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.