Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bush’s Munich? Parsing the North Korean Agreement

This post takes a skeptical look at Bush administration diplomacy and wonders darkly if the haste to conclude a none-too favorable deal with North Korea had something to do with U.S. plans to escalate pressure on Iran.

Questions such as Cui bono—who benefits? and What’s the rush? should be explored if we are to understand why the State Department was allowed to enter so precipitously into a deal that seems to offer the United States so little.

For background on the twisted path to the Six Party agreement,
Intimate Enemies: Pyongyang, Beijing and the Nuclear Factor explores the dynamics of the China-North Korea relationship. On the US side, I covered John Bolton’s overreach with the Proliferation Security Initiative and the mixed results of U.S. attempts to apply the PSI to the North Korean situation; Condi Rice's faltering effort in crisis diplomacy; and the adverse consequences that a single-minded focus on North Korea hold for U.S. diplomacy and our goals in Asia.

Is appeasement in the air—or is it the prelude to aggression?

For the last two months, the Bush administration has been deep into negotiations with North Korea, both through the Six Party talks and in unprecedented direct discussions, most recently held in Berlin.

On February 12, Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State and the chief U.S. negotiator at the Six-Party talks, announced in Beijing that a ”tentative agreement” has been reached and working groups will start hammering out the devilish details within a month.

Rumored outcomes not only include a vast infusion of energy aid (figures sure to be reduced, like 2 million kilowatts of electricity and 2 million tons of fuel oil) and provision of security guarantees in return for North Korea’s freezing of its nuclear program.

Promises of diplomatic relations are also being dangled.

However, the dizzying prospect of Bush and Kim, those two height and reality-challenged hereditary monarchs, doing the grip-and-grin in Pyongyang should not distract us from the policy puzzle such a rapprochement would represent.

This would be an astounding reversal for the Bush administration, which included North Korea in its Axis of Evil formulation (albeit casually and at the last minute in order to make the Bush policy of unilateral pre-emption appear global and not targeted at Muslim countries alone) and has spent five years excoriating, threatening, harassing, and destabilizing Kim Jung Il’s regime.

As recently as October 2006, North Korea’s nuclear test had created a united front of the main regional powers, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, as well as the United States, determined to put an end to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

However, in John Bolton’s swan song, the United States frittered away its diplomatic leverage in a futile attempt, climaxed by George W. Bush’s failure at the APEC summit in Hanoi, to hype the crisis as a pretext for implementing coercive inspections—a not-so-veiled de facto economic blockade meant to destabilize the Pyongyang regime, a measure that went far beyond anything that China, Russia, and South Korea were willing to entertain.

Finally, after Bush administration intransigence failed to cripple the regime, Chinese mediation and selective pressure brought North Korea back to the safe harbor of the negotiating table.

This is causing dismay within the constellation of evangelical and conservative regime change advocates who, to their credit, are the only people who seem to take North Korea’s dismal human rights record seriously.

The Chinese are eagerly midwifing this deal, for good reason.

It promises to denuclearize North Korea and strip it of all pretensions to an independent foreign policy that might disrupt China’s plans to include the peninsula securely within its sphere of influence.

And much of the expense of propping up the regime, which has been borne so grudgingly by Beijing, would be subcontracted out to the U.S.!

Although North Korea has been pleading pathetically for direct engagement with Washington and has even offered to act as a U.S. proxy on the peninsula, it would appear that China would have little to fear from U.S. diplomatic recognition of North Korea.

As long as Kim Jung Il is going nowhere and there isn’t a chance for a U.S.-aligned democracy being established in the northern half of the peninsula, the Chinese don’t care if North Korea is a desperately weak and isolated satrap with a failure-prone nuclear weapons program or a struggling, incompetently reforming socialist state.

What’s in it for the United States? What justifies this retreat from the brave rhetoric of the Axis of Evil to near-Clintonian appeasement?

Maybe Iran.

Today it is difficult to view actions of the Bush administration through any lens other than its apparent desire to attack Iran.

There are ways a North Korea deal could advance the US goal of attacking Iran.

The diplomatic and strategic firesale going on in the North Korean negotiations may have been meant to clear the decks for a frontal diplomatic assault on Iran after February 23, when the IAEA Director General’s report on Iran’s Non Proliferation Treaty compliance—unlikely to be a clean bill of health—is scheduled to be delivered and the sanctions and war bandwagon can start rolling again.

By using diplomatic means to de-WMD one of the charter members of the Axis of Evil, the United States could claim the moral high ground and work to isolate Iran as the last remaining intransigent rogue regime, thereby justifying use of force if Iran could not swing a deal on its nuclear weapons (a deal that the U.S. might make impossible to achieve, if we are genuinely keen to attack).

Perhaps the United States is also trying to sway the Chinese and Russians into backing more coercive diplomatic and military sanctions against Iran by offering them a win on North Korea.

This, to me, is unlikely to happen.

The Chinese care desperately about being on the right side in the Iran attack equation—Iran’s side.

And that doesn’t mean being able to stop an attack. Two (and soon to be three) carrier groups in the Persian Gulf say we can attack whenever we want to.

It means making sure that any attack by the U.S. and its allies cannot claim any U.N. endorsement, and, looking beyond the attack, that the Iranian regime can emerge from the attack confident of and grateful for the support of its allies, with its international legitimacy and regional standing intact, and free to export oil.

Even proponents of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities admit it would accomplish little beyond enraging and uniting the Iranian people.

For such an attack to be significant as anything more than an expression of George Bush’s self-destructive hubris, it would have to be the climax in an effort to drive Iran into pariah status and cripple it financially, for years and possibly decades, by punitive post-war sanctions on its oil industry—as we did to Saddam’s Iraq.

For that kind of sanctions regime, formal international agreement, not ad hoc efforts, are needed.

Optimists in the Bush White House might look at the balance of forces in 2007 and find them reassuring similar to 2003, when Russia, China, the IAEA, and Old Europe were unable to block Bush from claiming UN authority for the Iraq invasion. Now, with Angela Merkel in charge in Germany and Jacques Chirac toeing a US line on the Middle East, the chance of obtaining explicit diplomatic cover for an attack on Iran might appear to be even better.

No doubt the old line, You’d better get on board now—because we’re going to attack anyway is being used to pressure any stragglers.

But Iran is not Iraq.

Explicit additional U.N. action is needed, because Iran, though suffering limited U.N. censure under resolutions 1696 and 1737, is not flat on its back legally, as Saddam was after the invasion of Kuwait.

This time, China and Russia are alert to any attempts to provide a U.N. pretext for open-ended sanctions against Iran that might be enforceable militarily by a self-proclaimed “coalition of the willing” led by the U.S..

Last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, which was suppose to serve as a prestigious first world forum for castigating Iran’s nuclear behavior, instead became the stage for Vladimir Putin’s stinging rebuke of the United States’ reckless security regime.

Robert Gates was supposed to be rolling out Iran product in concert with the release of the dubious Iran-IED link intel. Instead he had to listen stone-faced in the audience during Putin’s acid-tongued remarks, probably thinking ruefully, to paraphrase Robert Stack in Airplane!, “I sure picked the wrong week to use a half-assed excuse about Iran to try and sneak an anti-Russian missile system into Eastern Europe.”

Beyond using the conference as a high-profile platform to express anger at the U.S. initiative to move ABMs onto Russia’s borders, Putin was taking advantage of Europe’s clear distaste for the confrontational U.S. position on Iran to take the wind out of the sails of the movement to aggressively (and perhaps provocatively) apply the U.N. sanctions regime to Iran after the IAEA issues its report.

Despite Western fawning over Gates’ riposte to Putin, the fact remains that Putin had neatly turned the attention away from Iran, which was intended to be a main target of civilized wrath at the conference, to the 800 pound gorilla of global instability, the United States.

Angela Merkel and the Israeli delegate made game attempts to fan fears of the Iranian boogeyman, but Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ari Larijani (who had originally begged off the event, ostensibly because of illness but probably because he was worried about making a good showing in a potentially hostile venue) was able to find a hospitable forum for his call for a return to negotiations.

An indication of where things are really going on Iran, at least in China, can be found in reports of an upcoming mini-summit between the foreign ministers of China, Russia, and India in New Delhi on February 14.

As reported in the Hindustan Times, a Chinese think tank pundit outlined the basic theme of the summit, which he believes that both Russia and India will endorse:

"China demands Iran should follow international rules. In the meantime, China believes that this issue should be solved in the framework of the IAEA," Zhao Gancheng, a South Asia expert at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, China's influential think tank, said.
"The bottomline is that China will never advocate the use of force. China is against the use of force," Zhao stressed, indicating that if the US were to go ahead with a military strike, as is speculated in a section of the international press, it will face opposition from these three powerful countries.

So there you have it. China proposes a dispute mediation channel that will keep the Iran issue safely bottled up within the IAEA and away from the Security Council, where the threat of economic and military sanctions lurks.

Given the fact that Russian and Chinese support for diplomatically isolating Iran is remote, it remains to be seen if the United States maintains its enthusiasm for a North Korea diplomatic solution that will provide China with a foreign policy win and many more years of comfortable existence for Kim Jung Il’s regime in Pyongyang—and whether the promise of peace in one part of the world is actually a threat of war on another side of the globe.


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