Too clever by half?

Posted: Oct 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Up in Maine, where President Bush and his family have long vacationed, they tell a story about the crusty "Down Easterner" who tries to help a lost tourist get to his destination. After suggesting several routes then concluding they won't work, the local gives up, saying "You can't rightly get there from here." The same can be said about three initiatives currently being undertaken in Mr. Bush's name by Secretary of State Colin Powell that are supposed to denuclearize North Korea, disarm Iraq and create a peaceable state for the Palestinian Arabs. The ineluctable reality is that negotiations aimed at such goals with the likes of Kim Jong-Il, Saddam Hussein's patrons in the UN Security Council and Yasser Arafat's surrogates are doomed to produce results incompatible with vital U.S. interests. The question is: Do the current diplomatic efforts represent clever stratagems by Mr. Bush, aimed at deflecting opposition to and otherwise advancing his, more realistic foreign policy agenda? Or has he actually been induced to believe that he can get where this country needs to go vis á vis the North Korean, Iraqi and Palestinian regimes through various "processes" ostensibly managed by Powell's State Department? North Korea: Last week, the Bush Administration revealed that Kim Jong-Il's government had admitted it was pursuing a second nuclear weapons program in violation of several international commitments -- notably, an "Agreed Framework" which handsomely rewarded Pyongyang for remaining non-nuclear. North Korean officials proceeded to declare the Agreed Framework null and void. For his part, Mr. Powell on Sunday described the agreement as "effectively dead" and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fuel oil and nuclear power reactors promised the North pursuant to that deal apparently will not be forthcoming. At the same time, Mr. Powell and his subordinates have made clear that the Administra tion is committed to seeking a "diplomatic solution" to this crisis, presumably hoping that new negotiations will succeed where others have failed. Is this just razzle-dazzle maneuvering, calculated to avoid a crisis on the Korean peninsula as the Bush team prepares for war with Iraq, giving it a chance to stiffen the spines of its South Korean and Japanese allies (who have been keen to normalize relations with Kim Jong-Il) and, thereby, preserving and shoring up containment of the North until such time as it can be rolled-back? Or will this "dialogue" once again translate into more Western concessions that amount to political, financial and technological life-support for a regime that Mr. Bush has properly tagged as a member of the "Axis of Evil"? Iraq: For weeks, Secretary Powell has been negotiating with other Security Council members, seeking a resolution authorizing the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. Here again, is the Administration merely going through the motions -- getting past the November elections, putting the forces needed to liberate Iraq into place in the region and checking the box mandated by Congress of exhausting diplomatic options before going to war? Or, as seems increasingly likely, is the President going to be stuck inextricably to the tar baby of renewed UN inspections, inspections that will surely prove incompatible with the goal of disarming Iraq, since the only prospect for accomplishing that end is to remove Saddam and his ruling clique from power? It is an ominous indicator that Secretary Powell has now repeatedly asserted, without correction, that "All we are interested in is getting rid of those [Iraqi] weapons of mass destruction." By dumbing-down the President's clearly stated war aims, Mr. Powell may make it easier to get a watered-down mandate from the UN. But no one should be under any illusion that that road will get Mr. Bush to regime change in Iraq. This advice is at least every bit as flawed as that given in 1990 by then-General Powell to the previous President Bush to the effect that economic sanctions would compel Saddam Hussein to quit Kuwait. Palestinian Statehood: A recent study by the estimable Zionist Organization of America has documented that Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority has not made tangible progress on any of the specific milestones President Bush declared would be preconditions for U.S. recognition of a state of "Palestine." Yet, the Bush Administration has begun a new round of regional diplomacy aimed at establishing such an entity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Secretary Powell has even declared that a Palestinian state would be recognized in 2003 -- undercutting the President's position that real reforms must happen first, to say nothing of a complete end to Arab violence against Israel. It is hard to believe that Mr. Bush really wants to create a new terrorist-sponsoring state, even as he works to take down existing ones. Is the diplomacy now underway going to be allowed, inexorably, to produce such a dismal result -- or does the President think he can keep this "process" from coming a cropper like so many before it, yet get credit from so- called Arab allies for not neglecting the plight of Palestinians? Mr. Bush has shown himself to be a serious practitioner of the art of statecraft. The future of his presidency and the outcome of the war on terror may hinge, however, on whether he is now engaging in necessary and controllable stratagems or simply succumbing to the machinations of subordinates who may or may not share his goals, but whose gambits will surely foreclose their realization.