Diplomatic Diary: Hawks Vs. Wimps

At some point, foreign policy always boils down to sheer machismo: who has the biggest army, the biggest economy, the biggest allies or the biggest bluff. You can dance around with diplomatic niceties, but there is also something much more basic behind the scenes of international affairs.

So with a looming war against Iraq and a showdown with North Korea, what seems most likely to trigger the most swaggering displays of machismo? The number of names we can call Saddam Hussein? The number of nukes in Pyongyang? No. The most bitter and personal dispute rumbling through Washington is the age-old battle between the Clinton and Bush administrations.

This time the battleground is North Korea, and it has two main fronts. The first is the Republicans' finger-in-the-eye taunt that the Democrats were soft on the Stalinist state. The second is the more meaningful Dem hand-wringing over Washington's worsening relations with its long-standing allies in the South.

So who's more hawkish and who's more wimpish against the North?

In 1994, as the Clinton folks got their first taste of a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, the Pentagon drew up plans to launch strikes on the North's Yongbyon nuclear plant. Former Pentagon officials from that era say they were ready to take out the nuclear plant if diplomacy failed, even if that triggered a devastating attack by the North on the South.

Whether or not President Clinton himself was in fact ready to trigger a war--and huge bloodshed--in the South remains open to debate. Either way, the Clinton White House faced the same problems as the Bush White House: tepid support from the region. Japan, then struggling with a new government, expressed its serious doubts about U.S. forces using Japanese bases to strike at North Korea. Tokyo was even soft on the lesser steps of imposing a trade embargo or maritime blockade.

The Bushies' response to that bit of realpolitik: what was the point of drawing up strike plans if you could not put them into effect?

According to conservatives, what took place instead was a self-delusional act of appeasement by the Clinton administration. The 1994 negotiations bribed the North to mothball its nuclear program in exchange for huge amounts of aid. Part of that package, enshrined in the so-called Agreed Framework, was international support to build two supposedly safer civilian nuclear reactors. For those conservatives, the only thing worse than the deal was the fact that former President Jimmy Carter was its initial broker. "These are the people who created this problem," says one. "Goebbels would be proud of this stuff. They are trying to reinvent themselves."

The Bushies' disgust at these Clinton-era policies was clear throughout the 2000 presidential campaign. When 100,000 North Koreans entertained Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, in Pyongyang sports stadium in October 2000, Bush's advisers were spitting with fury. "Dancing with slaves," is what Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy Defense Secretary, fumed on the campaign trail.

So the Clintonistas were the wimps, right? Not exactly. Those plans to launch military strikes were real, and reflected just how serious a threat the North's nuclear program posed to U.S. national security, according to senior Clinton officials.

As for the negotiations, they were far more realistic than the current administration's no-talks policy, the former Clinton folks insist. The Bush administration's hard-line position is only serving to alienate our allies in the South and will finally give way to a negotiated deal, they argue. Their view: if you're not going to war, you have to talk with your opponents.

Would President Bush consider military strikes? Is he really more dovish than his predecessor? According to White House officials, the Clinton-era military plan is not even on the list of ideas under discussion.

"What they are trying to avoid at all costs is looking like the Clinton administration," says Kurt Campbell, a senior Clinton Pentagon official for Asia and now senior vice-president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You can't imagine how much they hated everything the Clinton administration stood for. There is a personal dimension, because of the defeat of [Bush's] father, that cannot be underestimated. But they are starting to finesse the line that they don't negotiate, and that is a smart thing to do. There will be informal talks, then some multilateral arrangement, with China, Russia and Japan negotiating together with the U.S."

In the meantime, the Bush administration's tough talk is serving to strain ties further with Seoul. Relations with the South were hurt in the first months of the Bush administration when President Kim Dae Jung visited the White House in 2001. Secretary of State Powell pledged to pick up where the Clinton officials had left off, suggesting more engagement with the North. But the next day, sitting alongside President Kim, President Bush dismissed the idea of talks until there was "complete verification" of previous agreements with Pyongyang.

Administration officials did little to hide their glee at the prospect of President Kim being replaced with a conservative hardliner, Lee Hoi Chang, in last year's elections. Instead Roh Moo Hyun, a center-left former human rights lawyer, won power with the promise of greater dialogue with the North.

"In reality the Bush administration faces not one crisis but two," says Campbell. "One is the crisis involving nuclear weapons in the North. The second is the crisis of confidence with our allies in the South."

State Department officials dismiss such talk, citing Seoul's agreement to cut fuel oil shipments to the North last year and frequent contacts between U.S. and South Korean officials throughout the current crisis. "The bottom line is that we in the U.S. government have expressed support for the South Korean policy of dialogue with North Korea," said one senior State Department official.

Up to a point. Dialogue is fine as long as it does not tip into negotiations or, in diplomatic terms, quid pro quos. But for many in the White House and State Department, even such a basic dialogue with one of the founder members of the axis of evil remains unpalatable. While that remains the case, Seoul's negotiations may never win the critical support they need in Washington, and the U.S. dialogue may never reach a successful conclusion.

"There is something about the way they are approaching Korea that strikes me as being fundamentally driven by the ideology of moral clarity," says Robert Gallucci, the Clinton official who negotiated the 1994 agreement with the North. "That is limiting flexibility and limiting their options. What it's not producing is clarity of purpose, or analysis of the importance of the tensions our allies feel."

On that point there may be some agreement between the Clinton folks and at least some of the Bushies. Clarity, both sides agree, is lacking in U.S. policy to North Korea. Just this week, Washington agreed to allow United Nations nuclear inspectors to delay referring Pyongyang's violations to the Security Council for sanctions. That breathing space appears to undermine the administration's stated desire of maintaining the pressure on Pyongyang.

Then there was the case of the shipment of Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen last month. When Spanish forces intercepted the Scuds in the Arabian Sea at the request of the U.S., the White House subsequently let the ship go free. The decision had more to do with Yemen than Pyongyang: the Bush administration realized late in the day that it needed to keep the Yemeni government happy as it pursued Al Qaeda terrorists in the region. But the stern message to North Korea--and other rogue states trading in weapons--was deeply compromised.

President Bush repeatedly says he will not allow "the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons". How he goes about doing that in North Korea is likely to be as tough a test of machismo as any military conflict in Iraq.

Diplomatic Diary: Hawks Vs. Wimps | News