Paul Glastris: Character over Capability


I took Peter Scoblic’s suggestion and read his new piece in The New Republic, and I must say it’s magnificent. Scoblic is one of the few journalists in America – Fred Kaplan and Soyoung Ho are two others — who grasp just how utterly foolish, incompetent, and disastrous the Bush administration’s policy towards North Korea has been.
In the fall of 2002 and winter of 2003 the president and his people literally sat back and watched as Kim Jong-il’s troops marched into a North Korean nuclear fuel storage facility then under international lock and key and trucked off its contents to who knows where to be turned into nuclear weapons.
There was no good reason for this to have happened. When faced with almost precisely the same situation in 1994, the Clinton administration, in what Scoblic calls “a superb example of coercive diplomacy,” threatened North Korea with force while opening up a direct negotiating channel to the regime. The result was the deal that put the nuclear fuel under international monitoring for nearly a decade, until the Bush administration let the regime walk in and take it.
Scoblic’s explanation for this seemingly-insane passivity is that the administration is driven by conservative ideology; it is “consumed by the idea that the character of states is of primary importance to U.S. security.” It believes, in other words, that the threat from a regime like North Korea’s is not so much its capabilities — i.e., its weapons — but its evil intentions; that the only way to change those intentions is to change the regime; and that to negotiate with such a regime is to risk strengthening it.
Of course we now are negotiating with Pyongyang, in six-party talks underway in Beijing. This is a welcome change, a sign of rational though from the Bush administration (and of a healthier environment in a post-John-Bolton State Department). But keep this in mind: we’re negotiating to get North Korea to give up weapons it did not have until we let it have them!
Paul Glastris