Bush's Pyongyang Boomerang

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This column was written by Paul Starr.
Republican government during the past six years has been a study in dissipation. No, I'm not referring to the Mark Foley scandal. I mean the dissipation of American power and influence in the world — the latest consequence of which is North Korea's explosion of a nuclear weapon. Rather than deterring Pyongyang from going nuclear, Bush's policies gave it both motive and opportunity to proceed.

How has the administration dissipated the nation's power? Let us count the ways.

The Iraq War has consumed American military resources — indeed, stretched them so thin that the war has emboldened Iran and North Korea.

The Bush administration's early unilateralism, repudiation of international norms on such matters as torture, and arrogance toward what Donald Rumsfeld called "old Europe" have alienated America's allies and international public opinion.

The administration's refusal to negotiate with hostile countries has reduced the nation's capacity to use diplomacy to forestall crises.

The budget and trade deficits run-up during the Bush presidency have increased dependence on foreign infusions of capital.

And, finally, the administration has proclaimed doctrines and made threats that it has proved unable to carry out, thereby undermining U.S. credibility.

As the North Koreans surely noticed, the early thrust of the Bush presidency was a determination to take the fight to the enemy and to change hostile regimes rather than negotiate with them. Deterrence was out; preemptive strikes and preventive war were in. Instead of the "reactive posture" of the past, the administration called for a forward projection of power.

Forward it was — forward to fiasco. Bush implicitly threatened Iran and North Korea along with Iraq when he named them as part of the "axis of evil," but once American forces became bogged down in Iraq, the United States had no credible threat against the other two. Under the circumstances, the decisions of both North Korea and Iran to accelerate their nuclear programs were utterly rational. Bush thereby brought on the very situation the United States has sought to avert — nuclear weapons in the hands of a rogue state that might sell it to terrorists. And now we are back to multilateralism and deterrence, except that North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons is almost certainly an irreversible loss for our safety and security.

We will never know if the accommodation with North Korea begun under Clinton could have induced it to put aside its nuclear ambitions. We do know, however, that Bush's policies boomeranged and that we are worse off today than we were six years ago.

The hawks in the administration may think North Korea's bomb proves that there is no alternative but to use increased pressure on Pyongyang to bring about a change of regime. The trouble is that we don't have the power to ensure that result and by squeezing North Korea harder, we could once again precipitate exactly what we are trying to prevent. A desperate North Korea may be more likely to sell nuclear technology. And if the regime begins to collapse, it may lose control of its own weapons. Instead of trying to take Kim Jong Il down, we would be better off talking to him in the hope of easing tensions and bringing about an evolutionary change of the regime.

In the meantime, we will need to rely on imperfect methods of deterrence and containment. By identifying the nuclear "fingerprint" in any future explosion or captured device, other nations can hold North Korea accountable for selling or transferring nuclear weapons. The resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council calling for limited sanctions against North Korea is helpful mainly because China was willing to sign on to the measure. Whether the sanctions will be enforced or have any impact depends on the Chinese.

An increasingly hopeless war in Iraq, a nuclear North Korea, an aggressive fundamentalist government in Iran — such are the fruits of Bush's crusade against the "axis of evil." In all three situations, there are no good options, at least none that offer any promise of short-term success. To break out of the impasse, we need a leadership that has a different theory about how America can be a strong and secure nation and a positive force in the world. As we look ahead to 2008, this ought to be a central challenge for an alternative foreign policy and a future administration: how to restore the power that America has lost and how to make America the kind of power that it should be.


Paul Starr is co-editor of The American Prospect.

By Paul Starr
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect
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