Nuclear Chicken

What are they smoking?" asked one exasperated State Department official after last week's abrupt and abrasive talks with North Korea. "Which alternative universe do they inhabit?" He wasn't talking about the eccentric North Koreans and their nuclear brinkmanship. Instead the senior diplomat was frustrated by an equally tenacious foe: the conservative in-house critics of Secretary of State Colin Powell.

It's a mark of just how deep the wounds go inside George W. Bush's supposedly self-disciplined administration. While Kim Jong Il pushes Asia to the brink of a nuclear arms race, Washington's best and brightest push each other over the edge of patience and civility. Of course, friendly fire between the State and Defense departments has ricocheted around the Bush administration for the past two years. But after the failure of the latest attempt to negotiate with the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang, the administration faces its worst infighting to date--worse even than the prewar skirmishes on Iraq.

The latest squabbling began with Powell's secretive planning for the North Korean talks held in Beijing last week. For more than a month, after his brief trip to China in February, Powell worked to stage a three-way session with the mercurial North Koreans and their longtime Chinese backers. Powell toiled outside the usual National Security Council meetings to deal directly with the White House. Key conservatives, who oppose negotiating with the North, were clueless until it was too late and Bush had already agreed. Many hawks, including Pentagon officials close to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, only heard about the talks from midlevel Japanese officials, NEWSWEEK has learned.

Rumsfeld struck back with two memos outlining the Pentagon's policy prescriptions. At their heart, the Rummygrams argue for an unlikely alliance with China to force the collapse of the North Korean regime. It was that suggestion that prompted the outburst by the senior State Department official about the smoking habits of his counterparts at the Pentagon. Why would China want to topple its own ally in Pyongyang and trigger a massive refugee crisis on its border? "This is total fantasy," he said.

Fantasy or not, the hawks are winning. In their view, the only benefit of talking to Kim is to prove to the world how belligerent he can be. That strategy seemed to succeed last week in Beijing, where the North threatened to test or export its nukes. Ultimately, the hawks want to bleed Kim's regime by closing down his illicit trade in drugs and arms. A blockade could trigger a military response from the North, and even the hawks admit they're not ready for war any time soon (certainly not in a presidential election year). Still, their hard-line policy seems to be heading in that direction. "Things spiral down from here," admits one. The remaining question is whether the doves--and the Chinese--are ready to take the dive, too.

Nuclear Chicken | News