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Washington has various mysteries.

Washington has various mysteries.

Why is there an H Street, an I Street and a K Street, but no J Street?

How is it that DC can't hold on to a professional baseball team?

And, of course, how is it that Vice-President Dick Cheney manages to be responsible for pretty much every major goof-up that's happened on the Bush administration's watch and yet still maintain his rep as the shrewdest operator and surest hand in the administration? This one gets you into quantum mechanics and grand unified theory territory. (Cheney's role in the unfolding North Korea embarrassment is just the latest in a long list of screw-ups.)

In any case, I take a stab at solving the mystery in my new article in the Washington Monthly.

Were all accustomed to

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.

If one thing is

If one thing is clear it is that we'd want to keep the Korean Peninsula calm while we're concentrating much of our military might in Arabia. (When the US military makes contingency plans for fighting two regional wars simultaneously -- a key point of US war-fighting doctrine through the 1990s -- one of the notional locales is usually in Arabia, the other in North Korea or Taiwan.) In order to keep things calm on the Korean Peninsula we'd want above all else to keep our relations with our primary ally, South Korea (ROK), as cordial and as tightly-coordinated as possible. Yet relations between the US and South Korea have been going down hill since March 2001. And in the last couple months they've been in free-fall. (For the first time ever, prominent South Korean politicians are openly questioning the US-ROK alliance.)

So how exactly did we find ourselves in a virtual crisis in our relations with South Korea at just the time we're in a very un-virtual crisis in our relations with the North? That's an especially good question considering that it was logical to assume that the NKs would act up at about the time we were getting ourselves pinned down in Iraq. Was this the plan? Or was someone not paying attention? And how exactly is the near-crisis in our relations with the South Koreans the fault of Bill Clinton?

The Washington Post seems willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on all this. But for those of us who aren't inclined to carry the administration's water, what are we supposed to think?

One point thats essential

One point that's essential to understand about the current North Korea crisis is that while North Korea's leadership is dangerous, reckless and all-around-bad, the US did a lot to escalate this situation over the last two years through mix of bad policy, two policies, and no policy. As we note below, that might not have been quite so bad if the administration had any idea how to handle the situation once it reached a boil. Since they don't, it's pretty bad. Today's edition of the DLC's New Dem Daily gets at some of this point.

Heres one way to

Here's one way to understand the current North Korea situation. A month ago the North Koreans were pursuing a clandestine uranium-enrichment program that everyone thinks was years away from making actual bombs. Now they're back online with a plutonium production program which will produce bombs in months.

Confronting an aggressor often leads to setbacks in the short-term. So for instance, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the US's refusal to negotiate with the Iraqis or accept the invasion as a fait accompli led the Iraqis to further entrench themselves in Kuwait. Had we cavilled with them perhaps they would have withdrawn from part of Kuwait as part of some deal. But we rightly refused to do that. Point being that confronting aggressors often leads to what can be characterized as short-term setbacks or escalated tensions.

But in Iraq, of course, we had a plan. That was to threaten and eventually to follow through on forcing the Iraqis out of Kuwait. One might make a similar point about Kosovo in 1999. Confronting Milosevic and moving toward the military option led Milosevic to accelerate the ethnic cleansing. But the US had a plan which we followed through on: we reversed what he'd done. By doing so, we also helped bring about his fall from power.

In this case, however, we demonstrably don't have a plan. Because of that lack of a plan, the fact that the North Koreans are now months away from cranking out nuclear weapons really is a big national security set-back for the United States and its allies in the region. How and why exactly did the US let that happen? Now we're reduced to saying we're willing to accept what we were previously never willing to accept: a nuclear North Korea. Chris Nelson had it right last week. They caught the bad guy. But they botched the arrest. Big time.

Tough criticism? Yeah. But it's a bigtime screw-up. And in Northeast Asia it's been going on for two years. It's time for the Bush administration to take some responsibility and explain how we got here.

When you start hearing

When you start hearing angry cries from the opposition you know you're beginning to draw some blood. That's been the case with TPM's recent postings on the Korea matter. One of the most amusing lines of argument I've seen is one attacking me or characterizing me as a foreign policy dove. Anyone who's even casually familiar with my writing on the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic party's continuing deficit on serious national security thinking, and in TPM generally would know this is false.

But the misapprehension raises a more important issue: criticizing the president's management of foreign and defense policy is almost automatically seen on the right -- and often on the left too -- as dovish.

Not so.

Part of the issue here is that the Democrats' persistent lack of seriousness about national security policy -- which I discussed here in the New York Post -- has made conservatives frightfully lazy on the same subject. Sad to say, but true. They're in the habit of thinking that talking tough gets you credit for being tough. Only it doesn't. Certainly, it doesn't get you credit for being tough and smart in your management of national security matters. Talking tough simply doesn't give the Bush administration a free pass to smooth over or cover up its policy screw-ups in Northeast Asia. I can understand their wanting it to. But it doesn't.

If it weren't so serious it would be hilarious the way you hear Asia hands describing the current situation. Yes, they say, talking to some administration appointee. Yes, you caught them cheating. But what are you going to do about it? What's your plan? And the reply comes back, but we caught them. Yes, you caught them. You caught them with the uranium program and now they've put the far more serious plutonium program back up and running. What do we ... But we caught them!!! This one goes to eleven!

You get the idea. More on this soon ...

The argument advanced by

The argument advanced by Glenn Kessler in today's Post and privately by a number of Korea experts is that the administration is treating it as a given that North Korea is already a nuclear power in part to reduce the urgency created by the NKs resumption of plutonium production.

Let's unpack this argument.

There are two distinct nuclear weapons program the NKs have. One based on plutonium, another based on enriching uranium. The plutonium program has been on ice since 1994 -- no one disputes this. The uranium program is up and running. But we don't know quite how long it's been going or how far along it is. The best information we have suggests that the NKs got the key uranium-enriching technology from the Pakistanis back around 1998. Precisely when they started or accelerated production is in dispute.

The key difference is that the NKs already have all the technical know-how and hardware they need to get weapons-grade plutonium. In fact, a lot of it has just been sitting there waiting to be processed. With plutonium they can be up and running in no time. With uranium, they're years away from mastering the process of enriching it, though they've got the key hardware and have started working on setting it up to use. As one nuclear weapons expert familiar with the Korean situation told me today, it's the difference between months (with plutonium) and years (with uranium).

This gets us back to the question of urgency and whether North Korea is already a nuclear power. What made the 1994 situation a crisis was that the NKs were about to proceed with serious production of plutonium. That was something we didn't feel we could allow -- for a variety of reasons. And that led to the 1994 Agreed Framework. Our standing position from then on was that resumption of plutonium production meant war.

Now we think -- though even this is in dispute -- that the NKs already had enough plutonium for perhaps two bombs back in 1994. We also think they probably knew how to make a bomb with plutonium. The question -- in terms of its usefulness -- was and is how big -- in literal physical size -- that bomb would be. If it's too big it's not effectively deliverable. And some of our best intelligence says that's still the case -- though we don't really know.

The key is that if North Korea is already a nuclear power, if they've already crossed the nuclear line, then it doesn't matter all the much whether they have two bombs or six or whether they fry up a few more. That's essentially what Powell said over the weekend. Back in 1994 we thought it was critical to stop the plutonium production process immediately because we took the position that we didn't know whether North Korea was yet a nuclear power. And we weren't willing to let them go any further. By declaring that North Korea is already a nuclear power the administration is basically arguing away the very issue of urgency the 1994 agreement was meant to address.

They haven't fixed anything. Nothing has changed. They've just moved the goal post.

More to come soon

More to come soon on the Korea issue. But for the moment, don't miss this article in today's Washington Post by Glenn Kessler. Why is the Bush administration upgrading the NKs to nuclear power status?

Lets call this entry

Let's call this entry 'Unraveling the Administration Korea Mumbo-Jumbo, Part I'. There's a lot of mumbo-jumbo so it'll take a few entries to do all the unraveling.

Let's begin by sketching out the stance and narrative favored by the administration's supporters.

In their view, the Clinton administration went to the mat with the North Koreans in 1994. Instead of facing them down, they appeased them. They agreed to send them fuel oil, food, and perhaps even greetings cards on special occasions. They also agreed to build some non-weapons-grade-material producing nuclear reactors. And this was all in exchange for them agreeing not to do what they shouldn't have been doing in the first place -- that is, producing large quantities of plutonium to make nuclear weapons. But the Clintonites got hoodwinked by the North Koreans who took the goodies and proceeded to start a secret -- uranium-based -- nuclear weapons. The Bush administration found all this out, exposed the folly of Clinton's appeasement, and now has to pick up the pieces.

That's their story. And as the saying goes, they're stickin' with it.

This argument mixes so many distortions, falsehoods and tendentious points that it's not easy to know where to start. But let's begin with one thread.

Columnist and talk radio host Hugh Hewitt makes a version of the argument above. And in his new column he compares the current administration's situation with North Korea to that which the British faced after Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939. It's a revealing comparison -- but one that shows the current administration in a rather poor light.

Let's assume for the moment that most of what is contained in that thumbnail sketch above is true, that the last decade has been one of appeasement and that President Bush is Winston Churchill.

What had happened when Hitler invaded Poland? The British and the French had given Hitler an ultimatum: an attack on Poland meant war with Britain and France. As was clear then and since, this wasn't the most propitious moment to draw a line in the sand -- neither Britain or France were in a position to actually defend Poland. It was just a tripwire. It should have been done earlier in Czechoslovakia or the Rhineland. But a line had to be drawn. And it was drawn on the Polish border, even though it was done with the knowledge that it almost certainly would mean war. And of course, it did.

In their endless desire to see every diplomatic standoff through the prism of 1938, conservatives want to cast themselves in the role of the guys who put an end to appeasement -- in this case, in North Korea. So they're the ones who said 'this far and no further' -- as the Brits and the French did in Poland with the Nazis.

But there's a problem with this analogy, and an infinitely revealing one. The Brits and the French knew what they were going to do if Hitler called their bluff. They had a plan: go to war. And they did. They had, in a word, a plan.

What's the administration's plan with North Korea? They don't have one.

The line taken on this point by administration defenders is, what do you want us to do? Go to war? They've got nukes and forty thousand of our soldiers are there ready to get slaughtered and they can destroy Seoul and on and on and on.

This line of argument is supposed to shut up administration critics because who wants to be in the position of encouraging the administration to go to war.

But it doesn't end the argument, it just gets it going. If war is such an ugly and unviable option -- and it is -- then why in the hell did they provoke this situation in the first place?

It's a really good question and one the administration and its defenders are entirely incapable of answering.

You only get to seem tough and principled and Churchillian if you draw a line in the sand and then have something to follow it up with. You only get credit for pointing out what everyone already knew -- that the 1994 agreement was an imperfect one and perhaps only a stopgap -- if you've got something better. If you don't, you just look like a fool.

The administration says it has a plan: isolate the North Koreans economically and diplomatically. But how serious a plan is that?

Are we going to get the Europeans to withdrew their offer of membership in the EU? Please. North Korea has virtually no diplomatic or economic relations to start with. Their most serious one is with China. And that would make our entire policy dependent on the good will of a country whose influence in the region we're trying to stem, not augment.

More to the point, in the situation the administration has painted us into the NKs have a lot more cards to play than we do. Short of doomsday scenarios like lurching across the DMZ, they can shoot off a few more test missiles or try to sell more missiles to other bad-acting countries. Of course, they can just kick back and start frying up plutonium in their reactor, every new ounce of which will destabilize the region profoundly.

Of course, getting rolled by those sorts of threats is simply untenable. We can't blink just because the North Koreans won't put any limits to their provocative actions. But that just makes the point. We're in a very bad situation. The administration has sat us down at a card game in which we're holding a fairly weak hand. Conservatives are free to play Churchill if they've got a better plan or the will to force a better solution. Since they have neither, they've got to put away the cigar and bowler hat.

As we said a few days ago 'tough talk sounds great until your opponent calls your bluff and everybody sees there's nothing behind the trash talk. Then you look foolish.' We're still there today.

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