Friday, June 27, 2008

Bush Administration's Korea Diplomacy Defies Critics


The New York Times reports that the Bush administration's diplomatic breakthough on North Korea's nuclear program is one for the history books:

North Korea’s declaration of its nuclear activities is a triumph of the sort of diplomacy — complicated, plodding, often frustrating — that President Bush and his aides once eschewed as American weakness.

In more than two years of negotiations, the man who once declared North Korea part of an “axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq, angrily vowing to confront, not negotiate with, its despotic leader, in fact demonstrated a flexibility that his critics at home and abroad once considered impossible.

That is why Mr. Bush is likely to receive only grudging credit, if any, for the accomplishment, which could turn out to be the last significant diplomatic breakthrough of his presidency.

North Korea’s declaration — and the administration’s quid pro quo lifting of some sanctions — faced criticism from conservatives who attacked it as too little and from liberals who said it came too late.

“The regime’s nuclear declaration is the latest reminder that, despite Mr. Bush’s once bellicose rhetoric, engaging our enemies can pay dividends,” Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, whom Mr. Bush defeated in the 2004 presidential election, said in a statement after the declaration on Thursday.

“Historians will long wonder,” he continued, “why this administration did not directly engage North Korea before Pyongyang gathered enough material for several nuclear weapons, tested a nuclear device and the missiles to deliver them.”

History will not judge Mr. Bush as a dove, even if North Korea steps back from the nuclear threshold. The war in Iraq and his sanction of aggressive tactics in the war on Al Qaeda and other terrorists will shape his legacy more than anything he accomplishes diplomatically.

But his second term has featured far more pragmatism and far less confrontation in matters of national security than his first, reflecting the ascendancy of aides like Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, most significantly in the talks with the North Koreans, Christopher R. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs.

The White House is now pursuing a similarly painstaking multilateral strategy for resolving the international confrontation over Iran’s nuclear activities. Mr. Bush has invested his personal prestige in a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians after years of unambiguous support for Israel’s toughest actions.

It's not unusual for presidents to seek diplomatic triumphs toward the end of their terms - President Reagan's INF treaty of 1987 was seen as a dramatic breakthrough that contrasted with the often bellicose bilateral U.S.-Soviet relations of the administration's first term.

But note that "peace through strength" applies here: Having shown a willingness to topple regimes that violate international law and multilateral norms of world community, the United States has shown its diplomacy will move beyond the language of deterrence in bringing about fundamental change in the international system.

Thus, it's much too early to go soft on Iran, for example, by continuing the endless U.S.-European diplomatic track that's allowed the Tehran regime to move closer to nuclear capability.