reporting makes clear, however, that whatever plan or agreement the previous administration did or didn't have in the works, they fully briefed the Bush administration on North Korea's uranium enrichment program in January 2001.

In other words, when Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted the North Koreans with evidence about their uranium-enrichment program, this wasn't information the Bush administration had just discovered. It was information they'd been sitting on for almost two years.

If the uranium-enrichment program was so important -- and it is -- why didn't they do anything about it until a couple months ago? Why did they sit on this information for almost two years?

The available evidence seems to suggest that while their main efforts were focused on the ballistic missile issue, the Clinton administration was trying to resolve the uranium-enrichment program issue by securing yet another deal. Conservatives may disagree with that strategy, calling it appeasement, or bribing the North Koreans, or whatever. But they seem to have been doing something -- even if it was something conservatives don't put much stock in. From the best we can see at the moment, however, the Bush administration found out about this information in January 2001 and went almost two years doing nothing about it at all.

I happen to know that at least one administration hawk is fiercely denying this rendition of events. But thus far, only with non-denial denials.

Some critics claim that what I have been arguing in these virtual pages is that the Bush administration simply shouldn't have called the North Koreans out on their uranium-enrichment program. This has never been my argument. What I am saying is, first, that the administration has spent the last two years pursuing a confused, provocative, and counterproductive policy which played a significant role in fomenting this crisis and, possibly, complicating a potential solution. Secondly, one has to question the timing of seeking a showdown over the North Koreans' uranium-enrichment program just as the US is girding itself for a major regional war on the other side of the globe. If we had just found out about it, then perhaps it's pressing enough to bring it up right now even though it complicates the Iraq situation and threatens to leave us awkwardly overextended. Perhaps. But if the administration had been sitting on the information for almost two years, what possible rationale could there be for choosing this moment to blow the whistle? What other explanation beside incompetence?

Another entry from the

Another entry from the annals of oops.

Another crucial task for the United States is to focus on relations with other powerful states. Although the United States is fortunate to count among its friends several great powers, it is important not to take them for granted-so that there is a firm foundation when it comes time to rely on them. The challenges of China and North Korea require coordination and cooperation with Japan and South Korea. The signals that we send to our real partners are important. Never again should an American president go to Beijing for nine days and refuse to stop in Tokyo or Seoul.

Condoleezza Rice
Foreign Affairs
Jan/Feb 2000
Many analysts say the growing anti-Americanism here has emboldened North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, to ratchet up the confrontation because he is secure that the Bush administration cannot wage war against him, or even contain him, without the support of South Korea, and equally secure that such support is lacking.

...

Through the Cold War and the last decade, governments in Washington and Seoul danced in lockstep. But that changed under the rule of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, whose "sunshine policy" toward the North has relied upon engagement and reconciliation, expanding trade and aid while reuniting families divided by the Demilitarized Zone.

While Bill Clinton was in power, the sunshine policy caused no discord. But when President Bush came into office and branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran, it embarrassed Kim and caused a cleavage in Seoul's dealings with Washington.

Peter S. Goodman and Joohee Cho
Washington Post
January 09, 2003
Oops ...

Does the Republican party

Does the Republican party have a problem with race?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Does the Republican party have a problem with uranium?

You better #$%@#&% believe it!

The previous two days I've been on TV (Crossfire) and radio (The Hugh Hewitt Show) discussing the North Korea crisis. In each case my Republican interlocutor either misunderstood, mistated or simply ignored the key difference between the North Koreans' plutonium-based and uranium-based nuclear weapons programs. Without understanding that difference it's really hard to have any idea what's going on.

Last night on Hugh Hewitt's show I said that everyone agrees that the North Koreans' uranium enrichment program is years away from making actual bombs. Hugh said I was flat wrong, simply making it up. I think there was even an Alice in Wonderland comment. Everyone knows, he said, that the clandestine uranium-enrichment program had already produced probably two bombs and would soon produce more. It's up and running, he said. He pointed to Michael Kelly's column in yesterday's Post and another article by Glenn Kessler, saying they refuted my contentions about the North Korean uranium program.

Not only is what Hewitt said patently false. But neither Kessler nor even the characteristically hot-headed Kelly support his claim. They say no such thing. Conservatives might have a better time making their arguments on this issue if they got a handle on the most basic factual issues involved in the debate.

Meanwhile, we now have more information on the administration's awkward climb-down and the resultant sell-out of the abandoned-on-the-battlefield conservative scribes who prematurely leapt forward to carry the administration's water. We have this today from the Washington Post ...

While many senior administration officials have been critical of Clinton's 1994 deal, saying it allowed an inevitable problem to fester, Powell lauded what is known as the Agreed Framework. "The previous administration I give great credit to for freezing that plutonium site," he said. "Lots of nuclear weapons were not made because of the Agreed Framework and the work of President Clinton and his team."
It would be easy to knock Powell for this, but also unfair. The truth is that Powell wanted to keep to at least the broad framework of the Clinton policy from the beginning. He just got outgunned by the hawks.

So let's review. Colin Powell comes in with one policy. He gets outvoted by the hawks in the administration. Then after the amateurs and the hot-heads have created a mess Powell gets called back in to clean it all up.

Somehow that story line sounds oddly familiar.

Lets say a few

Let's say a few more things about a possible withdrawal of US troops from South Korea.

First, it's important to note that few people actually expect to see a wholesale withdrawal of American troops any time soon. Yet, in a matter of such consequence, even having the possibility raised by members of congress and unnamed sources in the administration is a big deal.

In any case, is there a rationale for doing this at the present moment?

One argument is that withdrawing our troops from South Korea would make us less vulnerable to a North Korean counterstrike in the event of war. That would strengthen our hand with them militarily.

In a certain limited sense this is true: our 37,000 troops are extremely vulnerable to a North Korean lunge across the DMZ. Truth be told, that's the main reason they're there.

But strengthening our hand by withdrawing our troops is one of those gambits that is too clever by half. Or really, too clever by like four and a half. The truth is that our troops on the ground in South Korea are only one of several factors which make the possibility of war on the Peninsula all but unthinkable. The bottom line is that we're not going to invade the North. And all we really end up doing is handing the North Koreans on a platter something they've wanted for half a century -- and this in the face of their threats.

The more serious reason for suggesting this possibility is to make a point to the South Koreans. Support for our troop presence in South Korea is falling. So why not call their bluff? The thinking is that the South Koreans can afford to take more risks, be more indulgent toward the North since they know we'll be there to pick up the pieces if things go wrong. How daring would they be, how willing to embrace Kim Jong-Il, if they didn't have the safety net of the US military behind them?

Are these tough-guy tactics? Sort of. Is there are certain logic to it? Yes. But you can get so caught up in the details that you lose track of the larger ridiculousness of the whole discussion: the Koreans south of the DMZ are OUR ALLIES! We're actually in a serious crisis with the North Koreans and the hawks are too busy trying to go mano a mano with the folks who are supposed to be our friends. And this from a president whose foreign policy stump speech line was "As commander-in-chief, I will rebuild our military and strengthen our alliances."

How exactly did we get here?

Now, before we issue our nuclear demands to the North Koreans we probably first have to demand that they take a number because we can't schedule our crisis with them until we finish our crisis with our allies in the South.

Like I said, strategic ridiculousness.

What are some of

What are some of the great political betrayals of history? One certainly would be the federal government's betrayal of the ex-slaves of the South at the end of Reconstruction. After a dozen or so years trying to impose biracial democracy on the conquered South, the then-party of emancipation and civil rights, the Republicans, abandoned the freedmen to the tender mercies of Jim Crow for about a century. Then there was the shameful, though likely inevitable, abandonment of the fledgling electoral democracies of Eastern Europe. Those which were occupied by the Red Army -- Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany and others -- at the end of World War II had to endure about four decades of Stalinist tyranny.

Of course, now we have a much more recent example: the Bush White House's betrayal of the administration-obedient scribes who rushed forward in recent weeks to defend the White House's folly in North Asia.

After the *$#% started to hit the fan on the Korean Peninsula a horde of eager conservative columnists rushed forward to applaud the Bush administration's unmasking of North Korean villainy and Clintonian appeasement.

Finally, a tough-minded policy had been established! Moral clarity. Resolve. Grit in the face of evil. All that good stuff.

Yes, yes, yes, the road ahead may be a difficult one and the price to be paid may be high, they said. And there might have to be, if not a long twilight struggle, then at least a serious all-nighter with some dismally poor lighting. But the weak-willed policy of the Clintonites had been revealed for all to see, a vindication of the 'axis of evil' slogan and all the rest.

Only now these worthies, having walked so far out on the plank, have to hear that sawing sound at their rear, as the Bush White House hangs them out to dry.

For everyone who has eyes to see, the Bush administration is now awkwardly climbing down from its 'negotiation equals appeasement' approach of the last two years and hoping that our allies like South Korea and Japan and our sometimes-allies like China and Russia will help us get the North Koreans back to the negotiating table and reverse the deterioration which has occurred in the last several months.

Having defended the Bush White House by contrasting it with the vile appeasement of the Clinton administration, they now have to watch their guys crawl their way back to embracing the path the previous administration favored.

Hung out to dry, fellas.

Ouch ...

Folks who follow Asia

Folks who follow Asia policy are familiar with what's called the policy of 'strategic ambiguity'. That phrase refers to the United States' long-standing policy on the China-Taiwan controversy. What would we do if war broke out across the Taiwan Strait? Would we intervene? Not intervene? And under which circumstances? We deliberately keep the answer a bit vague and muddled because we'd like to keep both sides a bit off-balance and give both good reason not to step up to, or over, the line that would lead to war. It's hard to step right up to the line if you're not quite clear where the line is.

In Korea, the Bush administration now seems to be pursuing a policy of what we might call 'strategic ridiculousness': a policy involving the seemingly intentional pursuit of every amateurish and counter-productive gambit conceivable in each given situation. What shrewd purpose might stand behind this doctrine I'm not able to ascertain. But we can at least tease out its main components.

We've already discussed how the Bush administration solved the vexing problem of preventing the NKs from becoming a nuclear power by announcing that they already are a nuclear power and it's probably something we can live with.

And now there's more.

At the White House and among Republicans on Capitol Hill there is increasingly serious talk of pulling out the 37,000 troops which the US has garrisoned along the DMZ for about a half century. (Henry Hyde's International Relations Committee is apparently preparing hearings about a possible unilateral withdrawal of American troops.)

In other words, in order to take a tough line against North Korea's nuclear jawboning, the Bush White House is now prepared to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and contemplate the unilateral withdrawal of all American forces from the Korean Peninsula.

If that's the hardline approach, I'd hate to see what appeasement might look like.

And there's more.

Yesterday we said that we're now in the unenviable position of having to climb down from the consequences of our own boneheaded policies. The only thing I wasn't clear on was how quickly it would happen. Out of the box the administration word was: there's nothing to talk about until the NKs do what we say, period. That's a good line if you can stick to it. But they didn't. Ten days ago Colin Powell said we would not 'negotiate' with the NKs but we might possibly 'talk' with them. Today there was a late-breaking announcement that the administration will negotiate, but never compromise.

In other words, the administration is now in an embarrassing rearguard battle with itself over infantile word games and moronic or non-existent verbal distinctions. You almost expect Ari Fleischer to come out tomorrow, summon up his best Churchillian bluster, and say "For peace, we are prepared to be pathetic, but not pitiful!"

And there's more.

The next wrinkle in the story, or the next question, may be when exactly the Bush administration found out about the NK's uranium enrichment program. According to today's always invaluable Nelson Report, former Clinton administration officials are now prepared to testify before Congress that they got intelligence about the NK's clandestine uranium enrichment program back in 2000 and briefed the incoming Bush administration folks on that intelligence at the beginning of 2001.

If that's true, says Nelson ...

Democrats are prepared to ask what the Bush people did with this intelligence, all through 2001, and why negotiations with N. Korea weren't begun on this vital topic. Democrats, and perhaps more objective observers, note that, instead, it was only in October, 2002, after months of international pressure to Pyongyang, that the subject came up.

Administration sources have refused comment on what they were told by the Clinton folks two years ago, but they frankly admit, off the record, that the Kelly mission's use of the [uranium enrichment] intelligence on Oct. 3 was designed to continue the stalemate with N. Korea, not to start substantive negotiations on nuclear weapons.

Clearly, it never occurred to them that approach this would fuel the current crisis, with N. Korea seizing the opportunity to increase the "blackmail", rather than "surrender", as some Bush hardliners apparently predicted.

Oops...

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