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.