Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.


TPM on Crossfire tonight at around 7:30 PM EST talking about North Korea.

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.

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 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 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.

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 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 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 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?