Hirsh: Behind Bush's N. Korea Reversal

More than anything else he has done in his second term, George W. Bush's embrace of a fuel-for-nukes accord with North Korea shows that he is adjusting to the harsh realities of diplomacy—and straying ever further from the ideology of regime change. The proof: the president has cut a deal that is likely to help a member of his notorious "Axis of Evil," Kim Jong Il, stay in power longer, even while it may make the world safer.

The agreement announced today represents a major change in attitude that goes beyond North Korea. The most evident sign is that the accord, under which Pyongyang will immediately get 50 tons of emergency fuel oil with nearly a million more tons to come, is plainly a reversal of the administration's previous principled stand against the "nuclear blackmail" that it accused Bill Clinton of engaging in. Until this week the administration refused to reward "bad behavior"—secret weapons programs—by promising dictators like Kim goodies in return for giving up nukes. "There's a little bit of tripping over earlier rhetoric," says Michael Green, the senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in Bush's first term.

Another sign that a shift in attitude is afoot is the answer that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave at a news conference today, when she was asked about comments made by John Bolton, her just-departed U.N. ambassador. Bolton told CNN that the deal "sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world: 'If we hold out long enough, wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded'." Bolton urged Bush to reject the deal. When Rice was asked, "Do you think there's any substance to his criticism?" she replied tersely: "No, I don't." She then made it clear that Bolton, the one-time favorite of Dick Cheney and other hardliners, was so far out of the loop that he didn't know what he was talking about. "I can assure you that the president of the United States knows every detail of this agreement," she said.

Former senior administration members say the North Korea deal is evidence of two big changes: one, several key hardliners have left, and the influence of others, including Cheney, is waning; and two, that Bush is now consumed with Iraq, Iran and the Middle East. "It was so clearly against the approach we had tried to impose," says a former top Bush nonproliferation official. "Why now? I can think couple of reasons. One is that he is completely overwhelmed with the Middle East and desperate for a political victory anywhere. And a lot of people who were against engagement have either left the administration, like Bolton and Bob Joseph [Rice's former under secretary for counterproliferation], or are otherwise preoccupied, like the vice president with the Scooter Libby trial [in which Cheney's former chief of staff is accused of perjury]."

Another significant sign came the day before the agreement, when Bush was asked in a C-SPAN interview whom he thought were the most underrated presidents. "Well, George H.W. Bush is one of them," the president said. "He followed President Reagan, who was such a really strong president that people have yet to take a look at my dad.'' For Bush watchers who had long portrayed the son as a committed Reaganite in a state of rebellion against his father's centrist administration, this was a striking statement. Six years into an administration marked by a reluctance to negotiate its way out of trouble—most recently when Bush rejected the advice of his father's secretary of State, Jim Baker, about sitting down with Iran and Syria—Bush seems to have a new appreciation for his father's moderate views about "talking to the enemy."

All of which leaves the question: is the North Korea pact a good deal? Critics said it was full of pitfalls—not least of which is that it doesn't directly address the disposition of Pyongyang's alleged arsenal of several nuclear weapons, nor its secret uranium-enriching program. Asked about this, Rice said that if North Korea is to get rewards beyond the first phase, it will have to give up everything. "The joint statement covers the fact that the North is to declare and abandon, dismantle all of its nuclear programs," she said. "And everybody understands what 'all' means."

Other critics also said that the deal could have been negotiated six years ago, before the North had already tested a nuclear weapon. And even some former moderate officials of the Bush administration agreed with Bolton's view that the accord sends a worrisome signal to other rogue states. "The North Koreans wanted two things. They wanted serious negotiations. And they wanted separate talks on financial issues. We told them to go screw themselves until Oct. 9, when they tested. Then we say OK. To me that's troublesome. You're reinforcing bad behavior," said the former senior nonproliferation expert. Under the agreement, Kim's regime is getting the kind of recognition it has long sought. Rice and the foreign ministers of the other major parties—China, Japan, Russia and South Korea—are to meet with the North Korean foreign minister for the first time after the initial 60-day phase, during which the North is to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear plant and list all its nuclear programs.

Still, nuclear experts say the agreement promises a safer region—and world—than a situation in which a desperate and out-of-control North Korea continues to manufacture nuclear material and weapons. And the deal has a couple of big advantages over the 1994 Agreed Framework, the Clinton-era pact under which the North was to get 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil each year and billions of dollars' worth of civilian nuclear equipment in return for freezing and "eventually" dismantling its plutonium program. "The price tag is small compared to agreed framework," says Green. In addition, between pressures applied together by the United States and an unusually cooperative China, the North Korean regime is under unprecedented severe financial and economic strain.

But even Rice admitted that "this is still the first quarter. There is still a lot of time to go on the clock." Says Green: "I can imagine a dozen ways North Koreans could make mischief with this deal," including perhaps refusing to acknowledge its secret uranium program. But for the Bush administration, it is a first: a new deal for the Axis of Evil.