Monday, June 27, 2005

China Goes Long--On Oil

Economists like Angry Bear have a hard time understanding the fuss over the Unocal deal. In conventional terms, they are right. Oil is fungible, it doesn’t matter too much where it comes out of the earth, and, given China’s enormous energy needs, if the Chinese buy Unocal, they are likely to be doing everything they can through their Unocal investment to increase the world’s supply of petroleum.

Even if the Chinese wanted to suck every drop of Unocal’s oil into their economy, they wouldn’t be piping and shipping it from their far-flung Unocal outposts to the Chinese mainland. They’d sell the Unocal oil to the most suitable market, take the revenues, and buy oil from some closer producer at a better price.

Net effect on the international oil market—in conventional terms and under ordinary circumstances—zip.

The key factor, however, is that the Chinese perceive that the international free market in oil, and China’s ability to import oil on stable, economically rational terms, are at risk.

Even before the Bush administration, the U.S. has played the oil card in foreign affairs, especially in an effort to hem in Russia and keep it from leveraging its oil surplus into leadership of some Central Asian Opekhistan. Case in point: the recently opened Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which represents a decade-long U.S. investment in diplomacy, influence, and revolution in order to dick with Russia and Iran in their backyard.

We’ll probably never find out what was in Cheney’s energy task force papers, but there’s a good bet that there was a lot of thought given to the role of petroleum imports as a strategic factor in containing China.

Unfortunately I can’t come up with the citation now, but I was pretty amazed to read back in 2002 that the U.S. State Department had filed a brief supporting dismissal of a case against a multi-national oil company for human rights violations at its operations in Aceh, Indonesia because legal hassles for the oil company might create an opening for Chinese interests to come in, and that was bad for our national security.

With the Unocal bid, these issues come to the fore, and the New York Times responded with a good article from Joseph Kahn in the business section and, for once, a bad one from Paul Krugman.

Kahn’s China’s Costly Quest for Energy Control does an excellent job of describing China’s energy insecurity, which is to say China’s fear that the United States will use China’s dependence on oil imports as a weapon.

China would of course be vulnerable to sanctions if the United States were able to marshal international support for a legal cutoff of oil in the case of an open confrontation over Taiwan or some other hot button issue.

In that case, it probably wouldn’t matter if China owned Unocal, Chevron, and ExxonMobil put together—none of that oil would be coming in.

But China would also be vulnerable to a spike in oil prices if the United States decided to use its influence over oil producers, oil ocean transport, and the oil market to hammer the Chinese economy in case of undeclared hostilities…

…or simply to drain down China’s irritating forex reserves if we decided that we didn’t want them as a major player in the T-bill market anymore.

In this context, CNOOC’s bid for Unocal is actually a hopeful bet on a stable global economy buttressed by a genuine free market in petroleum.

If CNOOC controls the kind of oil Unocal produces—freely traded on world markets and not tied up in government-to-government agreements—then CNOOC—and China’s forex reserves—will benefit proportionally if the U.S. pulls some Enronesque stunt like jerking Iraq crude off the market because of “pipeline sabotage”.

And if China secures increased open-market reserves through Unocal and other deals, the effectiveness—and likelihood--of this kind of tactic becomes less likely. (However, if all this peak oil talk is true, then the entire international market—and the world economy—will become increasingly vulnerable to ever more minor interventions.)

In futures-market talk, China wants to “go long”—take title to petroleum in anticipation of a price rise in order to hedge its risks, and ensure that the world economy is not held hostage to OPEC-type monopoly plays by the United States that would suck disproportionate amounts of the world’s forex reserves into the pockets of a few companies.

As such it’s a bet on the viability of the global free market economy that should be encouraged.

Kahn states the issue well:

Now Washington has the chance to shape China's frenetic quest. The China National Offshore Oil Corporation, known as CNOOC, has offered $18.5 billion for the American oil company Unocal. If its bid is successful, Beijing will have a greater stake in the global oil markets, in the same way that Japanese and European oil companies work closely with major American companies around the world.

If the bid were rejected by the United States on national security grounds, as some members of Congress have publicly advocated, China could be motivated to build more ties to rogue states and step up its courtship of major oil producers in Africa and Latin America that in the past have looked mainly to the United States market.

In that context, it’s disappointing that Paul Krugman takes the exact opposite and, to me, incorrect view in his column The Chinese Challenge. He says he would would oppose the deal—because it would give China Unocal’s leverage in pursuing Great Game-style dastardly deals with dictators.

China does play the captive-oil pipeline-and-allocation game on the Eurasian continent—but government-to-government, as all the players do. The Unocal deal probably has very little to do with this.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Pinstripe Peril

The real story of CNOOC's bid for Unocal is Wall Street's hopes for a China-driven M&A binge. But that's probably not the story that's going to make it to the front page.

Commenting on the CNOOC bid for Unocal, I think the LA Times editorial Oil for China gets it just about right in saying:

Not long ago, China was a net exporter of oil, but its growing need for imported oil is one reason crude is trading at $60 a barrel. As the nation emerges from poverty into the global middle class, it is natural that China's consumption of global resources starts mirroring its one-fifth share of global population.For well over half a century, ensuring sufficient reserves and a steady flow of oil has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. China now has to think in similar ways. Rather than leading to a zero-sum showdown, this affinity of interests between the two nations, if handled properly, could strengthen the relationship

(Kudos, also I think, for inserting an implied reference to Alice Hobart's classic novel of civilizing China through the petroleum derivatives trade, Oil for the Lamps of China).

Anyway, the LA Times is right, as in how things should be. Not necessarily right, as in the way things are.

China is pretty much committed to the win-win scenario of globalization, but the Bush administration isn’t.

Washington, relying on the supposed trump card of unanswerable military might, has been eager to push the world in general, the Middle East in particular, and the Far East in principal, into the zero-sum realm of confrontation.

Having said that, the Bush ideological force is weak and the GOP business force is strong nowadays, so I don’t think that the Bush administration will find much high-profile encouragement or political profit in fanning the fear of the Yellow Peril on the issue of Unocal.

In the LA Times initial coverage of the CNOOC bid, I found the last paragraph to be the money i.e. key quote:

CNOOC's financial advisors on the offer include the U.S. investment firms Goldman, Sachs & Co. and J.P. Morgan Securities.

Wall Street is deeply committed to the CNOOC bid.

You can see it in the impeccable PR work highlighting CNOOC’s Westernized, responsible capitalist credentials, culminated in Don Lee’s front page wet kiss in today’s LA Times, Chinese Firm Has American Accent.

The news and business page coverage reflect sophisticated spin of CNOOC's good-buty-just-not-good-enough bid—presumably by Unocal and its advisers, but also reflecting the hopes and dreams of arbitragers—meant to encourage CNOOC to bump its price, Chevron to improve its offer, and to provoke a profitable bidding war if possible.

The Chinese acquisition binge is not--at least not yet—part of a systematic Chinese government strategy to shift out of T-bonds.

It’s driven by financial considerations—and abetted by U.S. investment bankers.

The U.S. stock market is pretty moribund these days. The hi-tech bubble has long since popped, the hot money poured into real estate, and a nasty combination of high oil prices and the collapse of the Social Security private account soufflé mean that there is going to be a dearth of domestic enthusiasm or money directed to Wall Street.

Who’s got a lot of US dollars lying around available for M&A?

The Chinese, of course.

As such, they are simply filling the historical role of eager foreign investors in the American-dream-for-sale, as the English were in the 19th century, and the OPEC sheikdoms and the Japanese did in the 1970s and 80s.

At least to date, this move doesn’t reflect a systematic plan by the Chinese government.

CNOOC and Haier (the Chinese company that recently bid for Maytag) are signature independent business companies by Chinese standards. Haier isn’t even state-owned. They would be the least likely and effective tools for government-directed recycling of excess US dollar assets.

What we are seeing is Wall Street’s attempt to initiate a Chinese M&A binge.

If you worry about the continued hollowing out of the American economy and shifting of its assets overseas, you can point your fingers at Wall Street—the pinstripe peril—and not the Chinese.

The events of the next few weeks will show if a combination of Chinese caution, American paranoia, and Bush administration hostility can stem the tide.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

All You Need to Know About the North Korean Crisis

From the LA Times:

In response to North Korea's concerns for its security, the United States has said repeatedly that it has no intention of attacking or invading the hard-line communist state, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that the U.S. does not question North Korea's sovereignty.

But Rice has not expressly said that the United States harbors no "hostile intent" toward or promises "peaceful coexistence" with the regime in Pyongyang — language that North Korea has demanded as a condition for returning to the negotiations after a nearly one-year hiatus.

"The problem is that it's a North Korean formulation," said the senior official, who in keeping with diplomatic protocol declined to be named. "We don't want to be reduced to sort of a circus animal doing an act, being told to jump through various hoops at the behest of the North Koreans. We have told them really all they need to know" about U.S. policy.

We’re not circus animals! We're not hoop-jumping poodles! No, we’re lean, mean, tongue-tied predators!

Problem is, the North Koreans already know "all they need to know about U.S. policy", to whit: North Korea is a member of the Axis of Evil, our policy has moved beyond non-proliferation to aggressive counter-proliferation and military pre-emption, the U.S. claims a specific mandate to promote democracy and oppose tyranny around the world, and President Bush has a history of setting circumstantial and procedural traps for his enemies meant to demonstrate that an invasion not his decision but all your fault.

It seems the one thing that would persuade North Korea to abandon its purported nuclear deterrent is an explicit undertaking from the United States that it will not invade—under any pretext.

However, the United States just can’t bring itself to say those few simple words.

Perhaps, as the article implies, the U.S.A. cannot adopt the wording proposed by the North Koreans—because it represents a veiled insult to the phrasemaking powers of the elite US diplomats and wordsmiths who brought you “Axis of Evil”, full-spectrum dominance, “GWOT” (Global War on Terror) and “WAVE” (the War Against Violent Extremism, debuting soon on your local cable outlet).

Or maybe we feel that the right of the United States and its proxies to attack North Korea whenever a suitable opportunity presents itself is simply to precious to abandon in return for North Korea’s dismantling of its nuclear program—the reason this crisis is supposed to exist in the first place.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Politics of Hunger in North Korea

Abstract: North Korea is suffering another year of famine. Kim Jung Il's inability to keep his people fed is sometimes cited as a justification--and even an implement--for regime change.

Until its economy was disrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea produced 10 million tons of grain a year--vs. little over 4 million tons expected for 2005.

These circumstances and the Chinese example of the Great Leap Forward allow the North Korean leadership to view the great hunger as a transient crisis, not a systemic failure of the DPRK.

If the Kim Jung Il regime survives its confrontation with the United States, it may decide to follow the Chinese example, discard its ideology of economic self-sufficiency, and seek to bolster its political viability by allowing its people to share in the prosperity of the global economy.

China Matters reviews the history of North Korea's agricultural crisis and places it in the context of Asian economic development, pointing out that agricultural self-sufficiency is neither the norm nor the ideal for the East Asian "tiger" economies.

It concludes:

Pyongyang needs is food aid, fertilizer, and time—time to reform its economy and rebuild its agriculture.

Instead, it is enmeshed in a web of real and virtual sanctions similar to that which accelerated the decline of the Iraqi standard of living under Saddam in the 1990s.

But Saddam’s regime survived sanctions—though many of Iraq’s people did not.

It took an invasion to finish the job sanctions was supposed to do, and end his regime—an invasion that has exacerbated Iraq’s humanitarian crisis instead of relieving it.

Sanctions did not lead to the regime change result we desired.

Instead, the failure of sanctions impelled us on a course we now recognize as disastrous.

That’s something we should remember when we use a defacto cutoff of food aid in an attempt to pressure and destabilize the regime of Kim Jung Il.

Letting North Korea starve is not, in the end, the fate its Communist government has doomed it to suffer.

It is a political decision, made largely--though not entirely--in the West and China.

Full text:

A South Korean think tank reported that North Korea will once again have to rely on international aid to avoid famine.

It’s understandable to take this as just another example of how some sorry-ass Communist regime can’t feed its own people.

And it’s inevitable that some observers will take the famine conditions in North Korea as evidence of the DPRK’s failed state status—and an excuse to withhold aid and let the regime collapse.

Hey it’s their own fault!

If mass starvation is nothing more than the defining attribute of a failed state, then North Korea needs regime change before it can feed its people.

Then somehow—through that alchemy of free market forces, unbridled optimism, and immunity from consequences that served us so well in rebuilding Iraq—we can hope things will be so much better once the Kim Jung Il regime has disappeared.

Reality is a little different. The North Korean food crisis can be attributed to the failure of the North Korean government—its failure to respond adequately to a fatal combination of forces beyond its control, including geopolitical changes, bad weather, and Western hostility.

The DPRK did a good job of feeding its population—until 1989, when the Soviet Union--and its unstinting aid to Pyongyang—disappeared.

The Soviets weren’t sending food. They were sending energy.

Pyongyang’s energy imports were cut by 60%. The sudden cutoff devastated its industrial economy and rippled into the agricultural sector, disrupting fertilizer production and compromising the DPRK’s ability to mechanically farm and irrigate its fields.

North Korean fertilizer use crashed from 700,000 tons to 230,000 tons.

And food output crashed from over 10,000,000 tons to less than 5,000,000.

The grim numbers are recorded in the reports of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization investigations and are neatly summarized in a report that treats North Korea as a worst-case example of a sudden energy cutoff peak-oil Armageddon scenario.

North Korea’s agricultural land per capita is about the same as China’s. But its productivity—and inputs—today are about 40% lower.

I see parallels with China in its pre-market reform days.

Not just in productivity. The collapse of agricultural production resulting from the wheels coming off a socialist planned economy evokes parallels with the disaster of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s.

Agriculture, which has been a human vocation for 4000 years, is surprisingly vulnerable even in its modern incarnation to transient disruptions in human, mechanical, and material inputs.

Chinese agriculture was staggered in 1959 by the disruption of rural labor diverted the catastrophic crash industrialization of the Great Leap. The error was exacerbated by bad weather and compounded by disastrous mismanagement of the planting program and the grain stocks that they were able to accumulate. Despite desperate efforts to repair the damage, the fatal dislocations persisted into 1961 and over 20 million people starved to death.

Kim Jung Il can, at least, point out that the initial shock was external and not owing to spectacular errors of commission by state planners. But North Korean agriculture has been unable to bounce back for over 10 years. Over 2 million died and hunger and malnutrition have become grim facts of life for the North Korean people.

Although the economy has expanded over the last six years, the DPRK can only meet 10% of its fertilizer needs domestically, and produces at least one million tons of grain short of what it needs to feed its people each year.

It is digging an ever deepening hole for itself, underfertilizing, overfarming, and creating a barren, nutrient-exhausted soil that will take years of remediation to set right.

The New York Times reports that this year Pyongyang is sending millions of city dwellers into the fields in an exercise that is probably part labor mobilization—to take the place of the tractors and pumps that no longer have diesel and spare parts to run with—and partly emergency evacuation—getting starving people out of the cities and closer to the food in the country, where they can barter and scavenge their living.

The fundamental error of the Kim Jung Il regime has been its lack of a Plan B: in the near term, it had no pre-existing foreign exchange reserve to cushion the population against this major, if not entirely foreseeable disruption.

In the long term, it wasn’t set up for a transition to a market economy that would generate exports, attract investment, and create savings that could be tapped to effect food imports as needed.

The fact is, most of the high population density East Asian countries import food.

The demand that North Korea—originally the most heavily industrialized portion of the Korean peninsula and perhaps best considered as a East Asian dragon in utero (or hibernation)—prove its viability as a sovereign state through agricultural self-sufficiency is something of a canard if you look at its neighbors.

The world’s biggest importers are Japan (over 25 million tons per annum of food and feed grains) and, ironically, the Republic of Korea (13 million). This compares to the 700,000 tons or so of grain North Korea needs to import (it faces a 500,000-ton shortfall) to achieve the meanest level of subsistence for its population.

(While we’re talking irony, those regime-change wonders Iraq and Afghanistan are among the biggest non-industrialized or de-industrialized grain importers a.k.a. basket cases, with current annual imports of 3 million tons and 1.6 million tons respectively. Afghanistan might be considered a free-market success story because its six-fold increase in wheat imports is driven in part by the rational decision to devote its resources to an extremely profitable export commodity—opium.)

Perhaps the true roots of the East Asian economic miracle lie in the extension of the New World’s bulk grain business to Asia, ensuring reliable supplies of grain to countries that otherwise would have to choose between balanced development of agriculture and industry and simple pell-mell industrialization underwritten by U.S., Canadian, and Argentine grain.

Of course, the Asian countries that couldn’t make the choice in favor of headlong industrialization underpinned by grain imports were the socialist economies: China and the DPRK.

I remember reading somewhere that China’s opening to the West in the 1970s was triggered by the Oh Shit realization that China would find itself trapped permanently in a high risk low growth cul de sac if it persisted with its primitive agricultural and industrial policies as the population grew remorselessly and the country’s food security became more and more vulnerable to a hiccup in the harvest.

Even if the quota of hog bristles and silver ear fungus for export through the Canton Trade Fair was multiplied with Stakhanovite intensity, in other words, China would always be a step away from famine and profound internal and international weakness if it did not change its system.

And change its system it did, creating an export juggernaut and, in developments that have received less attention, it brought large numbers of peasants into the cities and townships—and into the market economy, getting the farmers hooked on debt and consumer goods, and reducing the propensity of the agricultural sector to hoard and consume its own grain while soaking up subsidized state inputs.

During its agricultural and economic reform, China was in the enviable position of benefiting from a lot of pro-China feelings from the West, possessing enough foreign exchange reserves to meet its food needs, and having generally good harvests in the 1980s.

The DPRK has, of course, had none of these advantages.

Disruption to the economy was followed by terrible weather and accompanied by hostility of the Western powers that Kim Jung Il did much to exacerbate.

So a humanitarian crisis that could be alleviated by the redirection of four days of Asia’s grain imports per annum to North Korea is allowed to persist because of “donor fatigue”.

In the absence of aid, North Korea has been trying to cover the shortfall by agricultural reform, decollectivizing land and allowing free markets in agricultural products.

Trouble is, the peasants are withholding what grain they have—hunger is worst among the urbanized population—and the price of food is out of reach of many families.

And the Chinese-style mobilization campaign to reclaim marginal lands for agriculture has apparently been counterproductive in some cases. Flooding not only destroyed many newly terraced fields, but swept down sand and gravel and destroyed otherwise viable fields in the valleys.

DPKR agricultural policy has not been one of folly and neglect. It has been one of frantic improvisation and growing desperation as nutrients are mined out of an increasingly barren soil, plants and machinery rust uselessly, and people starve.

One of the interesting questions is why the PRC didn’t step in to ameliorate the the North Korean regime’s ordeal.

Maybe it was parsimony. Maybe it was focus on the emerging relationship with the ROK at the expense of the DPRK.

And perhaps Kim Jung Il felt so insecure about his authority that he felt he could maintain his position only by the most ostentatious and counterproductive displays of independence from Chinese interference.

More intensive Chinese-style market reforms—which might have revived the industrial economy and created more admirable and popular exports than SCUD missiles—were rendered politically suicidal by the need of the isolated Pyongyang regime to keep itself on a militarized state of siege footing vis a vis the West.

What is preventing the DPRK’s recovery is a lethal combination of its own inability to reform while under intense political and economic pressure, and the unwillingness of China and the West to assist it in a transition to a market-mediated socialist economy with the ability to import and attract investment.

All Pyongyang needs is food aid, fertilizer, and time—time to reform its economy and rebuild its agriculture.

Instead, it is enmeshed in a web of real and virtual sanctions similar to that which accelerated the decline of the Iraqi standard of living under Saddam in the 1990s.

But Saddam’s regime survived sanctions—though many of Iraq’s people did not. It took an invasion to finish the job sanctions was supposed to do, and end his regime—an invasion that has exacerbated Iraq’s humanitarian crisis instead of relieving it.

Sanctions did not lead to the regime change result we desired. Instead, the failure of sanctions impelled us on a course we now recognize as disastrous.

That’s something we should remember when we use a defacto cutoff of food aid in an attempt to pressure and destabilize the regime of Kim Jung Il.

Letting North Korea starve is not, in the end, the fate its Communist government has doomed it to suffer.

It is a political decision, made largely--though not entirely--in the West and China.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Rise of Thomas Fingar

Another sign that the neo-cons are out of favor and Condi Rice is introducing her particular brand of foreign policy professionalism to the Bush administration is the rise of Thomas Fingar.

Fingar is now the top intelligence analyst at John Negroponte’s ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence).

He’s a veteran of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research—the State Department shop heralded as the little analytical engine that could, guys who got things right while everybody else got it wrong on the Soviet military buildup, the Iraq nuclear program, and, most famously, those aluminum tubes that the CIA was determined to morph from rocket components into Saddam’s centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

From Justin Rood’s admiring profile in the Washington Monthly of the virtues of INR--and Thomas Fingar:

The NRI has a unique mindset… The State Department's staffers, by virtue of their responsibilities, simply must be open to the points of view of the countries with which they conduct daily diplomacy. There is an inherent tension within the State Department between cooperating with the White House and coordinating with the rest of the world. That tension creates a market within the department for objective analysis, a need for an honest broker. "This building understands we're useless if we're not objective," Fingar told me. "If you want an echo, close your door. Or sing in the shower."

This kind of attitude has caused some anguished gear grinding from Foggy-Bottom despising conservatives like Frank Gaffney, Rood reported:

In The Washington Times in August 2003, former Reagan White House official Frank Gaffney Jr. lamented the purported bias of INR's career civil servant experts. "This bureau's intelligence products have tended to reflect the policy predilections of State's permanent bureaucracy, rather than the facts."

Rood goes on to say:

But there's a simple bottom-line test for intelligence: Who called it right most often? And on the big questions, INR has consistently gotten right what other agencies have gotten wrong.

Fingar and his ex-boss at INR, Carl Ford, have been in the news since one of their analysts, Christian Westermann, had the temerity to comment “do not concur” on some extravagant claims about Cuban bioweapons programs that John Bolton wanted to include in a speech.

Fingar took the heat, as the Washington Note reported:

Mr. Fingar: "[An angry Bolton told me] That he was the President's appointee, that he had every right to say what he believed, that he wasn't going to be told what he could say by a mid-level INR munchkin analyst." Fingar interview, p. 10, lines 12-15.

and managed to insulate Westermann from Bolton’s volcanic wrath.

In an interesting sign of the state of foreign affairs in the second Bush administration, Fingar seems to be on the way up and Bolton is still not assured of emerging from the confirmation meatgrinder with enough votes to drag his tattered and humiliated carcass to the UN.

Fingar interests China Matters because he is also a China hand, a Mandarin speaker with a polysci degree from Stanford who has served in China-related functions at State since the 1980s.

Now, Fingar has not only successfully made the jump from the State Department—the nest of appeasing bureaucrats despised by the GOP right—to the ODNI, shop of that gentleman with impeccable death squad credentials—John Negroponte.

Fingar is now the keeper of the nation’s intelligence crown jewels, charged with “governance” of the President’s Daily Brief.

As you recall, the daily intelligence brief used to be delivered by the CIA’s George Tenet and is used to set the table for whatever agenda the foreign policy establishment wishes to promote to our CEO president.

It sometimes also performs the underappreciated function of providing warnings that terrorists are planning to fly jetliners into US office buildings.

The fact that a China hand, an opponent of the neo-cons, and a respected intelligence analyst is going to have Bush’s ear every morning is, to say the least, interesting.

One can envision him as Condi’s last line of defense, deploying the weapons of data, logic, and probability, and common sense against Dick Cheney’s relentless effort to stampede the President by invoking every worst-case scenario known to man.

So Condi has succeeded in purging the neo-cons and putting her State Department and academic technocrats in the top spots, close to the President’s ear.

A few highly experienced guys and gals will serve as gatekeepers, keeping the cherrypickers, Cheney hawks, and neocon nutbars from driving the foreign policy agenda with stovepiped intel. If anything, the elite is supposed to stovepipe guidelines down to the grunts, instead of the other way around.

I think Condi Rice has taken the risky step of assuming that she can orchestrate the proper gathering and processing of intelligence from the top down. This may indeed insulate the top decision-making apparatus from the neo-con schemes to short-circuit the policy process.

However, Condi has previously shown that, although she is adept at winning the president’s support and committed to enabling his agenda, her record in the first Bush administration as a hands-on manager has been disastrous.

Case in point is the Iraq Stabilization Group she headed (and whose dissolution, I believe, has never been announced). You remember that, don’t you? Condi was supposed to get her arms around that little situation we had in Iraq and make it all better. Surely you remember.

And Miss “I believe the title was ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States’” hasn’t shown herself a reliable steward of our critical intelligence functions, either.

So the idea that her leadership can amputate a dysfunctional body of analysts and ideologues from the rational Condi-brain that effectively gathers, sifts, and analyzes the critical intel, is open to question.

And if the ODNI is her chosen instrument for transforming the way the U.S. government handles intelligence, her apparently limited managerial and leadership powers are going to be tested to the utmost.

The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus recently reported on the state of the ODNI:

"This is an evolving process," the senior intelligence official told reporters who attended the briefing on the condition on anonymity. "We are moving from chalk to paper," he said, adding that should indicate things were far from final. The hastily drafted and approved legislation that established the DNI and his office last December represented a series of compromises between Congress and the White House. Those agreements have left room for Negroponte and his staff to establish what may be the standard structure for DNIs in the future.

"We are spending a lot of time searching for good people, and it is imperative we get the right people for these jobs," Negroponte said in a statement released yesterday.

The DNI is also setting up a 24-hour watch to keep Negroponte and Hayden informed of any sudden changes in intelligence. This office, with a handful of employees, will be located with another DNI entity, the National Counterterrorism Center, which occupies its own building in Northern Virginia.

An uncharitable reading would be that the effort is ad hoc, understaffed, behind the curve, and God help us, the ODNI is responsible for the President’s Daily Brief and they haven’t gone to 24-hour operation yet?

Best of luck, Thomas Fingar.

Bill Gertz Sez GO BLUE!

By some editing glitch, the Washington Times mistakenly placed Bill Gertz’s piece “Analysts Missed Chinese Buildup” on its national news page.

It could have qualified as an op-ed, a plug for Gertz’s scaremongering The China Threat: How the People’s Republic of China Targets America, an infomercial for the pro-confrontation Blue Team of anti-China adventurers, or as a submission for the agony column in which Gertz vents his choking rage that the CIA has not yet purged the analysts who perversely persist in trying to apply standards of evidence, logic, and common sense to data about China.

But news it ain’t.

The hard news lede is followed by Gertz’s determination to spin the report as a whitewash:

Instead, these officials said, the report looks like a bid to exonerate analysts within the close-knit fraternity of government China specialists, who for the past 10 years dismissed or played down intelligence showing that Beijing was engaged in a major military buildup.

"This report conceals the efforts of dissenting analysts [in the intelligence community] who argued that China was a threat," one official said, adding that covering up the failure of intelligence analysts on China would prevent a major reorganization of the system. A former U.S. official said the report should help expose a "self-selected group" of specialists who fooled the U.S. government on China for 10 years.

And just in case Porter Goss needed to know what Clinton-era appeasers need bulls-eyes painted on their backs:

According to the officials, the study was produced by a team of analysts for the intelligence contractor Centra Technologies.

Spokesmen for the CIA and Mr. Negroponte declined to comment.

Its main author is Robert Suettinger, a National Security Council staff member for China during the Clinton administration and the U.S. intelligence community's top China analyst until 1998. Mr. Suettinger is traveling outside the country and could not be reached for comment, a spokesman said.

John Culver, a longtime CIA analyst on Asia, was the co-author.

Among those who took part in the study were former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Lonnie Henley, who critics say was among those who in the past had dismissed concerns about China's military in the past 10 years.

Also participating in the study was John F. Corbett, a former Army intelligence analyst and attache who was a China policy-maker at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration.

It seems to me that Gertz may get his way, though he may not see his dream of having Suettinger, Corbett, and Henley’s heads mounted on pikes outside the Washington Times’ front door.

Porter Goss’s brief is not to promote CIA analytical independence and the messy controversies that would come with it. The CIA’s job is now to implement White House policy by producing the necessary policy-promoting (instead of analytical) product and initiatives needed to shape public opinion, steamroll Congress, and coerce foreign governments.

So people who claim to know China—but have a tin ear for picking up what the White House wants to hear—may find themselves out of work.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Is China the True Target of North Korean Nuclear Blackmail?

On June 3, our ambassador to Japan said:

``If you had a nuclear North Korea, it just introduces a whole different dynamic,'' Schieffer said. ``It seems to me that that increases the pressure on both South Korea and Japan to consider going nuclear themselves.''

Statements like these are meant to rattle China’s cage.

There is nothing that China would like less than a hostile, right-leaning Japan armed with nuclear weapons.

Forestalling a nuclear Japan is a good reason for the Chinese to put pressure on North Korea. Pressure is applied accordingly, and the DPRK signals its willingness to return to the Six-Party talks.

So what happens today?

Just when it looked like things were going so well, and the ROK’s President Roh is on his way to Washington to justify his appeasement-lite policy of engagement toward Pyongyang, the North Koreans add conditions to their return to the talks and, as a bonus, go out of their way on ABC to announce they got lotsa nukes.

What’s going on?

Are the North Koreans nuts?

As readers of China Matters know, I go out of my way to look for rational motives for dictators and countries that it is fashionable to describe as “irrational”.

No exception here.

There is, I believe, a more subtle dynamic than raving madness at work behind the otherwise mystifying behavior of North Korea.

Kim Jung Il is deliberately fomenting the nuclear crisis in order to extort Chinese aid and support.

According to this scenario, when he gets what he’s looking for, he’ll back down and remove the easiest pretext at hand for Japan to go nuclear.

And China can breathe a little easier.

This interpretation fits in with the few observable facts and conservative conclusions we can draw from them about North Korean behavior.

First of all, North Korea has used the nuclear gambit before, against the United States, in an effort to compel engagement and aid from the Clinton administration.

This tactic isn’t effective against the Bush administration.

President Bush possesses a visceral hatred both of Kim Jung Il and of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy initiatives (in Bush’s first term, his approach to North Korea and the Palestinian problem were defined as ABC—Anything But Clinton).

Bush enrolled North Korea in the Axis of Evil and enshrined America’s unilateral right to attack evildoers in his first term. In his second term, he upped the ante by explicitly committing his administration to a worldwide democracy crusade, thereby asserting our right to destabilize dictators we don’t like even if they didn’t present a plausible threat to our national security.

The Bush administration prefers regime change in North Korea, and rapprochement with North Korea is both distasteful and close to politically impossible for the Bush administration.

Flaunting a nuclear threat isn’t going to bring Pyongyang aid and concessions from the US. It’s only going to bring the day of reckoning closer.

With the US hamstrung by military overstretch in Iraq and hostility to its regime change style of diplomacy by all the key players in Northeast Asia except Japan, why is Kim Jung Il perversely and seemingly profitlessly provoking the US and making it more difficult for everybody to move past this crisis?

I think the key distinction here is to view Kim Jung Il as rational. Presenting him as a goggle-eyed, delusional dingbat princeling with an unslakable thirst for reckless confrontation is amusing and partially accurate, and makes it easy to rally international opposition against him.

But it’s only part of the story.

He’s at the center of a regime that is struggling desperately to cope with virtually total economic collapse triggered by the end of Soviet aid in 1989, agricultural failure, mass death and starvation, domestic dissent, and the determination of the world’s only superpower to end his regime.

He’s planning and scheming obsessively—and rationally—to create some breathing space for his regime so it can continue its recovery and transition into a dictatorship with a market-oriented, more globalized economy like China’s.

Kim Jung Il only has a few assets to deploy, some positive—a big army, draconian security apparatus, lukewarm support from China, and tentative engagement with South Korea.

He’s got two giant negative assets—the threat that the collapse of his regime will destabilize the Korean peninsula to the detriment of China and South Korea, and the threat that his nuclear program can provoke an arms race throughout Northeast Asia.

Add to that his personality. Like George W. Bush, another ruler who owes his rise to his family connections and considers it grounds for a feeling of entitlement, Kim Jung Il strives to maintain the upper hand in any relationship. He doesn’t want to beg or persuade, he wants to dictate.

Kim’s relations with China are notoriously prickly. (For a superb dissection of PRC-DPRK relations, see Andrew Scobell’s China and North Korea: From Comrades-in-Arms to Allies at Arms’ Length).

Kim lacks the deep rapport his father held with the Chinese leadership, based on their shared fight against America and South Korea in the Korean War. He found China’s rapid and profitable engagement with South Korea and concurrent neglect of North Korea—just when the cutoff of Soviet aid and natural disasters put his country through the wringer—intensely annoying.

The Chinese clearly are not interested in subsidizing North Korea as a socialist client state as the USSR did. Instead, they drain DPRK foreign exchange reserves by denominating energy exports in dollars and goad Kim to make politically risky reforms in agriculture and economics in order to become self-sufficient.

In response, Kim denounced Deng Xiaoping as a traitor to socialism and even went so far as to play the Taiwan card by opening discussions with the ROC concerning, of all things, a Taipei to Pyongyang air link.

Without leverage, Kim can rely on little more than malign neglect and lip service from Peking in his dealings with the US.

And what better leverage, what better way to dictate and preserve the initiative in Northeast Asia—and make China dance to his tune-- than by threatening to acquire nuclear weapons and provoke a massive injection of Western nuclear and anti-missile deterrent into the region by Japan and the United States?

So don’t believe for a minute that China will threaten to cut off aid and impose sanctions—as the US hopes—in order to bring Kim Jung Il to heel. If anything, the exact opposite will happen.

Don’t look for those pesky North Korean nukes to go away until North Korea’s demanding supremo feels he is getting all the respect and support—from China—that he needs.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Nicholas Eberstadt and North Korea Regime Change

Reading the NK Zone, a group blog that provides a lot of interesting information on North Korea, a post directed me to a "must read" transcript of remarks by Nicholas Eberstadt. Eberstadt is the hardest of hard core North Korea regime changers at the American Enterprise Institute. In his speech, he's trying to get South Korea to drink the regime change elixir (or Kool-Aid) indirectly, with some moral arm twisting about how the ROK has to set up a program to patriate North Korean refugees who fled to China.

I commented as follows:

As you counseled, I read “every word” of Nick Eberstadt’s talk and came away sorely disappointed.

I’ll be upfront. I opppose the Bush administration program of “regime change” as a tool of foreign policy, which makes me a deluded appeaser in Eberstadt’s book.

Eberstadt is an unwavering advocate of regime change. When he encourages South Korea to welcome and resettle North Korean refugees who have fled to China, he is clearly (to me, at least) hoping to create an overwhelming flood of refugees that will hollow out and destabilize the North Korean regime.

His article devoid of specifics as to why the Chinese would want to create an EZ Pass lane to South Korea for the refugees, thereby contributing to the destruction of the DPRK, which China regards as a reassuring buffer against the US military presence in North Asia.

All he says is:

If Seoul adopts an activist stance and insists upon the law—including its own laws—many of the problems encountered with China today may solve themselves.

Does anybody seriously believe this?

If North Korean refugees become an international political issue, it’s more likely that China would seek to remove the problem by militarizing its border with North Korea more than it already has, to make sure no more refugees get in. Not exactly a victory for freedom or the North Korean people.

Eberstadt hits the Judeo-Christian trifecta by unctuous references to the Jewish diaspora, sins of omission and commission (Catholicism), and “the bread of righteousness” (Protestantism).

This is not an attempt to underline the moral imperative of helping the North Korean people. It is all of a piece with the efforts since 1995 of Michael Horowitz to recast the struggle for human rights (a traditionally liberal concern) as a battle against religious persecution, and make regime change a religious imperative and political rallying point for the Christian right in U.S. domestic politics.

Instead of enlarging the world consensus in favor of active support of human rights in North Korea, evangelizing the issue of human rights in North Korea links it to the Bush doctrine of regime change—which has turned US diplomacy in North Asia into a litany of futility and at the same time stalls any increase in humanitarian engagement that might contribute to the well-being of the North Korean people.

So put me down as somebody who read the Eberstadt article—and found it shallow, hypocritical, and mendacious.

Perhaps what’s needed instead is some debate as to whether a militant pursuit of regime change, regardless of its near term probability or long term consequences, is preferable as a means of promoting the welfare of the North Korean people to a policy of engagement whose objective of regime modification might include regime change as one of its possible results—but not as its sole aim.

It’s a debate I hope to see at NKZone.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Bill Clinton and North Korea: Big Dog Speaks the Truth

The entire North Korean debate hinges on the question of irrationality.

Are the North Koreans so irrational that they have forfeited their sovereignty, thereby exposing their country to the full range of sanctions, destabilization, subversion, and pre-emptive attack that the Bush administration and its nutbar fellow travelers can inflict upon it?

Accusations of irrationality—and the insistence that the US must therefore act on the very worst of worst-case assumptions about tiny countries that otherwise would appear to pose no threat to the United States—have been the bedrock of neo-con geopolitical strategy.

But now Bill Clinton joins the fray.

In an interview with Fox News (!) the Big Dog lays out the common sense proposition:

"Oh, they are irrational to some extent, but I don’t think they’re totally irrational," he said. "I think they watch American cable channels. I think they watch the European cable channels. I think their decision makers keep up more than we know. And I think they want us to think they’re a little crazy.

What’s interesting is that Clinton has been spending quality time with Poppy Bush on tsunami relief and assiduously positioning himself as a mainstream emeritus president sufficiently palatable to the forebrain-endowed wing of the Republican Party, in preparation for his wife’s run in 2008 and/or his campaign to become U.N. General Secretary.

The fact that he’s willing to say something sensible about North Korea is an indication that there is enough support within the Republican apparatus for a non-confrontational approach with Pyongyang that Clinton feels he can make such a statement without getting his head snapped off as an appeaser.

One could also look at it as a sign that he’s acquired enough mainstream political capital that Condi Rice and the foreign party realists could conceivable use his remarks to support a step back from the regime change/democracy crusade that looks more and more as a counter-productive dead end.

In a high-profile statement in the Washington Post, Condi repudiated a Pentagon leak, no doubt from a grumpy warlord with the initials DR who is currently touring Asia to hype the regional security threat from China and North Korea--that the US would be referring the North Korea issue to the Security Council soon.

Today came a timely report that representatives of the DPKR and the US are meeting again in New York for direct talks—just like Bill Clinton said they should!

So yes, the Chinese can help us, yes, others can help us, these six party talks can be valuable, but sooner or later we’re probably going to have to take more initiative. And I see that, the administration has basically been saying that. Just kind of read between the lines, that’s pretty much what they’ve concluded, I think.

In the past, the neo-con litany of failure in prediction and execution has not resulted in lasting political damage to their stature in Washington.

But if Bill Clinton-the last American president with the credibility to act as an honest broker in the realm of conventional diplomacy--can enter the fray on North Korea in a productive way, it may be a sign that the power of the neo-cons to drive US policy in North Korea and Iran has been broken.

Is China Bi-Polar?

Peking Duck posts on an article by Orville Schell condemning China as “bipolar” for what he saw as the victim mentality behind the anti-Japanese demonstrations.

I responded with a comment reproduced below, in which I posit that the Chinese leadership—and its response to the development in its relationship with Japan—are rational.

A distinction can be made ithat there might be a rational, cynical anti-Japanese strategy cooked up by the Chinese leadership and a putatively irrational response by the Chinese people. And the fact that the Bush administration was able to convert an attack by Saudi and Eqyptian Wahabbists on 9/11 into war fever against a secular/socialist regime in Iraq is a sobering reminder that a regime with disciplined information management can shape and direct public opinion in order to advance its goals.

But, and it’s a big but…

…calling people “bipolar” or “irrational” is, to me, to underestimate the genuineness, the significance, and the “rationality” of the powerful popular response that the government was able to elicit.

If we start from the assumption that the Chinese demonstrators were “rational” and analyze their demographics, ideology, and agenda, we might come away with more useful conclusions than the impression that “the Chinese” are hysterical dingbats hung up on sixty year-old war crimes.

Here’s my post:

My take on China vs. Japan is 180 degrees from Schell's, and more in line with Coll Hanninan's commentary in Asia Times: China is responding to Japan's emergence as a frontline state in the U.S. effort to contain China.

I have a more fundamental gripe with Schell's use of "bipolar", and his implication that China is acting irrationally. Whatever you may think of the CCP leadership, they are not a bunch of guys in rags pushing shopping carts around Zhongnanhai and muttering to themselves about the radio receivers implanted in their skulls. They are hardheaded, ruthless, and rational politicians who have managed, through a tiny Leninist party, to keep control of the world's most populous country for over 50 years.

Painting China as "bipolar" and psychologically crippled by a "victim mentality" implies that the US can't engage with China as a rational actor. This paves the way for assertions that China can't be dealt with through conventional diplomacy as a peer; instead it has to be treated as a potentially dangerous pariah state, to be neutralized through containment, sanctions, and whatever other tricks the Bush administration has in its bag.

The Bush administration tried the same tactic with Saddam Hussein to enable the invasion, even though subsequent events have shown that Hussein was no irrational threat to the world. He was a rational, calculating dictator who knew how to run his country a lot better than we can. Things might have been different if the American public had understood that we were not bringing reason and sanity to the irrational madness of Iraq, but exporting ignorance, error, and wishful thinking to a fragile, resentful country instead.

Is China irrational? Or is the Chinese regime rational but detestable? Yes, there is a difference.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Jay Lefkowitz, Michael Horowitz, and the Christian Conservative Agenda for North Korea

The New York Sun reports that Jay Lefkowitz will probably be named special envoy for North Korea human rights.

Actually, the story was first leaked almost one month ago.

Via Buzzflash, the first murmurings concerning Lefkowitz's possible appointment appeared on May 5:

The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea--U.S. TENTATIVELY NAMES HARDLINER AS N.K. RIGHTS POINT MAN (Officials connected with the North Korean human rights movement said Thursday the U.S. has tentatively decided to name former White House domestic policy advisor and noted neocon Jay Lefkowitz as special envoy for human rights in North Korea. … The U.S. had put off naming an envoy for the last six months to avoid provoking North Korea, but analysts believe the naming of a neoconservative at this juncture shows Washington is no longer prepared to tread softly now that tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear program are approaching crisis level.)

Bush—or somebody—really wants this guy. He looks like some kind of Baby Bolton, an in your face confrontationalist whose job is to antagonize and polarize.

It’s obvious that the White House wants to yank Kim Jung Il’s chain with the appointment. Now may be the time. If it happens, it represents another step in the hardening of our North Korea policy.

But why Lefkowitz?

His foreign policy experience is risible. He’s a corporate lawyer who works for Ken Starr’s firm. Dana Milbank profiled him as “a hard-nosed litigant”, nicknamed The Viper by one of his clients.

Lefkowitz was Bush’s deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, and, together with Karen Hughes, helped craft the administration’s notorious stem cell policy. His last stint was as general counsel to the Office of Management and Budget.

Lefkowitz’s otherwise inexplicable elevation to sachem for North Korean human rights appears to have much to do with his links to Michael Horowitz, the neocon progenitor of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004—the legislation that created the special envoy post.

Embattled conservative journalist Evan Gahr claims that Lefkowitz has a close relationship to Horowitz; that they talk frequently; and Horowitz got Lefkowitz his job as OMB general counsel (Horowitz himself did a stint as OMB general counsel under Reagan). He further claims that Horowitz and Lefkowitz are, in fact, cousins.

With this background, it would be no surprise if Horowitz is promoting Lefkowitz for the human rights envoy posting.

On one level, Lefkowitz’s appointment may be simply another example of the incestuous backscratching that sees inside-the-Beltway types continually rewarded for their ideology, connections, and pliancy instead of expertise.

However, Lefkowitz’s appointment may be more important as a coded indicator by President Bush, meant to reward and mobilize the evangelical right on behalf of his political objectives.

If so, we are in new and dangerous waters.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Horowitz, a charter member of the neo-cons ensconced at the Hudson Institute directing its Project for International Religious Liberty, has toiled tirelessly since 1995 to create a significant, active evangelical Christian base for conservative foreign policy priorities by exchanging the ideological rhetoric of national security and freedom for moral rhetoric of religious persecution and human rights.

He is the godfather of the right wing’s attempts to harness the political energies of traditionally isolationist Christian conservatives to promote the GOP’s foreign policy agenda in the same way that domestic hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage, and “Intelligent Design” are exploited to drive evangelicals to the polls.

Horowitz has used the theme of persecution of Christians in regimes like the Sudan, North Korea, and China to create a set of evangelical foreign policy priorities that Karl Rove and the Bush White House, with their conviction that the evangelical political force is crucial to their electoral success, are anxious to heed, acknowledge, and encourage.

Evangelical Christians have responded and Horowitz was recognized as one of the world’s ten most influential Christians by a Southern Baptist magazine. Even though he’s Jewish and, according to one piece I read, an ex-communist.

With a Christian population estimated at 10-12,000 in a country of 23 million, North Korea would seem to be an area in which the rhetoric of Christian persecution would find little international resonance.

However, history does supply justification for viewing North Korea as a fruitful field for Christian endeavor. Between 1890 and the 1950s, Pyongyang was a center of highly successful Presbyterian mission centered on a 120-acre campus with a population of 180,000 and was celebrated, perhaps presumptuously, as the “Jerusalem of the East”. In 1907 it was the center of an intense revival movement that brought tens of thousands of Korean converts to Christianity. One-sixth of its residents—including the family of Kim Il-sung (!) were Christians. By the end of World War II, the Christian population of what is now North Korea reportedly numbered 600,000, most of whom fled to the South.

The proliferation of web pages dealing with the fate of Christians in North Korea is evidence of the enthusiasm and hope that the evangelical movement has been able to generate on this topic—and contribute to Michael Horowitz’s political activities.

One of Horowitz’s greatest and most recent triumphs was the passage of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004.

In an interview with Christianity Today, given when the legislation cleared the Senate, Horowitz began by preening unctuously

Here's an abused term, but in this case, I have come to feel that it is literally correct to call this success a miracle.

And went on to provide an insight into the political dynamics behind the legislation:

(CT) What was the role of evangelicals in seeing the legislation get passed?

Oh, they played the central role here. I think it was this powerful evangelical coalition that was working with Senator [Sam] Brownback and Senator [Evan] Bayh…

It was then the coalition, working with key Senate aides, in particular, that played this extraordinary difference in moving matters forward. There is a process in the Senate where bills get so-called "hot-wired." That means that the Senate leadership says, "We want this bill to be adopted," and they give a 24-hour period for all senators to indicate whether they object to the bill. And the bill cleared all the Senate Republicans. … It had Republicans and Democrats in the House and all Republicans in the Senate unanimously approving the bill. Then it was up to the Senate Democrats, and Senate Democrats began registering objections to the bill.

At that point, there was a coalition led by the National Association of Evangelicals that prepared and drafted a letter that went to Senator [Joe] Biden, [ranking Democratic Party member of] the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator [Tom] Daschle, the Senate majority leader, and Senator [John] Kerry, the Democratic nominee for President, indicating that any one of them had the power, if they so chose, to ensure that the bill got a Senate vote—and making it very clear that those three men would be held accountable if the Senate buried the vote. And there was a readiness on the part of evangelical groups to go to churches throughout critical [voting] states showing films of gulags and gas chambers. You'd better be sure that that played a role in the ultimate willingness of members of the Senate to negotiate, which they did in honor and good faith, for legislation.

North Korea is now, together with Sudan and a rather quixotic if not suicidal desire to obtain U.S. government support for evangelism among Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, a hot button issue for the politically ambitious arm of the Christian right.

Officially, supporters of the NKHRA insist that the bill concerns only human rights and not the potentially bloody and burdensome activities associated with regime change under U.S. government aegis.

However, regime change is not far from Horowitz’s mind:

In a lecture entitled "It Ain't Christmas in Pyongyang: Will the Kim Jong-il Regime Last?" Horowitz said, "North Korea will implode before next Christmas and Kim Jong-il shall not enjoy Christmas next year." The scholar had recently visited South Korea, where he criticized Seoul policies toward North Korea and called for regime change in Pyongyang. He said the collapse of North Korea's communist regime was historically inevitable, and that such a collapse would happen automatically and without much delay. He also mentioned the possibility of a coup occurring in North Korea. He said that if the United States discovered generals it could trust to close North Korea's "concentration camps" and shut down its nuclear program, Washington could send a message to them that it would support such moves.

As noted above, the NKHRA created the post of human rights envoy for North Korea. Speaking with Christianity Today, Horowitz said:

The Senate bill calls for the appointment of a special envoy for human rights to be designated by the President. And the legislation further provides that this person must be a person of recognized international stature in the field of human rights.

There seems to be a bit of a stature gap here.

Jay Lefkowitz's only noteworthy foreign policy experience in recent years has been participation in some conferences on anti-Semitism, where he complains that singling out Israel for criticism while not condemning North Korea, Sudan, etc. is a sign of anti-Semitism.

Lefkowitz’s conservative credentials are, however, impeccable.

From Dana Milbank's profile:

Lefkowitz has enjoyed ideological combat, writing for neoconservative journals such as Commentary and the Public Interest and founding the Dark Ages convention, conservatives' answer to Bill Clinton's Renaissance Weekends.

Lefkowitz, friends and colleagues say, is the quintessential nerd. The bespectacled Columbia University graduate has a baby face. His West Wing office contains a little-used tennis racket, a copy of Commentary on the table and a framed picture of drawings of stem cells.

"He's proud to be a geek," said conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, who started the Dark Ages convention with him.

Lefkowitz, who as general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget last year was the architect of Bush's decision on stem-cell research, is attracted to controversial issues. As a junior staffer in the first Bush administration, he encouraged Vice President Dan Quayle's speech criticizing "Murphy Brown" for celebrating single motherhood and worked on an executive order restricting labor unions' power. In 1993, he joined a think tank project with Quayle's former chief of staff, William Kristol, before becoming a partner at Kirkland, Kenneth W. Starr's law firm. There, he represented Florida and Wisconsin in defense of their private-school voucher programs.

Apparently close to Rove and Karen Hughes, Lefkowitz had responsibility for beating the bushes for the Jewish vote in the 2004 election. He was mentioned as possible executive director of the platform writing committee at the GOP convention, and was reportedly considered for the top domestic policy slot in the second Bush administration before Rove took the job.

In sum, he looks like a dependable neo-con, a junior member of the trusted inner circle, loyal to George W. Bush, and ready to go that extra mile to serve President Bush’s agenda.

He could be anywhere, or nowhere. Why North Korea?

What makes the Horowitz/Lefkowitz link even more significant, beyond their reported family ties, is their shared interest in evangelical outreach.

Again, from Milbank:

Along the way, Lefkowitz has become Bush's de facto in-house ethicist and a primary liaison to Christian conservatives -- a seemingly odd role for someone of the Jewish faith. Lefkowitz, the son of New York-born Zionist parents who taught him Hebrew as his first language, keeps Kosher, has a well-thumbed Hebrew language Bible in his office and took a bicycle to work to avoid driving during Passover. Lefkowitz hopes to convince fellow Jews to embrace Republicans. In a 1996 speech, he said the Jewish community is "disintegrating," in part because of its "embrace of the assimilationist ideal endorsed by the liberal Democratic Party."

In the White House, Lefkowitz’s high profile conservative religiosity found expression in promotion of a shared, morality-based approach to social issues with the Christian right.

On a more practical plane, Lefkowitz seems to have been the godly go-to mensch when the White House wanted to reaffirm to the true believers that President Bush’s every thought and action are guided by his profound religious faith.

As revealed in Christianity Today:

Jay Lefkowitz, deputy assistant to the President, says Bush starts every policy discussion on action by asking, "What is the right thing to do?"—meaning, Lefkowitz says, "What is the morally correct thing to do?"

And from a briefing to Catholic and religious journalists reported in the Arlington Catholic Herald:

Jay Lefkowitz, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, said in the discussion on partial birth abortion and human cloning, the president always asks, "What is the right answer?"

The clearest indication of Lefkowitz’s role as signalman to the religious right was the spectacular botch on stem cell research.

The Bush administration touted Bush’s intense interest in this issue and the wide-ranging views presented to the President by Lefkowitz, the point man on the issue.

As reported in World Magazine (Mission Statement: To report, interpret, and illustrate the news in a timely, accurate, enjoyable, and arresting fashion from a perspective committed to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God):

WORLD interviewed Mr. Lefkowitz, former counselor to the president Karen Hughes, national campaign manager Ken Mehlman, Rep. Kay Granger, and others. They portray him as a man of faith who doesn't think he has all the answers, but who has learned to seek insights both from others and through prayerful consideration.

President Bush's decision on stem-cell research shows how he works. From March through August 2001, he painstakingly investigated the issue. The president began by asking Mr. Lefkowitz to bring in experts from all sides. …

Many others from a variety of viewpoints and expertise met with the president. Mr. Lefkowitz, who attended every one of these meetings, recalls they usually were held in the Oval Office and almost always began with the president saying to his guests, "Tell me what your opinion is and why." As the discussion continued, the president would press the experts further. In these sessions, Mr. Bush always listened, often took notes, and never failed to ask questions.

It turned out that Lefkowitz, despite the importance of the issue and the resources and Presidential focus laid at his disposal--and his own reputation as a dogged and diligent lawyer--got the science all wrong, overstating the number of existing stem cell lines by a factor of 5. With only a dozen viable lines available for research and access to new lines precluded, the federal program is irrelevant.

In retrospect, the ostentatious soul searching orchestrated by Jay Lefkowitz seems merely to have been rhetorical chaff, meant to obscure a strong, pre-existing disposition to give the evangelical right the de facto restriction on federally-funded stem cell research that it sought.

And it’s hard to see naming Lefkowitz to the special envoy post as anything other than a nod and a wink to the internationally-minded Christian conservatives that Bush shares their views on the desirability of moral militancy in our dealings with North Korea.

If the Bush administration follows through on its leaks this time and appoints Jay Lefkowitz, one can look at it in several ways:

First, an endorsement of a de facto policy of regime change against the North Korean regime.

Second, a coded signal to the evangelicals that President Bush professes to share their views and expects their enthusiastic endorsement for whatever he does on the North Korean issue.

Third, a worrisome sign that our North Korean policy will be driven by the imperative of catering to--and inflaming--one useful political constituency, at the expense of prudence, U.S. credibility as a responsible diplomatic force, and reasonable expectations of success in our effort to stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula.