War Stories

Power Failure

What Bush still doesn’t understand about Iraq and North Korea.

Clueless or coy?

Two questions prompted by President Bush’s press conference Thursday night: Does he believe what he said about Iraq and North Korea, or was he just yakking? And which prospect is more disturbing?

If the president believes what he said, he doesn’t comprehend the nature of either crisis. If he doesn’t believe it and was just reciting the usual grab bag of clichés, what was his point? To deflect attention from an as-yet-undisclosed policy, or to obscure the lack of any policy at all?

On Iraq, a reporter at the press conference cited the recent comment by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the insurgency is as strong today as it was a year ago and asked why we weren’t doing better. President Bush replied:

I think he went on to say we’re winning, if I recall. But nevertheless, there are still some in Iraq who aren’t happy with democracy. They want to go back to the old days of tyranny and darkness and torture chambers and mass graves.

Does he really believe that this is the defining struggle in Iraq: the forces of democracy vs. the remnants of Saddam? Bush’s own military officers and intelligence agencies have said, time and again, that the insurgency consists of several elements—some Baathist holdouts and foreign terrorists, but also disparate Iraqis who oppose the American-led occupation and Sunni tribesmen who fear disenfranchisement and dispossession at the hands of a new Shiite-dominant regime.

The incipient Iraqi government faces multiple struggles: the insurgency, the difficulty of holding together a Cabinet almost no one is happy with, the control of Kirkuk’s oil, the autonomy of Kurdish militias, the role of Islamic law, and the awesome struggle of drafting a constitution that can muster support from a two-thirds majority.

To reduce these disputes to a black-and-white formula—democracy on the one hand, tyranny on the other—is not only wrong but dangerous; it ensures that, to the extent the United States can influence the course of events, its efforts to do so will be heavy handed and misguided and therefore will fail.

On North Korea, President Bush’s remarks are more worrisome because they seem to reflect a passivity—stemming from miscalculation, self-deception, or sheer cluelessness—in the administration’s policy.

A reporter asked about the Defense Intelligence Agency’s recent finding that North Korea probably has the ability both to build atom bombs and to load them on long-range missiles. Bush replied:

That’s why I’ve decided the best way to deal with this diplomatically is to bring more leverage to the situation by including other countries. It used to be that it was just America dealing with North Korea. And when Kim Jong-il would make a move that would scare people, everybody would say, “America, go fix it.” I felt it didn’t work … the bilateral approach didn’t work. The man said he was going to do something and he didn’t do it, for starters. So I felt a better approach would be to include the people in the neighborhood into a consortium to deal with him. … It’s better to have more than one voice sending the same message to Kim Jong-il.

It’s hard to know where to begin untangling this web of non sequiturs. (For a point-by-point guide, click here.) The point to emphasize here is that the president’s analysis of North Korean diplomacy, like his remark about the Iraqi insurgency, displays an odd incomprehension about the nature of power in international politics.

To the extent that the North Koreans still want to make a deal that involves forgoing their nuclear ambitions, the deal can be made only with the United States. It is the United States (not Japan, South Korea, Russia, or China—the other countries of the “six-party talks”) that poses a threat to Kim’s regime, in its capabilities and (especially since Bush’s “axis of evil” speech) its expressed intent. And only the United States can offer the security guarantees and the economic assistance that might lure Kim to back down from his present path.

For two-and-a-half years—ever since North Korea booted the international inspectors out of its nuclear reactor, abrogated the Non-Proliferation Treaty, unlocked its fuel rods, and reprocessed them into plutonium—Kim’s emissaries and America’s own East Asian allies have told President Bush that the crisis won’t be settled until negotiators from Washington and Pyongyang sit down and talk, one-on-one. Diplomats have floated the idea of bilateral talks within the multilateral forum; during Bush’s first term, Secretary of State Colin Powell favored such talks. But, under the guidance of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush consistently nixed the idea.

In one sense, President Bush was right at his press conference: It is better to have several voices sending the same message to Kim Jong-il. But these voices don’t matter if the one voice among them that can do something—that can turn the message into policy and action—chooses to do nothing.

Again, the question: Does Bush believe what he said? Does he think the six-party talks—which have long stalled and which the North Koreans now say they will no longer attend—can ever amount to anything without a shift in U.S. policy? In short, does he really not understand why the North Koreans want one-on-one talks? Is he really blind to the power politics of the situation—to the power that the North Koreans are trying to amass by going nuclear and to the power that they see in the United States as the one country that can provide those security guarantees?

Ultimately, as with his boilerplate on Iraq, I don’t think President Bush does believe what he said. The simple matter is that he doesn’t want to give the North Koreans any favors, including the favor of stature that would come from letting them sit across a bargaining table from the United States. He believes—perhaps rightly—that negotiating with North Koreans, and agreeing to give them aid, would only perpetuate Kim Jong-il’s regime. But Bush’s main desire is to change that regime—if not by force (which, his military advisers tell him, is too risky), then by simply letting it collapse.

But what if Kim’s regime doesn’t collapse, at least in the next few years? What if, in the meantime, Kim builds a dozen or so nuclear bombs and, following the DIA’s frightening scenario, puts them on missiles? Does this lead to a better result—in terms of U.S. security interests—than swallowing hard, calling for a resumption of bilateral talks, and at least seeing where they go? Apparently, Bush thinks not, or perhaps he hasn’t thought the dilemma through. Either way, his inaction marks another instance where he has let an abstract ideal (refusing to reward a nasty tyrant) trump a hardheaded national-security interest that, in this case, doubles as a very tangible ideal (preventing a nasty tyrant from building nukes).