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For anyone who thought

For anyone who thought the Iraq war had cowed the North Koreans into compliance, today's news may come as a rude awakening. As TPM noted yesterday, China's role in the trilateral talks about to start in Beijing looks as much like that of a host as that of a participant. And now, prior to the talks getting underway, the North Koreans are pressing just that point.

A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said today that "at the talks the Chinese side will play a relevant role as the host state and the essential issues related to the settlement of the nuclear issue will be discussed between the DPRK and the U.S [italics added]." In other words, having gotten us to sit down to talks with a multilateral fig leaf, the North Koreans have now snatched the fig leaf back.

Indeed, China seems to be seconding that reading of the talks. This from the AP ...

China's ambassador in Seoul said North Korea and the United States should resolve their nuclear dispute themselves, and Beijing does not plan to mediate between them during talks.

"I don't think China plans to mediate," Ambassador Li Bin told South Korea's MBC Radio in an interview recorded Thursday. "Although China can play a constructive role, it is the two parties concerned that should resolve the problem. How much the problem could be resolved is up to how the two parties work."

Far more ominously, the North Koreans now say they've actually begun reprocessing those spent nuclear fuel rods. And in a comment sure to raise questions and speculation, the North Koreans are saying that they informed the US and "other countries concerned" last month.

Much is being made

Much is being made of North Korea's apparent decision to accede to Bush administration demands for multilateral, rather than bilateral, talks over their nuclear weapons program. Now, as I said earlier, there are still lots of details to be ironed out. The beginning negotiating positions are still very far apart.

But, contrary to most press reports, these new talks themselves at least arguably amount to as great a climbdown for the United States as for North Korea. I say that because this plan -- or something very near to it -- has been on offer since mid-January.

Just to review, the North Koreans wanted bilateral talks with the US. The US wanted multilateral talks -- talks, including the United States, North Korea and China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

On January 14th, the Chinese offered to host talks between the United States and the North Koreans in Beijing. At the time, the US basically demurred. According to an article that appeared the next day in The New York Times ...

the White House said it welcomed China's involvement and appeared receptive to talks with Pyongyang, though officials insisted that an end to North Korea's nuclear plans was not negotiable. There was no immediate response to the offer from the Pyongyang government.
I'm not certain whether the North Koreans ever made a formal response. But, at the time, the US response was taken as a polite 'no, thank you.' It wasn't how the White House wanted to proceed. But it also, rightly, didn't want to offend the Chinese by swatting down the proposal. By some, China's offer was even seen as slightly demeaning to the US, since it is usually the role of a great power to host or sponsor talks between lesser states -- such as our role in the Middle East peace process, for instance.

Now we are having those talks in Beijing, only the Chinese are now participants rather than mere hosts.

Now, diplomacy is a game of subtle, but symbolically significant distinctions. And this is such a distinction. But, as distinctions go, this is, shall we say, rather subtle.

The truth is that the rapid victory in Iraq created incentives for both sides to get to the negotiating table (more on this soon). And that's why they're about to get there.

In Korea and Arabia

In Korea and Arabia, the Bush administration is poised to make decisions that will tell us a lot about the policy it intends to pursue and just who's calling the shots. In the post below, I note that the North Koreans have come toward the Bush administration position -- but with several significant barbs that may nullify the effect of the opening. The president now has to decide whether he's interested in talking or not. (NB: This is being presented as an administration victory -- and, to an extent, it is. But we shouldn't forget that the multilateral talks position is still a significant climb-down from the administration's original stance.)

There's a similarly telling moment with Syria. (I have a column coming out about this tomorrow. So I don't want to say too much about it now.) I doubt very much that we're about to move militarily against Syria. This strikes me as a brush-back pitch. It is critical to our efforts in Iraq that Syria not try to Lebanize Iraq. Those are the minimum ground rules. And we need to make that crystal clear to them right now.

Our military might looks extremely credible at the moment. Also, note that Syria is now surrounded by the United States and two of its allies -- Turkey and Israel, Lebanon being effectively Finlandized and Jordan a minor military power.

The critical question is, how far do we press our advantage? Do we warn the Syrians off any interference with our work in Iraq and put them on notice about chemical weapons? Or do we press on our whole bill of particulars -- cutting off support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, opening up to some sort of chemical weapons inspections, closing down offices of terrorist organizations in Damascus, a more compliant stance toward peace with Israel, etc. The devil will be in the details. But those details will tell us a lot about whether we're pursuing a minimalist or maximalist plan for remaking the Middle East.

On a related matter, there's a lot of chatter about how much we may or may not be coordinating with Israel on all this. Here's one good example that we're not -- or at least not that well, if we are. Because if we really were coordinating so closely with Israel we wouldn't let anything like this happen that made it look like we were coordinating so closely.

Israel's hawkish Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Israeli daily Maariv, "We have a long list of issues that we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians, and it is proper that it should be done through the Americans." In various press reports I've seen this translated both as "through the Americans" and "by the Americans." In the context, that subtle distinction in meaning is rather important. So I'd be curious to know more about how he phrased it in Hebrew. The long list of issues included ...

... removing the threat of Hezbollah in south Lebanon; distancing long-range rockets; moving Hezbollah away from the south, up to dismantling [Hezbollah]; stopping Iranian aid to Hezbollah via Syrian ports; and halting the granting of the cover of respectability to the terror headquarters of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad based in Damascus, from which they dispatch orders and funding to Palestinian terrorist organizations.
Now each of these would be great to have happen. But this reads like something out of the more conspiratorial wing of the Arab press: Israel comes up with a list of demands for Syria. Israel gives the list to the United States. The United States masses troops on Syria's borders and forces the Syrians to comply with the list of Israel's demands.

If nothing else we want to do a bit better on appearances.

Multilateral Well ... kindalateral.

Multilateral? Well ... kindalateral. Bush administration Korea policy got an apparent boost a couple days ago when the North Koreans suddenly (a couple days after the fall of Baghdad) announced they were willing to engage in multilateral talks over their nuclear weapons program so long as the US was "ready to make a bold switch-over in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue." On Sunday, the president crowed -- not without some justification -- that his tough policy against Iraq had made the North Koreans cave.

But now there seems to be a catch.

The North Koreans say they're okay with multilateral talks. But, according to an article in today's Korea Herald, North Korea -- and China -- say they don't want the Russians or the Japanese at table.

We probably don't mind not having the Russians there. But according to Chris Nelson, at The Nelson Report, the US would find excluding Japan from multilateral talks "unacceptable under any circumstances."

The rationale for the exclusion, according to the article is that the UN, China, North Korea and the United States were the only signatories to the original 1953 armistice agreement. So Russia and Japan are just not relevant to a new conference that would move beyond the armistice agreement and toward a non-aggression pact -- the North Koreans key, and apparently still operative, demand.

That may work as an purported rationale. But it doesn't really wash as the actual reason.

And there's one other party the North Koreans and the Chinese would like to have at the table: the European Union.

The Korea Herald article quotes a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul saying that "the North wants the European Union (EU) to participate in the multilateral forum in an apparent hope that the EU may play a leading role in providing economic aid to Pyongyang." But it's hard not to see some extra-economic motivations behind the desire of the Chinese and the North Koreans to pull up a chair for the EU.

Here's a good Reuters piece -- moved before the news about Russia and Japan -- on the hard-bargaining to come. There are some particularly good quotes from Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum, a branch of the DC think-tank CSIS. Cossa's predecessor at the Pacific Forum was none other than James A. Kelly, the State Department point man on East Asia and the North Korea issue. (I think Cossa worked under Kelly as Executive Director before Kelly moved on to State in 2001.)

Assuming some agreement can be worked out over who's a party to the negotiation, the question now is whether the president will have the courage to say 'yes' and test the North Koreans' willingness to make a deal or whether he'll follow the lead of those on his right flank who say that war with North Korea is essential and inevitable -- the only question being whether we pull the trigger now or wait a few years.

This from an article

This from an article in The Guardian ...

We now also learn that before Blair departed for the March 18 Iraq debate, Downing Street had drawn up contingency plans for the withdrawal of British troops from the build-up in the Gulf and also for Blair's resignation, should the votes have gone against him. That is how serious it was.
One of the fascinating things over the next weeks and months and years will be to find out more and more of the hidden details about the lead-up to this war.

Are those foreign fighters

Are those 'foreign fighters' in Iraq Saudis?

As the fighting winds down in Iraq, the US has started muscling Syria on a number of issues -- 1) having its own stocks of chemical weapons, 2) giving sanctuary to members of the Saddam Hussein regime, and 3) facilitating or at least not preventing Syrian nationals from going to fight against US forces in Iraq.

This evening CNN has been running live coverage of a firefight in which several snipers or paramilitaries were firing on US Marines near the Palestine Hotel. The CNN reporter on the scene is Rula Amin.

Just after 6:00 PM on the East Coast, Amin was having a back and forth with Wolf Blitzer about those foreign volunteers in the country to fight the US. During that conversation she said that the Saudi volunteers were a bigger deal or there in greater numbers than the Syrians. I don't have down the precise language she used. But the basic point was clear: there are more Saudis there fighting us than Syrians.

(Wolf, buddy, why no follow-up?!?!)

Now, obviously I don't listen to all the coverage out of Iraq, but I don't think I've heard any word of Saudis there fighting against us (though it's hardly surprising) and certainly not that they're the most numerous group in the country. Amin's only one reporter, of course. But her beat is the Middle East; you'd expect reporters on the ground to have the best handle on such an issue; and she said it like she was pretty sure.

This raises some interesting questions. Certainly, we don't want any foreign fighters there shooting at our troops. But to the extent that they're there and we find that they're Syrians, that gives us reason and (figuratively speaking) ammunition for going after Syria. That, of course, is where the administration is looking right now. Finding Saudis there -- from a geopolitical perspective -- is much less helpful. If we were finding them there, it would not surprise me that we wouldn't be making a big deal out of it. There are many folks in the administration -- particularly at the DOD and OVP -- who think the Saudis are at the heart of the problem we have in the region. But for the moment we need the Saudis and they know that. On the other hand, some of their allies outside the administration aren't so constrained. So I'm curious if we'll hear about this from those quarters -- in the standard outlets where we hear from those guys.

This article up on

This article up on the Time website says that in the trashed remains of Saddam Hussein's son Uday's pied-a-palace on the banks of the Tigris, reporters found email print-outs addressed to udaysaddamhussein@yahoo.com. They were apparently from Iraqi emigres pledging to come back and fight. The most recent was dated March 5th.

I've always been fascinated by the mix of alienness and similarity one finds in the leaders of countries like Iraq -- really across what we used to call the Third World. Some of this is just the story of globalization -- leaders and elites on the hand in death struggles with the global 'center' and on the other very much a part of it, invested in its culture, its modes of communication, its idioms. One sees examples of it in all the stories of raided palaces and homes of Saddam's top lieutenants. (So now we know that Tariq Aziz sometimes barked on TV about how the Iraqis would bury us in the sands of southern Iraq and then went back to his pad and popped Sleepless in Seattle into the VCR.) On the one hand, Uday Hussein was a hideously violent thug, born and bred into Saddam's Ba'athist police state, steeped in a virulent strain of Arab nationalism. On the other hand, he was using a free Yahoo! email account.

I was willing to

"I was willing to fight with a gun, but not to commit suicide." That's the best quote from an article by Anthony Shadid in Sunday's Washington Post. It's about a 22-year-old member of the Saddam Fedayeen who finally deserted several days ago in Baghdad. He fought under threat of death, though perhaps not altogether unwillingly, and then finally bailed when his superiors selected him for a suicide mission. Reading this piece you start to get the details of the picture of how the paramilitary resistance was at first unexpectedly stiff and then rapidly collapsed.

I really haven't done the sort of systematic reading of different reporting by different reporters that would make me comfortable saying whose has been the "best." But I've been consistently struck by the quality of Shadid's, most of all the depth of the detail (which is the essence of good reporting), the material that goes beyond the standard stock interviews and anecdotes. I'm sure he'll win tons of awards for it. Deservedly.

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