Friday, August 20, 2004


Reasons Not To Vote For Mr. Bush

Matthew Yglesias writes a column called "The Brains Thing" that revives the old Mr. Bush-Just-Isn't-Smart-Enough-To-Be-President argument.

Only now, he has Mr. Bush's term in office to draw examples from.

Bush’s most high-profile foreign-policy failure -- the disastrously bad planning for the occupation of Iraq -- provides a direct analogue to the domestic scene. The government did, in fact, do a lot of good work on the subject under the auspices of the State Department’s Future of Iraq Group. Rival analysis from Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith’s office, however, suggested that the task would be much easier. A president prepared to read and understand complicated policy briefs would have seen that the Future of Iraq Group had it right. But the country didn’t have a president like that. So yet again the path of expediency was chosen, with well-known results.

More typically, though, the president’s intellectual infirmity affects national-security policy by creating paralysis, as his famously divided foreign-policy team is unable to agree on a common approach and the president is incapable of choosing one side or the other.

As a result, one of Bush’s biggest foreign-policy disasters relates less to something he’s done than to what he hasn’t done: devise a coherent policy toward North Korea. The debacle began in March of 2001, with South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung scheduled to visit Washington. On the eve of the trip, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that the new administration would pick up where the Clinton administration had left off: supporting Kim’s “sunshine policy” toward the North and pushing for full implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea abided by a stipulation not to build nuclear weapons in exchange for U.S. financial and energy assistance. The White House immediately contradicted Powell, giving us the first sign that something was amiss with the supposedly “grown-up” new national-security team and infuriating Kim. Administration hawks -- led by Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld -- didn’t replace the Powell-Kim-Clinton engagement policy with any real alternative; instead, they sought simply to talk tough and “isolate” North Korea, already the most isolated country on earth. Thus North Korea found itself featured in the 2002 State of the Union address as a charter member of the “axis of evil” (although this, the country later learned, was not a deliberate policy shift but simply a reflection of a desire to throw a non-Muslim country on to the list to allay fears that America was waging war on Islam). The hawks hoped that the regime would fall apart before it built nukes. Things didn’t work out that way.

North Korean President Kim Jong-Il concluded that because Bush clearly meant to invade Iraq, had broken off negotiations with his regime, and was now lumping the two together as “evil,” he might soon find himself targeted. The result -- a result that even a moderately engaged chief executive would have foreseen -- was a North Korean rush to acquire nuclear weapons that could deter U.S. invasion before it was too late. By October 2002, the State Department sent officials to Pyongyang to confront the regime with evidence that it had been acquiring centrifuges needed to make weapons-grade uranium. Instead of offering the expected denials, North Korean officials conceded that, yes, they had done just that. After some trans-Pacific name-calling, Pyongyang let the other shoe drop: Not only was it processing uranium (which could take years to be successful), it was also kicking out the weapons inspectors who, under the Agreed Framework, were safeguarding North Korean plutonium rods that could be turned into nuclear fuel within months.

The time had come for the president to do something about the situation. So he did exactly what we were assured during the 2000 campaign he would do: He asked his advisers. The problem was, they didn’t agree. Some were hawks and others more dovish, so Bush couldn’t make up his mind. As Fred Kaplan wrote in The Washington Monthly, Bush “neither threatened war not pursued diplomacy.” Eighteen months later, with U.S. forces pinned down in Iraq and North Korea allegedly possessing several nuclear weapons, military options had to be taken off the table, and even administration hawks agreed that they had to pursue talks. Unfortunately, when you refuse to negotiate until you have no sticks left, it’s hard to get a good deal, and the United States now may be unable to secure a non-nuclear North Korea. And if we do get what we want, we will surely need to give up far more than we would have had we just negotiated in the first place.

Worse, as the Prospect goes to press, history is repeating itself in Iran, pace Marx, as tragedy all over again. Tehran is cheating on its international commitments, and the United States needs to do something about it. Some in the administration want to pursue engagement; others want a push for regime change. As before, Bush can’t decide what to do, and as time goes on, our options will only get worse. No American has yet paid the price for the North Korean fiasco or the emerging one in Iran, but down the road our strategic position is deteriorating with remarkable speed while we have not yet -- and may never -- make up for the opportunity squandered at the beginning of the Iraq War.

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