Washington's Raw Deal

Resident Fellow David Frum
Resident Fellow David Frum
Something has gone very, very wrong in this second Bush administration. That is obvious to everyone. One of the few merits of this week's North Korea nuclear deal is that we can get a clearer view of what exactly the problem is--or should I say, what the problems are?

First problem: The deal demonstrates a lethal failure of strategic vision.

The Bush administration entered office determined to take a tougher line on North Korea than Bill Clinton. In February, 2002, George Bush warned in his "axis of evil" speech that North Korea was arming to threaten world peace. In October 2002, his administration confronted the North Koreans with proof that they had cheated on their 1994 deal with the United States, secretly starting a whole new nuclear program.

All excellent moves--if you have a plan to follow through. But it turns out: there was no plan.

North Korea responded (predictably) by accelerating its nuclear development, completing half a dozen bombs and testing a nuclear device in October, 2006. Now, five years after "axis of evil," the Bush administration finds itself signing almost exactly the same deal that the Clinton administration bequeathed it, with no more safeguards against cheating than before. The only difference is that North Korea has become a declared nuclear power in the interim. And it will remain a declared nuclear power: Last week's deal does not call on North Korea to surrender its existing weapons.

All this raises the question: What was the point of confronting North Korea in the first place?

Second problem: The deal reveals a breakdown of the administration's decision-making process.

It's always a good idea in government to hear lots of points of view. But as David Sanger reports in Thursday's New York Times: "To win approval of a deal with North Korea that has been assailed by conservatives inside and outside the administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bypassed layers of government policy review that had derailed past efforts to negotiate an agreement, several senior administration officials said this week. ? 'There was no process here,' said an official who has been deeply involved in the issue. 'Nothing. There was no airing of whether this is the way to deal with the North Koreans.'" (Ms. Rice talks often to Sanger: his reporting on her actions can be taken as authoritative.)

This is not the first time Rice has practised management-by-avoidance. As National Security Adviser during Bush's first term, it was her job to broker and reconcile disagreements among the national security bureaucracies. But when State, Defence and CIA quarrelled over how postwar Iraq was to be governed, Rice backed away from this absolutely essential issue. Each bureaucracy went on its own contradictory way. The United States arrived in Baghdad with no consensus at all on what was to happen next. Result: chaos.

In the Korean case, Rice's bypassing of the rest of the government again means that important questions went unasked.

For example: Under the new deal, the US has promised to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. That may seem an easy concession, since North Korea is not known to have murdered any foreigners since 1987.

However, North Korea did kidnap 17 Japanese citizens in the 1990s--apparently in order to obtain language tutors for its spy services. Some of the kidnapped Japanese still remain in North Korea; none has received restitution. Understandably, these kidnappings ignite huge passions in Japan.

Was Japan consulted before North Korea was offered absolution? If not, Rice's deal will inflict terrible damage on the all-important U.S.-Japan relationship.

Third problem: The deal highlights the Bush administration's reluctance to convince or persuade.

At his press conference on Wednesday, President Bush was asked about the sharp public objection to the deal by his former UN ambassador, conservative stalwart John Bolton. Mr. Bolton's main objection: the deal offered North Korea immediate relief from U.S. financial sanctions in exchange for North Korean concessions that would not materialize for months, if ever.

The President's reply: "I strongly disagree--strongly disagree with his assessment."

Okay, but why? Why was Bolton wrong? As to that, the President offered a vague half-sentence that dismissed financial sanctions as "a separate item," and then hastily moved on.

If you cannot explain your case, you leave behind the impression that you have not got a case to explain.

Of course, everyone hopes the deal will succeed. But on the evidence, the deal looks a lot more like a guide to better understanding the administration's failures.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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