Subtext of Bush Overture to Korea

The Bush administration has made an offer to North Korea on the nuclear issue that sounds suspiciously, no exactly, like the offers they derided Clinton for making. See The Poor Man: Steady Leadership Watch for details, necessary flip-flop comments, general and earned snark.

I want to highlight a slightly different aspect of this development. The Bush offer is likely to be seen by N. Korea — more importantly, by other US adversaries (think, “militant Iraqis”) — as a sign of weakness: the Bush administration, sagging in the polls, goes shopping for foreign policy deals that can be marketed domestically as “victories'.

A foreign perception of a weak, anxious, maybe desperate, Administration eager to make deals for short term political gain means that our adversaries will drive the hardest bargains they can, thinking that the deals on offer will never be this good again. As a general matter, that's bad for the US whether this foreign perception is right or not, as we'll either have to give up more, or won't be able to come to agreement.

It's not just strong Presidents who are dangerous; weak Presidents are dangerous too, just in different ways.

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6 Responses to Subtext of Bush Overture to Korea

  1. Altoid says:

    A weak president is dangerous, I agree, but since very early in his administration it’s been my conviction that no serious statesperson outside the US ever looked at Bush as a “strong president.” If anyone remembers the spy plane incident, the Chinese showed everyone plain as day that he would cave if he was pushed hard enough. The North Koreans, and the Old Europeans, and maybe Putin, seem to be operating on that premise. It even looks like they’re getting what they want.

  2. clio says:

    You think that’s all it is? Just desperation to get elected? I really didn’t think that the neo-cons would give on North Korea, and have been wondering if this means that our military situation is really untenable. I would be very relieved to think it was only Bush trying to save his neck.

  3. I think they are desperate for anything they can claim as a “Foreign Policy” victory, and the Kool-Aid drinkers won’t let out a peep of dissent, because if the Chosen One does it by definition it must be right.

    If Little Georgie Bush and the Reverend Moon are in a room together, who outranks whom??

  4. MP says:

    You’re right-we should abandon all diplomacy and nuke them commies! How about next time you present some analysis specific to the situation, rather than snippets of wisdom you got by reading sun-tzu once.

    To those of us with common sense, “Little Georgie” is finally reverting to a strategy that has proven the test of time: Walk softly and carry a big stick. Clinton was criticized not for walking softly, but failing to deliver on the consequences of uncivilized behavior to tyrants. (Alternatively, he had other ideas about what a “big stick” is and how and on whom it should be used)

    We have finally shown despotic leaders that we do indeed have a few big sticks and aren’t afraid to use them. Bush is doing the right thing by continuing to use diplomacy ahead of our might. An elected Kerry would really be the weak president that you fear, he broke his stick a long time ago.

  5. Altoid says:

    I’ll say this for you, MP, you’re at least reliable. What, precisely, is the night-and-day difference in the situations of North Korea and Iraq circa August 2002 that required invasion in the one case and– what– blustery assertions that we’d never negotiate with a madman, followed by a slow progression to sitting down and cutting a deal?

    Could it be suspected presence of WMD? Uh, guess not, both places were thought to have them. Erratic leadership? Hmm, not that either. Regional powers with an interest in containing that leadership? Guess not. Unwillingness to cooperate with outside inspectors? Not much difference there either. A record of abrogating deals? Hmm, guess not (and NK may be even worse). Solid links to AQ terrorism? Gee willickers, not that either (and NK has actually admitted doing odd terroristic things like kidnapping Japanese citizens from beaches). International isolation? Guess not. And so on.

    On the other hand, I (and other observers) can see a few major differences. One’s Ay-rab, the other’s not. One’s got gobs of oil, the other doesn’t have much of anything. One was thought to have a populace just itching to get out from under its leadership, the other has a (probably) brainwashed loyal populace and a comparatively huge army capable of hugely damaging a neighboring ally before it goes under. Etc.

    The question is decidedly not whether negotiating with NK is the right thing to do. The questions are 1) Why we wouldn’t have taken this approach from the beginning there instead of swearing up and down that we’d never-never-never make a deal, ever, and then “reverting,” as you say; and 2) Why we shouldn’t have taken this approach with Iraq too.

    FWIW, I don’t quite agree with Michael that this prospective deal will lead the rest of the world to think of W as weak and anxious to do anything that would make him more popular. I think they *always have* thought of him as weak and anxious to do anything that would make him more popular. They’re just never sure what that will be; once upon a time he thought it was to invade Iraq and look tough and swaggerly, now he seems to think it’ll be making a deal with NK and trying to look statesmanly. What they really fear, and always have, is the kind of petulant lashing out that he’s so clearly capable of.

  6. travc says:

    The “big-stick” theory wrt Bush and N Korea is crap. Sorry to be so blunt.

    N Korea and the US are in a stalemate that will last until the current government of N Korea collapses under its own weight or undergoes self-inflicted regime change. This is the simple fact of the situation… well not quite.

    The other possible outcome is war. Unfortunately, the fisrt few minutes of that war would see the destruction of Seoul. Something like 50% of the population of S Korea lives in Seoul or its immediate area. N Korea has large amounts of conventional artillery (as well as rocket artillery) with who-knows-what in the shells within the range of that city. There is no way short of a preemptive nuclear strike to take out enough of that artillery to save Seoul, and a nuclear strike would irradiate if not directly destroy a good portion of the city.

    The key to dealing with N Korea is to make it clear (through diplomatic contact) exactly what action on their part would lead the US to attack them and scarifice Seoul. What are the lives of all those people worth to the US? There is a price (don’t get all mushy about it), but it is pretty damn high. Probably selling nuclear material to our enemies would be up there.

    However, it gets a bit more complicated. N Korea can strengthen its position by making the cost of attacking it greater. Long range missles (check) and WMD payloads (?) mean that if the US were to attack, population centers in Japan and perhaps the Western US are also part of the price. This lets N Korea get away with more before the US would be willing to stop it.

    On the other hand, N Korea’s hand that is, they want to strengthen their hand (and make US attack less likely). If the US is really bluffing, then they have a great incentive to call the bluff. If some concessions by the US, especially dipolmatic contact, are made, then their calculations are different. If the US is offering something more valuable than the increased security against US invasion, then they won’t have an incentive to risk war.

    BTW: The US did not live up to its end of the deal with N Korea. Congress undermined Clinton’s negotiated deal. Of course N Korea cheated on it, but the US didn’t even have the standing to call them on it since the US had cheated too. If the US had upheld its commitments and had standing diplomatic relations with N Korea then the US could have called N Korea on their violations and pushed them back into the framework (establishing a boundry). Instead, diplomacy was cut off proving (at least in the N Korean POV) that the US was never seriously engaged. Real diplomatic contacts would be of great value to the N Korean government, but they will test them by pushing. If the diplomatic relationship is real, it will be the channel used to push back. It just makes sense from their position.

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