Blind Side


For the charter members of the "axis of evil," last week was a good
week. At the United Nations, our European allies refused to second
Washington's claim that Iraq was in "material breach" of Security
Council resolutions. Not to be outdone, Tehran elicited a pledge
from Russia to supply fuel for Iran's atomic ambitions. These
developments were troubling, but they were not surprising. The
surprise came instead from Washington, in the form of the Bush
administration's response to North Korea's announcement that it
would restart its nuclear program and eject the international
inspectors who monitor the country's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.
Like Iraq and Iran, its fellow spokes in the axis, North Korea has
been chasing weapons of mass destruction for years and boasts a
lengthy record of aggression abroad and brutality at home. Given
this history, how did members of the Bush team react to Pyongyang's
alarming declaration? With a unanimous yawn.Were North Korea to begin extracting plutonium from the fuel rods
stored at the Yongbyon facility, arms control experts believe that
the nation could have in its possession five nuclear weapons in as
many months. A cause for concern? Quite the contrary. Secretary of
State Colin Powell insisted the standoff with Pyongyang was "not a
crisis." A senior administration official told The Washington Post
that "no one's really concerned right now." White House spokesman
Scott McClellan defended these sanguine assessments by pointing out
that North Korea is no Iraq. "The regime in Iraq has shown recently
that it is more than willing to invade its neighbors," McClellan
instructed. "It is a brutal dictatorship." Odd, we thought that
North Korea was not only a brutal dictatorship but also a reckless
proliferator of dangerous military technology. And aren't 37,000
American troops in the region because of North Korea's demonstrated
proclivity toward invading its southern neighbor? But, apparently,
when the United States has no coherent response to a crisis, it
ceases to be a crisis. And so, in the matter of North Korea, there
is now no significant difference between George W. Bush and Jimmy

The complacency that seems to abound in Washington masks real
confusion over what to do about North Korea. During the two years
since entering office, the Bush team has zigged and zagged wildly
on North Korea policy--from Powell's initial announcement that Bush
would continue his predecessor's engagement policy to Bush's
disavowal of that policy, and then from an offer of "comprehensive
dialogue" in 2001 to a declaration in 2002 that Pyongyang must
suspend its nuclear program before dialogue resumes. In recent
weeks, rather than sending a high-level envoy such as Powell to
Korea, the administration has chosen Assistant Secretary of State
James Kelly as their point man. Meanwhile, Bush himself, after
weeks of silence, emerged from his ranch to offer vaguely, "All
options, of course, are always on the table for any president, but
by working with [countries in the region], we can resolve this."

Yes, all options are on the table. That is the problem. It is past
the time to commit to one. It may be true that all of the policy
alternatives available are imperfect; but an imperfect policy will
be better than no policy at all. And, politically appealing though
it may be, nonchalance (which also looks like hypocrisy in a time
when we are preparing for a preemptive war against Iraq) is not a
policy. True, administration officials claim they will not reward
North Korea for its conduct, and, by keeping a low profile, they
avoid considering such rewards. But it is not clear that they will
punish Pyongyang either. And, by pretending that the reactivation
of a nuclear reactor is no reason to lose sleep, the Bush team has
merely encouraged the North's Stalinists to believe that they can
act without regard to consequence. Administration officials even
hint that they may refer the whole problem to the United Nations.
This, too, is hardly an indication of steadfastness, particularly
coming from an administration known for the contempt in which it
holds that institution.

The administration has elected to see Saddam Hussein's lethal,
region- menacing arsenal and not to see Kim Jong Il's lethal,
region-menacing arsenal. We do not see a distinction with a
difference. It is true that there is no oil in the Sea of Japan,
but our troop deployments in the Persian Gulf are not supposed to
be about oil; they are supposed to be about the international
emergency that the regime in Baghdad represents. The regime in
Pyongyang also represents an international emergency. The Bush
administration has been breaking new ground in tough talk, and it
should be held to its own standards of toughness. What can we say?
When it comes to stopping evil, the power of the United States is
what there is.

By the Editors

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