Hirsh: The Lessons of North Korea

"To get something in this world, you've got to give something," Chris Hill told reporters on Wednesday. That pretty much sums up why Hill, a veteran State Department negotiator and no ideologue, may be on the verge of achieving the Bush administration's biggest diplomatic success to date. Almost exactly a year after North Korea roiled all of Asia by testing a nuclear device, Hill led a team that managed to extract a pledge from Pyongyang to disable the country's nuclear facilities at Yongbyon (including its plutonium-reprocessing and fuel-rod fabrication plants) by Dec. 31. Pyongyang also committed itself to revealing all its nuclear programs by that date and pledging not to proliferate to other countries. In return North Korea will get 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil and, just as important to Kim Jong Il, the prospect of having his country removed from the U.S. list of terror-supporting states and "normalizing" its relations with Washington.

Sounds like a fairly routine negotiation. Except that for the Bush administration this kind of pragmatic tit-for-tat talking with the enemy has been anything but routine. Indeed, a year ago, when North Korea tested and its vice minister of foreign affairs, Kim Gye Gwan, huffed that "we are a nuclear power," such a negotiation would have been all but impossible. The hard-liners in the administration still had the upper hand—among them U.N. ambassador John Bolton and counterproliferation chief Bob Joseph. Both are now gone from office, and private citizen Bolton in particular is unhappy about the deal Hill made. "This is classic State Department zeal for the deal," Bolton snapped recently, proceeding to compare Chris Hill to a criminal: "You know, it reminds me of John Erlichman's comment about the Watergate cover-up: save the plan, whatever it takes." The difference this time is that Bolton said that as an outsider on Fox News, to little effect, rather than working to quietly torpedo the agreement, as he certainly would have if he were still Dick Cheney's man on the inside.

The real difference is one of attitude: a willingness to give even an evil tin-pot dictator like Kim Jong Il something he can take away from the table. In his case it seems to be mostly respect that Kim is looking for. That he can never have, but in an effort to avoid war and the horrors of nuclear proliferation—the plutonium reactor "was churning stuff out into just a couple of months ago," Hill noted—it may just be worth it to pretend. To grit one's teeth, normalize relations and live with his odious regime a little longer. Yes, what Kim is doing may amount to "nuclear blackmail," as the Bush administration once called it. But it's not as if this negotiation is going to set a precedent for every other rogue nation; it took North Korea 50 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to build the popgun nuke it detonated last October.

Indeed, it is worth noting that the administration's only other signal diplomatic success—getting Libya's Muammar Kaddafi to give up his nuclear program in 2003—also came about because inflexible ideologues like Bolton were temporarily sidelined. The Libya agreement went forward only after the British, who took the real lead in the negotiations, insisted to the White House that Bolton be barred from the talks. Bolton, who was then U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, had wanted to add Libya to the "axis of evil," but Jack Straw, British foreign secretary at the time, and David Manning, a top adviser to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, prevailed on then-national security adviser Condi Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell not to do so. Bolton also refused to reassure Tripoli that the United States did not intend regime change; in other words, he sought to take essentially the same uncompromising tack the administration is now pursuing with Iran (and no longer with North Korea). The British again resisted, and the White House, which was then (as now) consumed with Iraq, didn't care enough to defy Blair. A deal was struck only after Kaddafi was reassured that Bush would settle for "policy change": surrendering his WMD.

Yet in a confrontation of potentially far greater significance—with Iran—the Bush administration isn't looking hard enough for a negotiated way out. Bush's reluctance to fully engage in broad-based diplomacy with Iran—while permitting talks on narrow issues of practical mutual interest, like Iraq—stems from his unwillingness to accept the idea that the regime may be here to stay for a long while. "I think he does believe the Iranian government is fundamentally illegitimate," says Hilary Mann, the Iran director for the National Security Council in Bush's first term. Hence Washington's talks with Tehran remain halfhearted and artificially broken up into different pieces—with one set of talks strictly over Iraq and another over nukes (led by the Europeans)—despite numerous signals from Iranian moderates and pragmatists that things would move along better if there were full engagement.

Even the lead European negotiator, Javier Solana, has said publicly that broader talks, with a far more engaged U.S. (which is the only real threat to Tehran, after all; the Europeans certainly are not), would probably be more successful. Instead Bush continues to fund ineffectual programs targeted at the government.

Today there are back channels (like the one led by former U.N. ambassador Tom Pickering) and side channels (like the one being conducted by U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker). What we don't have is a senior U.S. envoy who can put all the issues on the table with Tehran at the same time. The Iranians were once willing to do this. In 2003 Tehran's diplomats approved a negotiating agenda that would have addressed all the main outstanding issues of interest to Washington—including Iran's nuclear program, its support for Hizbullah and Hamas and terrorism in general, stabilizing Iraq, and a "two-state approach" to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It was ignored by the White House.

At that time Tehran was operating maybe 20 centrifuges. Now it is running about 3,000 of them. The meager diplomacy now underway is all but doomed to fail—the Western powers are edging fitfully toward yet another U.N. resolution—and we seem to be heading toward a grim crossroads: either we let Iran have nukes or we go to war. A third way must be found, and only Washington can create it. Iran, a far larger, more powerful and more sophisticated country than North Korea, is going to demand a lot more than Kim Jong Il—including some face-saving element of its uranium enrichment program. But we really won't know what Tehran will settle for until we start truly negotiating with it.