The Bush/Cheney/Kim Jong Il October Surprise: Some history


Well, there goes the Foley story, the Abramoff story, Iraq, Condi's lies about 9-11, etc., off the front pages for a while.

President Bush today called for an immediate response by the United Nations Security Council to North Korea's announcement Sunday night that it had detonated its first nuclear test, a claim that Mr. Bush called a "provocative act." Here.

Today's recent history lesson for the mainstream media is on the Bush policy toward North Korea: Naturally, what follows is from The Book on Bush:

The tone of Powell's tenure was set early in the administration when he announced that he planned "to pick up where the Clinton administration had left off" in trying to secure the peace between North and South Korea, while negotiating with the North to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weaponry. The president not only repudiated his secretary of state in public, announcing, "We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements," he did so during a joint appearance with South Korean president (and Nobel laureate) Kim Dae Jung, thereby humiliating his honored guest as well. A day later, Powell backpedaled. "The president forcefully made the point that we are undertaking a full review of our relationship with North Korea," Powell said. "There was some suggestion that imminent negotiations are about to begin -- that is not the case."


The Bush administration appeared no less counterproductive in its dealings with the third leg of its imaginary axis, North Korea, perhaps the most worrisome of its many misadventures. As former ambassadors Morton Abramowitz and James Laney warned at the moment of Bush's carelessly worded "Axis of Evil" address, "Besides putting another knife in the diminishing South Korean president," the speech would likely cause "dangerous escalatory consequences [including] ... renewed tensions on the peninsula and continued export of missiles to the Mideast." North Korea called the Bush bluff, and the result, notes columnist Richard Cohen, was "a stumble, a fumble, an error compounded by a blooper. ... As appalling a display of diplomacy as anyone has seen since a shooting in Sarajevo turned into World War I."

Bush made a bad situation worse when, in a taped interview with Bob Woodward, he insisted, "I loathe Kim Jong Il!" waving his finger in the air. "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people." Bush also said that he wanted to "topple him," and that he considered the leader to be a "pygmy." Woodward wrote that the president had become so emotional while speaking about Kim Jong Il that "I thought he might jump up."

Given what a frightful tinderbox the Koreas have become, Bush's ratcheting up of the hostile rhetoric could hardly have come at a worse time. In December 2002 the North Koreans shocked most of the world by ordering the three IAEA inspectors to leave the country, shutting down cameras monitoring the nuclear complex in Yongbyon and removing the IAEA seals in their nuclear facilities. The following month, Pyongyang announced it had withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), restarted its small research reactor, and began removing spent nuclear fuel rods for likely reprocessing into weapons-grade plutonium. In October 2003, it announced that it had finished reprocessing spent fuel rods into plutonium and now possesses "nuclear deterrence" -- another way of saying it has the bomb. No independent confirmation was available.

Even including Iraq and Iran, the Korean peninsula is probably the single most dangerous and possibly unstable situation on Earth. As Jonathan Pollack, chairman of the Strategic Research Department of the Naval War College, observes, "If you wanted a case of imminent threat and danger, according to the principles enunciated in the National Security Strategy document, then North Korea is much more of a threat than Iraq ever was in the last few years."

Bush had already undermined the extremely sensitive negotiations under way to bring the North Korean regime into the international system. When South Korean president (and Nobel laureate) Kim Dae Jung visited Washington six weeks after Bush took office, Bush humiliated both his guest and his own secretary of state by publicly repudiating the negotiations after both had just publicly endorsed them. (Powell had termed their continuation "a no-brainer.") One suspects the president's decision was motivated by a combination of unreflective machismo and a desire to provide military planners with an excuse to build a missile-defense system. But in doing so, he displayed a disturbing lack of familiarity with the details of the negotiations he purposely sabotaged. "We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements," he said at the time. But at the time, these "agreements" numbered just one: the 1994 "Agreed Framework," which froze North Korea's enormous plutonium-processing program -- one that was bigger, at the time, than those of Israel, India, and Pakistan combined-in exchange for economic aid. Bush aides were later forced to admit they could find no evidence to support the president's accusation. (A White House official tried to clear up the matter by explaining: "That's how the president speaks.") Much of what President Bush falsely claimed about Iraq turns out to be true of North Korea. "We see a country that is designing and selling its ballistic missiles around the world," explained an American diplomat in January 2002. "We see a country that might export nuclear weapons."

No sensible military options exist to deal with the North Koreans when they promise "total war" in the event of a U.S. attack on their nuclear facilities. While the United States does have thirty-seven thousand troops stationed on the other end of the DMZ, the North Koreans have eleven thousand artillery guns, some possibly chemically tipped, within fifty miles of Seoul. In addition they have roughly thirty-seven hundred tanks and seven hundred Soviet-built fighter jets of uncertain vintage, but no doubt sturdy enough to make it to Seoul for devastating bombing missions. With about a million soldiers and another seven million reserves, North Korea has the fourth or fifth largest standing army on Earth. In a best-case scenario, with a surgical strike against the nuclear plant itself and no attendant radiation effects, thousands of U.S. troops and tens of thousands of South Korean troops would probably still be killed, and millions of refugees would be created. Clearly no responsible leader can willingly risk such a catastrophe.

But choosing not to deal with the problem of North Korea presents the world with two profoundly worrying prospects. The first is that North Korea will make one of its bombs available to a party that would in fact like to use it-perhaps even al Qaeda. (U.S. weapons inspector David Kay claimed to discover a $10 million deal for just such a transfer between North Korea and Iraq, though the former kept the money and did not deliver the material, insisting that U.S. pressure made it impossible.) Second, a spiraling collapse of the regime could lead to a last-ditch attack on Seoul, with both conventional and nuclear weapons. As one U.S. official put it, toleration of a nuclear North Korea sends the same message to Iran that the invasion of Iraq sent to North Korea: "Get your nuclear weapons quickly, before the Americans do to you what they've done to Iraq, because North Korea shows once you get the weapons, you're immune."

Those who have long dealt with the Korean problem began, in mid-2003, to express alarm at the consequences of Bush's mishandling of it. "I think we are losing control," worried former secretary of defense William Perry. "The nuclear program now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities." Only six months earlier Perry had been arguing in public that the problem was addressable, "if we did the right things." Now, however, he worried that "time is running out, and each month the problem gets more dangerous."


The obvious solution -- both to the strategic problem and to the humanitarian crisis -- is clearly some sort of negotiated buyout, along the lines that the Clinton administration began, but fumbled. Under the terms of that deal, North Korea was to freeze and eventually eliminate its nuclear program while the United States spearheaded an international effort to provide fuel and light-water (non-weapons-producing) nuclear reactors. The Clinton administration also tried to negotiate an accord whereby the North would have forfeited its long-range missiles and terminated all missile exports. But hopes of concluding the deal -- which would have required a presidential trip to Pongyang -- collapsed when Clinton decided in the final weeks of his administration to table the trip in favor of trying, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a Middle East peace deal.

Perhaps because such talks were associated with his predecessor, and no doubt because he wished to keep the focus on Iraq, Bush refused to carry out this plan and instead sought to play down the sense of crisis. "It's a diplomatic issue, not a military issue," he insisted in early 2003. When Bush advised Americans to "learn the lessons of the Korean peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq," he appeared to be arguing that the United States should have invaded those nations as well, when it still had the chance. "But as Bush sets it out," Michael Kinsley notes, "the 'lesson' of Korea seems to be that if you don't go to war soon enough, you might have a problem years later that can be solved through regional discussions. That doesn't sound so terrible, frankly." Secretary Powell justifies the blasé attitude toward North Korea on the grounds that "you can't eat plutonium." But as Brookings analysts Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay are quick to respond, "Of course, you can sell it and use the proceeds to buy a very nice meal."

End The Book on Bush.

What Ezra Klein said.

(On a related note, I guess I missed Peter's attack on those Jews who threatened to withdraw their support from the New York Theatre Workshop if it went ahead with plans to put on the Rachel Corrie show. I don't recall seeing any defenses in TNR of Tony Judt's right to speak despite his unpopularity with Abe Foxman and the ADL. Perhaps I missed it; if so, someone please enlighten me. Read all about that here. I'm all for offending Arabs. Is Beinart for offending Marty Peretz?

What Young Matt said about The Departed. It's a perfect moviegoing experience. It also -- Young Matt is too young to know this -- has just about the best movie soundtrack of all time. Little Children is also quite good, but not great like the above.

The whippersnapper is also dead on about this Euston Manifesto thing, here. Actual liberals (that I recognize) on that long list of signatories:

Dan Bell (and maybe David, I don't know, but I'm willing to take his word for it in honor of my admiration for the old man...), Morris Dickstein, um, that's it. I suppose there are more. There are a lot of names I don't know, but really, the thing strikes me as ridiculous. Funniest "liberal" on the list: Michael Ledeen, who, alas, beats Marty by a mile ...

Quote of the Day, Andrew Card:

"I was frequently the person trying to take sand out of people's underwear, which is a very difficult task if it's not your underwear."

"Thanks, Ralph," continued: Another history lesson, this one from Brad DeLong, who helps us remember why Ralph Nader purposely pimped for Bush:

Outside magazine, August 2000

All Bulworth, No Rhythm

Will Ralph Nader become Al Gore's worst nightmare? By Jay Heinrichs

[...] When asked if someone put a gun to his head and told him to vote for either Gore or Bush, which he would choose, Nader answered without hesitation: "Bush." Not that he actually thinks the man he calls "Bush Inc." deserves to be elected: "He'll do whatever industry wants done." The rumpled crusader clearly prefers to sink his righteous teeth into Al Gore, however: "He's totally betrayed his 1992 book," Nader says. "It's all rhetoric." Gore "groveled openly" to automakers, charges Nader, who concludes with the sotto voce realpolitik of a ward heeler: "If you want the parties to diverge from one another, have Bush win." [...]

Not bragging yet in order to give my Yankee fan friends a few days to get over not only the sweep, but another boorish reminder of why they shouldn't be Yankee fans in the first place. Speaking of Steinbrenner, here is a profile of Murdoch. (Apparently, if you want to read the Hitchens profile and the profile of my friend Deb Kogan's amazing dad by Malcolm G, you'll have to buy the thing.)

Alter-Mini-Reviews by Sal and Tony:

The first two PRETENDERS albums, PRETENDERS and PRETENDERS II, get the long-awaited, much-needed, what-the-hell-have-you-been-waiting-for, these-CDs-sound-awful remastering they richly deserve. They each now feature a bonus disc of rare and unreleased material, most of which is NOT included on their recent box set. No collection is complete without the first album, and the second one is pretty amazing, too.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN -- THE SEEGER SESSIONS (Deluxe Edition). The "American Land" edition of this already-legendary album now features four additional live videos from the recent tour as well as the bonus audio tracks "Bring 'Em Home," "American Land," and "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live." One of the best records of the year just got better. (Eric adds: Ethical issues aside, the extras are all excellent. Your call, however, on buying it twice.)

TIM BUCKLEY -- THE BEST OF. The first ever single disc compilation from a man who makes Elliott Smith seem like Donald O'Connor.

GEORGE HARRISON -- LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (Expanded). Of course, everyone knows and loves All Things Must Pass, his first proper solo album. But few remember this chart-topping follow-up, which included some of the strongest solo material of George's career. This new remastered version features two bonus tracks and also comes as a limited edition package with a DVD featuring documentary and live footage. (Eric adds: Like the entire George Harrison catalogue, which is being remastered with the same love and devotion as that of Miles Davis, and almost no one else, this deluxe package is a thing of beauty. It contains:

  • Rare footage of George performing "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)" from his 1991 Japanese tour with Eric Clapton.
  • A mini-feature edited from film commissioned by George in 1973 of the album's production in Britain and America.
  • Previously unreleased versions of "Miss O'Dell" and "Sue Me, Sue You Blues" set to visuals of unseen archival material.

It's also a lovely album and I had forgotten it entirely.)

JOHN LENNON -- THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON. The soundtrack to the documentary basically plays like a strange John Lennon compilation, with hits, album tracks and soundbites, as well as a previously unreleased instrumental version of "How Do You Sleep?"

SEAN LENNON -- FRIENDLY FIRE. His first album, "Into The Sun," was a likable effort that could have been better if he'd tried a little harder. His new album, on the other hand, sounds like he's trying too hard. He's got a knack for melody and a talent for arranging, but even at the age of 31, he still sounds like a 14-year-old John Lennon. We know it must be tough being the son of a Beatle, but this guy just needs to relax and do what comes naturally. Maybe the Who need a keyboardist?

THE DECEMBERISTS -- THE CRANE WIFE. Pioneers of the annoying "literary rock" movement, we don't know much about this band, except that Tony doesn't like them. But if literary rock is your thing, this is their major label debut, so that's certainly saying something. (Eric adds: I like this record; they sound like post-Beatles John Lennon.)

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Beth Harris
Hometown: St. Louis, MO


I don't know if they are playing where you are, but here in Missouri (and probably in Ohio, judging from what their web site says), there is a commercial that plays fairly often that shows David L. Beamer, father of United 93 victim, Todd Beamer. In the commercial, David Beamer says, "Todd and United 93 fought back. We continue this fight in Iraq today."

While certainly not questioning the tragedy and heartbreak that David Beamer must have felt/is feeling about the death of his son, what is unfortunate is that David Beamer is helping to confuse the war in Iraq with the "war" against terrorism.

Their site says "Progress for America, Inc." does not endorse particular political parties or "engage in Federal election activities," but I am sure we can see there is a certain political bent to the organization. After all, by virtue of airing such commercials less than a month ahead of national elections, we all know that this organization is hoping to influence the elections in one way or another. . .


Name: Isaac Luria
Hometown: University of Florida


Thought you and my fellow Altercators might be interested in this report from People for the American Way about the cumulative and strictly negative effect of Bush's judicial nominations on the health of our legal system. Keep up the good work.

Name: Lou Cabron
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

I take it back. THIS is the nastiest campaign ad ever....

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