Bush Gets One Right?

Posted January 5, 2008

Categories: Articles, Korea

The vehemence of the hard-line opposition to the Bush administration’s North Korea policy suggests that, after seven years of blunders and miscues and outright war crimes, Washington has finally done the right thing on a foreign policy issue.

I know: it’s really hard to keep the knee from jerking. Heck, I wrote a whole book on the flaws of Bush’s North Korea policy, so I am predisposed to skepticism. But just look at how angry John Bolton and the congressional hawks are at the recent Bush administration decision to take North Korea off the Trading with the Enemy Act list and the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. Never mind that North Korea has served up an accounting of its nuclear programs and even destroyed the cooling tower of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, as per agreement. The bottom line: this is what diplomacy smells like. Bolton and company, however, catch only the whiff of sulfur.

Some hardliners are furious that the Administration has pushed ahead on a nuclear agreement with the North Korea without addressing human rights concerns. Tokyo is furious that Washington didn’t consider North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens in the decision to remove Pyongyang from the terrorism list (an issue I explore in more detail in The Abduction Narrative of Charles Robert Jenkins). Others have argued that North Korea has not come clean on its uranium enrichment program or the proliferation of nuclear technology. It’s like “the police sitting down with the Mafia to discuss their common interest in law-enforcement,” writes John Bolton.

But it’s not just Republicans doing the screaming. Some Dems want to get their licks in too. “The president has caved,” says Brad Sherman (D-CA), a liberal hawk who, with his pal across the aisle Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), is trying to block the removal of North Korea from the terrorism list. “He’s desperate to tell voters that the Republicans have accomplished something, and even more desperate to get something good in the history books, and he just took whatever they could get out of North Korea, which is pitiful, as far as a declaration.”

Wait a second, Brad. The declaration is pitiful? First of all, North Korea delivered 18,000 pages of documentation on its plutonium program. Second, it has provided an accounting of its reprocessed plutonium that now falls within the range of U.S. estimates. Third, it has not just frozen its nuclear facility – it has begun wiping it from the face of the earth. Finally, it is ready to submit to a rather strenuous verification process that includes visits to facilities, interviews with North Koreans, and technical sampling.

What about uranium and proliferation? The uranium program has been largely a red herring. It was never a significant program, not now and not in 2002 when the Bush administration used such allegations to deep-six a 1994 agreement that froze North Korea’s plutonium program. As for proliferation, neither Israel nor Syria nor the United States has produced a smoking gun. Still, the only way to get to the bottom of these issues is through continued negotiations, and Washington says that Pyongyang has acknowledged these concerns.

In the meantime, we’re seeing a repeat of the 2000 mini-détente between the United States and North Korea. In addition to lifting sanctions, Washington will be paying North Korea over $100 million in funds to dismantle its nuclear program and in energy aid. Thousands of tons of U.S. wheat arrived in North Korea last week, and the United States will be providing the bulk of the World Food Program’s food aid to the country. Chief U.S. negotiator Chris Hill has even been talking about institutionalizing the Six-Party Talks and establishing a regional security mechanism (one of China’s big asks).

There are plenty of obstacles on the path toward denuclearization and normalized relations between the United States and North Korea. And the latest development is not exactly a geopolitical realignment on the order of Nixon in China. U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula and East Asia generally remains a potent cocktail of militarism and neoliberalism.

But this latest news out of East Asia is cause for modest celebration. And when the Bush-bashing comes from the likes of John Bolton – he laments with a straight face that the North Korea agreement signifies the administration’s “total intellectual collapse” – it’s time to take a deep breath, get a firm grip on those jerking knees and give praise where praise is due.

On the Other Hand

The notion that the Bush foreign policy represents an intellectual enterprise in the first place is risible. Just consider its Africa policy. Out of one side of the Administration’s mouth comes a denunciation of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s clinging despot. And out of the other side of its mouth comes praise for Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.

Obiang is truly a despot’s despot. He’s been in power for almost 30 years. He holds elections where he gets more than 97% of the vote. He’s worth a billion dollars but the population is dirt-poor. And Condi calls him a “good friend” of the United States.

“The irony of the relative silence of Congress and the Bush administration regarding the human rights abuses and the undemocratic nature of Obiang’s regime is that, due to the critical role of U.S. economic investment and security assistance, the United States has far more leverage on the government of Equatorial Guinea than it does on the government of Zimbabwe, writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in African Dictatorships and Double Standards. “As a result, Americans can feel self-righteous in their condemnation of a regime in Zimbabwe with which the United States has little leverage while continuing to support an even more repressive regime over which the United States could successfully exert pressure if it chose to do so.”

Nukes and Dams

The Administration’s nuclear policy is similarly bankrupt from an intellectual point of view. The whole world is scared silly of nuclear weapons and the dangers of proliferation. Even cold warriors George Shultz and Henry Kissinger are ready to give up the playthings of their youth.  And yet the Bush administration has turned up its nose at arms control and tried to push ahead with an upgrade of the U.S. nuclear complex.

In Japan and the Future of Nuclear Disarmament, FPIF contributor Masako Toki describes a number of new initiatives from Australia and the United Kingdom to reinvigorate the global movement to get rid of nuclear weapons. In the new atmosphere created by these initiatives, the United States and Japan can play a key role. “With the coming change in the U.S. administration, which may see Washington restore support for multilateral institutions, the next few years could provide a great opportunity for both Japan and the United States to explore a new way to work together to strengthen multilateral nonproliferation and disarmament regimes,” Toki writes.

And then there’s the havoc that we are wreaking because of our insatiable demand for energy. FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen reports back from a meeting in Mexico of activists mobilizing against huge dam projects. The World Bank is back in the business of funding these megaprojects, which are destroying the livelihoods of farmers and indigenous communities throughout Latin America.

“These projects form the backbone of plans to re-map the region,” she writes in Flooding the Future. “They are transforming traditional land use, cultures, and local populations into conduits for the production and flow of goods envisioned by corporate globalization. The dams channel water to cities, agro-business export ventures, and monocultures. They are displacing the traditional campesino economy of subsistence farming and strong cultural and religious ties to the land. They also generate electricity for industry. And they present lucrative construction contracts – on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars – that have transnational corporations eagerly eying a new frontier for profit-making.”

So, let’s praise the Administration’s North Korea policy, as long as we recognize that it’s the exception that proves the rule.

FPIF, July 7, 2008

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