Hardliners in the U.S. Government Struggle not to Accept the Consequences of the Failure of their North Korea Policy
China Matters goes meta, summarizing dozens of posts and tens of thousands of words written over the last six months to explain why Banco Delta Asia matters—and why the mainstream media should and actually might begin covering it critically and responsibly.
As the Banco Delta Asia farce groans into its third month, it should be time for even the most credulous, lazy, and bigoted observers to realize there is a problem.
The problem isn’t with our North Korea policy.
The problem is with the refusal of elements within the Bush administration—perhaps at the highest level--to come to terms with their failure on North Korea, and the unwillingness of much of the media and Congress to question, investigate, or even think about that.
The big screwup at the heart of our North Korea problem is that at the beginning of its second term the Bush administration committed itself to an aggressive effort to isolate North Korea from the international financial community in the service of a policy of...
...well, nobody really knows.
The easy answer is regime change.
But I had this interesting exchange with Onefreekorea, a vociferously pro regime-change website on the issue of the Six Party Agreement (the “February surrender”):
As an occasional reader, I was struck by your statement:
To them, our February surrender reaffirmed that Their Way prevailed and Our Way — a policy of regime change by pressure that in fact never really existed — has been abandoned.
If “Our Way” never really existed, what was “our” actual policy before Chris Hill & Company took control?
Can you clarify? Thanks!
As I stated above, a policy of regime change by pressure that in fact never really existed
I think what in fact really existed, though it was initially opposed by some, was a policy of continuing the Clinton policy of pursuing an Agreed Framework, on slightly less gullible terms.
I agree with his observation.
I think the Bush administration wasn’t prepared to make a full-court press on regime change remotely approaching what we did on Iraq
However for the sake of political expediency in pandering to the conservative political base, President Bush gave free reign to a purely economic campaign of isolation and destabilization against North Korea led by John Bolton, coordinated by David Asher, and executed by Robert Joseph at the State Department and Stuart Leavey at Treasury.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a lazy internal justification for the half-a-loaf policy, as in “If they can achieve the results they are promising, then President Bush will go before the American people, our allies, and the UN and do what it takes to finish the job”.
Trouble is, achieving true financial isolation and an internal crisis in North Korea through the aggressive application of economic sanctions alone was a fundamentally unviable policy.
The Chinese and North Korean regimes have many differences, but they have a shared interest in preventing the establishment of a pro-American regime in North Korea through coup, collapse, or insurrection.
And as long as China was keeping North Korea’s economic lifeline open, a campaign of financial isolation was doomed to failure.
The fatal piece of hubris by the hardliners was to assume that “will” could trump “skill” and circumstance, and a determined escalation of the confrontation to involve China would compel the Bush administration to back their policy and force Beijing to blink and abandon North Korea.
It appears that the hardliners chose Macau as a point of attack, both to cut off North Korean access from the international financial system at an important node, and to threaten China with sanctions against its banks.
So in September 2005, the hardliners announced a Patriot Act Section 311 investigation against Banco Delta Asia as a demonstration project to “kill the chicken in order to scare the [Chinese] monkey”—words of exquisite self-delusion by David Asher that will probably be carved on the headstone of the Bush administration’s failed North Korea policy.
And then, quietly and inevitably, the wheels came off.
The North Koreans walked out of the Six Party talks, as the hardliners probably hoped they would.
But the Chinese didn’t blink, for hundreds of millions of good reasons—China’s size and strategic importance, the US debt it holds and buys, and the value of the trade between it and America.
And the North Koreans didn’t come back to the international scene until they had a powerful new bargaining chip—an atomic bomb they had hastened to completion during their absence from the talks.
The hardliners attempted to use the outrage to rally international support for an anti-North Korea united front, but failed miserably.
A UN resolution condemned and sanctioned North Korea, but Chinese and Russian vigilance ensured that it could not be used as a pretext for escalation.
John Bolton energetically if misleadingly and futilely promoted the resolution as an endorsement for a broad campaign of economic warfare against North Korea under the banner of the Proliferation Security Initiative.
Condoleezza Rice dutifully jetted around the world trying to rally support for an aggressive anti-Pyongyang policy, but in Asia could only count on Japan, Australia, and Singapore.
President Bush squandered his diminished political capital after the November mid-term elections in a fruitless attempt to advance the hardline agenda at the APEC conference, but South Korea’s pointed refusal to abandon its Sunshine Policy of engagement for PSI-driven confrontation probably signaled the death knell for the US effort.
So Bush dumped the hardline policy and let the realist team of Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill take over.
They held direct discussions with North Korea in Berlin in January; then they let China orchestrate the Six Party talks, midwife the agreement, and strengthen China’s claim to hegemony over the affairs of the Korean peninsula.
After this debacle, the hardliners retired to lick their wounds and consider their options.
It couldn’t have been easy.
Their policies had turned out disastrously.
They had grossly misjudged their ability to construct a global web of economic sanctions against North Korea—and compounded their perhaps willfully wishful thinking with an over-estimation of how far the Bush administration would back them on China.
Failure was virtually preordained.
And that failure had consequences: it strengthened the position of China, alienated South Korea, and given US foreign policy an image of incompetent intransigence.
And, most damagingly of all, this failure had resulted in the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear weapons power—a genuine policy disaster.
The hardliners have been toying with Dolchstoss (stabbed in the back) memes to explain their failure, but there are so many knives in their back—from the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Russians, the realists, Bush himself—they look like pin cushions.
Going after their numerous enemies would only emphasizes how isolated and discredited the hardliners are.
A source of continual hardliner concern must be worrying about getting blamed for letting Kim Jung Il get The Bomb.
Condoleezza Rice pointedly fired a shot across their bow in early March with a studiously orchestrated campaign of leaks, backgrounders, and Congressional testimony designed to assert that John Bolton’s hyping of North Korea’s (possibly nonexistent) highly enriched uranium program triggered an excessively confrontational policy that led to Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the talks and assembly and test of their bomb.
If the intent was to forestall an attack by the hardliners that Appeasers Incorporated a.k.a. Rice, Hill, & Company had sold out the interests of the United States for the North Korea deal, it seems to be working.
But it looks like the hardliners are still working fanatically and almost overtly to sabotage the Six Party Agreement by preventing the resolution of the Banco Delta Asia matter.
Perhaps they believe that the only way to escape condemnation for a policy that strengthened China and gave North Korea the bomb is to make the alternative policy fail.
Then they can return to their self-assigned roles of being the voices of truth, righteousness, and realism—and power-- on Asian policy.
If you’re keeping track, that’s faulty logic.
No amount of sabotage of the Six Party Agreement will vindicate the hardline policy.
To their eternal discredit, the hardliners haven’t stopped trying...
...even though the North Koreans, apparently confident of their advantageous position, refuse to bite on the series of provocations and delays the hardliners have thrown up.
On the simple matter of resolving the issue of frozen North Korean accounts in Banco Delta Asia, the hardliners have apparently engaged in a three month campaign using government rulings, secret briefings, prevarication, and procrastination—and spinmeistering to the US media--in an attempt to stall remittance of the funds and sabotage the Six Party Agreement
By now, the North Koreans and the world financial and diplomatic community are simply standing on the sidelines observing the ridiculous battle the Bush administration is engaged in—with itself.
And now we get the first murmurings from the mainstream media that Treasury’s refusal to expedite the Banco Delta Asia agreement—an absolute anomaly in an administration that subscribes to the theory of the unitary executive and the unchecked right of the President to set policy—has its roots in a dark and familiar place: the office of the Vice President.
U.S. government officials first disclosed the request made to Wachovia. Treasury officials declined to comment, but sources said that many officials are dismayed that the administration is now asking a major U.S. bank to work around an order issued two months ago. Some White House officials have also objected to using a U.S. bank, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supports the possible deal with Wachovia. (Glenn Kessler, Transfer of N. Korean funds sought, Washington Post, May 17, 2007)
As I blogged on May 17:
First time, by the way, I’ve seen a report that “White House officials” and not just Treasury Department types are opposing the BDA deal.I’d guess you’d have to say the only “White House official” who has the juice on Asian matters to oppose Condoleezza Rice—President Bush’s favorite apparatchik—and blithely shrug off the humiliating two month farce this has become for US diplomacy is probably Vice President Cheney.
The indefatigable Vice President Cheney, by the way, apparently used his recent trip to Asia in an ad hoc, off the reservation effort to will a new Asian anti-China coalition into existence.
Cheney’s continued defiant willfulness could strike a blow at the cherished doctrine of the unitary executive, which shelters all actions of the executive branch under the umbrella of presidential prerogative.
In the matter of the vendetta against Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame, Cheney’s lawyers made the jaw-dropping defense that any actions he took to defame Wilson and expose Plame were protected by his unique Constitutional position as a quasi-President—which gave him the right to define and defend “policy”, by outing CIA agents and orchestrating press campaigns against his critics if necessary.
If Cheney tries that argument to justify interference in the North Korean issue—where he is apparently undermining an explicit administration diplomatic initiative—it would be clear his objective was not to promote policy: he would be seen defying presidential policy to enhance his influence, preserve his power, and maintain his ability to act with impunity.
By highlighting the sordid contradiction between power-grubbing reality and the Hegelian ideal of the unitary executive, we might be as close to a constitutional crisis as we’re likely to get with this anything-goes administration.
Leaving aside the pulse-quickening question of whether the North Korean question could finally put the kibosh on Dick Cheney, the issue before us is this:
Perhaps the BDA story has become so ridiculous—and its role in the political maneuvers of a rogue clique within the administration sabotaging this country’s foreign policy in order to regain its influence and initiative so apparent-- that journalists and Congressional investigators will finally say:
It’s not a case of where there’s smoke there’s fire. Here we have the smoldering embers of a colossal bonfire of failure and delusion.
Well, maybe they won’t.
My preferred explanation for why the main media outlets, with the exception of McClatchy, don’t use their squishy cranial matter to make sense out of the ludicrous Banco Delta Asia story, instead of mindlessly transcribing anonymous administration backgrounders:
Journalists don’t want to see truth used in the service of evil.
Clear-eyed critical reporting by the mainstream outlets could have undercut US and international political support for the invasion of Iraq; but very few journalists and editors were ready to assume the moral responsibility of prolonging the reign of Saddam Hussein by reporting on the factual and logical deficiencies of the Bush administration’s case.
It’s easier to say, Their guy’s bad and I’ll give our guy the benefit of the doubt in my reporting, even if his facts look a bit dodgy.
Same with North Korea.
We’re supposed to let the North Koreans get some money tied up in a sanctioned bank in Macau as a confidence-building measure so the Six Party Agreement on nuclear disarmament can proceed.
The stated cause for the two month delay is absurd: that a Treasury rule under Patriot Act Section 311—a rule that can be revised or discarded through secret, unilateral deliberations—is somehow binding the hands of the most authoritarian executive in recent American presidential history .
But the media seems to be acutely aware of the embarrassment and the possible moral cost of providing aid and comfort to the toadlike Kim Jung Il by taking cognizance of the fact that our North Korea policy is built on bullsh*t.
So one can almost feel the strain of cognitive dissonance that’s making the sweat pop out on the foreheads of journalists as they try to blame the North Koreans for the fact that we won’t give their money back to them:
QUESTION: Given that it's been a month since the April 14th deadline and initially you were saying that you would give it days and that your time was not infinite, your patience wasn't infinite. What have you heard from the North Koreans besides the fact that they intend to meet their February 13th obligations, about how they're actively working to resolve the BDA issue?
QUESTION: But when you say the time was not infinite before, are there any kind of punishments for North Korea if they don't move quickly on this?
QUESTION: What do you see that gives you confidence that they are trying to work through it?
That’s enough for one day (May 15) at the State Department press briefing.
The Democrats have a similar problem on the issue of oversight. Beyond the immediate political desirability of looking tough on Kim Jung Il, Democrats are probably enamored of Patriot Act Section 311 sanctions as the prime example of the virtuous, consensual soft-power coercion they expect to apply as their primary diplomatic tool in the post-Bush era.
Also, with our hard-power forces bogged down in Iraq, financial sanctions look like one of the few effective weapons left in our arsenal—ones that should not be weakened by public criticism.
Blogs like China Matters, of course, don’t wield any political influence, so we don’t have the weight of the world on our shoulders.
We can follow the story—and the truth—where it leads.
But it’s also the right way.
Governments don’t lie just for the sake of speed and efficiency.
They lie because they haven’t managed to address real problems, because if these problems were revealed and discussed, our leaders might become discredited and lose the political initiative
Sometimes these are problems that can’t be solved. Sometimes the problems could have been solved but the lie has forestalled public scrutiny, so the caravan can move onto the next problem—and maybe the next lie...
...and the next, and the next...
...until the consequences of all those successful lies—the fatal accretion of faulty assumptions and failed policies--come home to roost.
What I believe we have on the BDA matter is a small clique trying to sabotage our current North Korean policy, not because it has a better policy, but because it wants to avoid accountability and responsibility for a policy that has already failed.
And I think the media and Congress should go after it.
It’s not an issue of giving Kim Jung Il a hand.
It’s a matter of helping the United States get out of a jam that the hardliners put us in—and perversely want to keep us in.
There’s no point anymore in giving failure the benefit of the doubt—or the protection of willfully obtuse and credulous coverage.