In one deadly moment, North Korea has succeeded in doing what no amount of backtracking by Speaker Dennis Hastert or his beleaguered Republicans could do: It has changed the subject of the national debate. With nuclear weapons in the hands of the most deranged regime in the world, e-mails to pages will have to fade from the forefront of the public’s attention.
Will Bush be able to deal with the North Korean crisis? This is truly the moment for a test of his leadership. If he is able to lead a strong global effort to face down the renegade nation and can set in motion a demonstrable process that could lead to a reversal of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, he will have pulled off a coup akin to JFK’s in the Cuban missile crisis and rescued his party from midterm election defeat in 2006 as surely as Kennedy saved it in 1962.
The key, of course, is China. Can Beijing be made to take the crisis seriously enough to turn off the spigot of fuel and food that permits the North Korean regime to survive from day to day?
China has one major fear: a regional nuclear competition with Japan. With Japanese technological prowess and the mangled history between the two nations, Beijing cannot react impassively to the nuclear arming of Tokyo.
Do we dare encourage our World War II rival to acquire nuclear weapons? We must. It is really only the “Japan card” that can bring China to heel and force her to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea.
Let’s not allow nuclear nonproliferation to become an international equivalent of gun control, a system that seems to keep weapons out of the hands of the innocent while allowing the guilty, who break the law anyway, to have all the weapons they need. If North Korea has defied the world and acquired nuclear weapons, why should we not permit peace-loving countries like Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons to defend themselves?
Ultimately, the case of arming Japan with atomic weapons is as good as that for France developing its own bomb. French leader Charles de Gaulle always asked whether an American president was willing to trade New York for Paris. Would a Soviet attack that leveled the French capital lead to American retaliation that would doubtless provoke a Soviet response against major U.S. cities? And so Abe, the new Japanese Prime Minister, is entitled to ask if an American president is willing to trade Tokyo for New York.
In the grim logic of nuclear deterrent, only weapons in the hands of the nation actually under potential threat can constitute a real deterrence to aggression, particularly on a peninsula that has already seen one major war.
There is nothing like a national security crisis to force Americans to realize the consequences of paralyzing a presidency by sending to Washington a Congress with which he cannot work. We fell into just that trap in the final years of the Clinton presidency and we would do so now at our peril.
But Bush has to produce and has to do it in the next five weeks. Just like JFK did in 1962.