Theres been a lot

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There’s been a lot of talk in the last several days about whether North Korea is a bigger threat than Iraq, whether there’s an inconsistency between the policies the administration is pursuing with regard to each, and so forth.

These questions ignore the big issue, one that’s being inexcusably ignored in the American press.

This entire crisis — and it’s foolish to pretend it’s not a crisis — is an administration screw-up of mammoth proportions. The administration is trying to portray this as just another crisis that happened on their watch. But that woefully understates its own responsibility for the situation we’re now in. Here’s how our friend Chris Nelson put it today in an email …

[I] Will wait until next week and look at whether he’s succeeded in finally climbing out of the hole Bush and the hardliners dug for US policy back in March, ’01, when they dissed DJ and nixed any talks, thus enshrining the neurotic nonsense that negotiation equals appeasement.

For now, my analogy is that you can’t blame the cop for trying to bust the bad guy…NK definitely is the bad guy…but you for sure can blame the cop if he blows the arrest and it gets violent. Ruby Ridge? Waco? Will Pyongyang someday find itself on that list…with obviously more consequence?

The same inimitable style — and I think he’s got it about right.

There are two points to focus on here. One is that the situation we’re now in isn’t so much a matter of an over-focus on Iraq, or even the pursuit of too belligerent a policy. It’s really the product of the administration’s inability over the course of two years to figure out what its policy on North Korea was. It’s flip-flopped back and forth between Powell’s policy of engagement (which was essentially a continuation of the Clinton policy) and the hawks’ policy of confrontation. In so doing it’s let the whole thing spin out of control.

Point two: One of the most important rules of foreign policy is not to let yourself get pushed around. An even more important rule, though, is not to make threats or issue ultimatums that you either can’t or won’t follow through on. That not only makes you look weak. It also makes you into an object of contempt. That’s just what the administration has done in this case.

The White House called the Clinton policy craven and dishonorable. That policy was essentially to pay the North Koreans to behave and hope that in the medium-term a better solution — perhaps a soft landing in the North — would arise. Not pretty certainly, but it was a difficult situation.

The Bushies told the North Koreans that they either had to shape up or we’d take them out. Now the North Koreans have called our bluff. And the administration — as signalled by Powell’s comments over the weekend — has caved, enunciating a policy which is now substantially more dovish than the Clinton policy.

Tough talk sounds great until your opponent calls your bluff and everybody sees there’s nothing behind the trash talk. Then you look foolish. That’s where we are right now with North Korea. As Nelson says, no doubt the NKs are the bad guys. And this is an extremely complex problem with no easy solutions. But the Bush administration has pursued a keystone cops policy on the Korean Peninsula for two years now, mixing think-tank braggadocio with feckless inconstancy. Now we’re all going to pay the price.

They shouldn’t get a pass on this.

More details soon.

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