Newsweek's list of reasons for Bush's "relatively low key" response to North Korea ignored the elephant in the room -- his ineffective policy

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

A Newsweek article offered various reasons why the Bush administration's response to the North Korean missile tests "has been relatively low key," but completely ignored another explanation: In the words of one expert on U.S. policy toward North Korea, "they don't want to highlight the failure of American policy for the last five years."

In a July 5 "Web Exclusive" article, Newsweek senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe and White House correspondent Holly Bailey offered various reasons why the Bush administration's response to the North Korean missile tests "has been relatively low key," but completely ignored another possible reason for the administration's playing down the missile tests and eschewing the kind of crisis rhetoric it used in the lead up to the Iraq war: because, in the words of one expert on U.S. policy toward North Korea, "they don't want to highlight the failure of American policy for the last five years."

In the July 5 article, Wolffe and Bailey offered three reasons for the Bush administration's "mild" response: the tests failed, the administration "is pushing at an open door" regarding sanctions against North Korea, and the administration is content to allow North Korea to commit diplomatic "blunders." Wolffe and Bailey cited only unnamed White House officials in offering these reasons for the administration's response.

From the July 5 article:

Why was there such a mild response to the missile launches when the administration spoke so darkly about them before they took place? One explanation is that the launches were a flop. "You have to remember that they fired six missiles of short- to medium-range that splashed into the ocean," said one senior administration official. "That technology stems from World War II. And the other longer-range missile failed 42 seconds after launch. What was Kim Jong Il thinking? Did he improve his negotiating position? Does it strike fear into the hearts of those who sit down with him?"

Another explanation for the low-key response is that the administration is pushing at an open door. Its only demand is for North Korea to return to the six-party talks -- not for sanctions to topple the regime, which China would never impose. China already supports a return to the talks, which it has hosted, and rejects what it considers to be emotional talk of sanctions at the U.N.

[...]

When it comes to the diplomacy surrounding North Korea, the Bush administration believes its biggest help comes from Pyongyang's own blunders. With enemies like North Korea, the president's aides think there's little need to go on the warpath.

At no point, however, did Wolffe and Bailey acknowledge that the Bush administration may be playing down its response to avoid scrutiny of its North Korea policy, which many analysts view as ineffective. Gordon Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World (Random House, January 2006), remarked on the July 4 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 that the administration has muted its response to North Korea "because they don't want to highlight the failure of American policy for the last five years."

From the July 4 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

KITTY PILGRIM (guest host): Now, is the response by the Bush administration, in your estimate, the right one? Is this the right way to go about it?

CHANG: Well, I think that it is right for the Bush administration not to get rattled and not to overplay it. But we have to remember that the White House wants to downplay this because they don't want to highlight the failure of American policy for the last five years. This is not just a Bush failure. This failure is evident from administration to administration. The United States is large and North Korea is small, but they always seem to be one step ahead of us.

The Boston Globe similarly reported on July 5: "Many specialists have been urging the administration to take a new approach with North Korea, given that years of tense diplomacy and almost no contact has failed to work."

In comments ignored by U.S. media but reported by the South Korean Yonhap News Agency on June 21, former State Department official David Straub called the Bush administration's policy on North Korea "incoherent in conception [and] incompetent in execution." Straub was in charge of the State Department's North Korean desk in 2002 when the United States confronted the country with evidence that it was pursuing nuclear weapons. Straub said he urged the administration at the time to pursue bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang in order to curb the development of nuclear weapons, but that "was not a top priority for the Bush administration." Further, in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and an expert on nuclear terrorism, called the Bush administration's North Korean policy an "abject failure," given that North Korea has significantly expanded its nuclear capabilities since Bush took office:

The administration has mostly been following a policy of threaten and neglect, and then, in recent years, repaired to the six-party talks. But in terms of either positives for to get them not to do things, or minimal negatives to prevent them from doing things, the administration has not been playing a very agile hand.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Network/Outlet
Newsweek
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