George W. Bush ends the year with a genuine nuclear crisis on his hands. He has been assiduously trying to foment one with Iraq, dropping bombs on the country and expletives on its leader. But North Korea, which is not just suspected of working on the bomb but of having at least two, has muscled Saddam Hussein off the front pages and made our crusade against Baghdad seem crass: We're starting a war not just for oil or for Ariel Sharon but because we can win it.
North Korea is a different story. It has a million men under arms. It has a built-in hostage situation at hand in the presence of 37,000 U.S. soldiers who guard South Korea. Kim Jong Il, the Communist leader of North Korea, almost makes Saddam Hussein look like Rotarian of the Year. While Hussein is welcoming U.N. arms inspectors, Kim is throwing them out. He has dismantled the international surveillance equipment installed by a treaty in 1994; he has announced he is going to make all the weapons-grade plutonium he wants. He is, in short, behaving like the radioactive lunatic he is.
And what is George W. Bush, defender of the free world, scourge of terrorists, doing about all this? As of this moment, nothing.
As far as we can see, he seems to feel that not speaking to the North Koreans is the solution. "Isolation" and "marginalization" will bring these rogues to heel? A leader who will starve his own people to feed his military machine, whose father invaded his neighbor, who shows no acquaintance with reality, will be cowed by a snub from Washington?
The president has asked North Korea's neighbors to warn Kim Jong Il of the consequences of his horrendous behavior. Up to now, the Japanese have reported themselves as scared to death. Russia and China seem to have a million other things to do. The incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), says we should "talk and talk and talk" to the outlaws. His is a lone voice.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld exhibited a reflex swagger response. The North Koreans better watch out. They mustn't think for a minute we couldn't wage war against them. Just in time for Christmas, he brought our war list up to three -- the one against al Qaeda, which we seem to have forgotten, the one brewing in Iraq -- and now Pyongyang?
We should perhaps remember that President Bush has never liked talking to Koreans. His first overseas visitor was the estimable Kim Dae Jung, whom Bush snubbed.
Bush, as he was eager to demonstrate, was not a fan. Kim's sin? He was instituting a sunshine policy with the North, ending a half-century of estrangement. Bush, who looked upon North Korea as the most potent argument for his obsession to build a national missile defense, saw Kim, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, as nothing but trouble. He sent him home humiliated and empty-handed.
Kim's successor, Roh Moo Hyun, may be even worse. He is a passionate advocate of the sunshine policy, and he seeks "a more mature relationship" with the United States -- bad news for Bush.
This ugly international set-to occurs just when the president has scored his most dazzling domestic political triumph. The hullabaloo over Trent Lott, the prospective leader of the Senate, was caused by Lott's letting the cat out of the bag on the subject of the Republicans' covert Southern strategy. Lott told a birthday party for Strom Thurmond what everyone has always known: The strategy was based on race. Republicans were mortified.
Then Bush apprentice Karl Rove stepped in and saved the day. Bush and Rove engineered Lott's resignation and the substitution of glamorous Bill Frist of Tennessee, literally a medicine man, who spends his off-time flying his own plane to Africa to minister to AIDS patients. Bush issued a sharp criticism of Lott's remarks and nourished the Frist boomlet into a surge, all the while insisting through his spokesman that he did not think Lott should resign.
Republicans are delighted. In an assembly largely given over to small minds and big egos, Frist's aura as a healer and his proclivity for rendering first aid on Capitol Hill make him a romantic figure. It's like getting Lord Byron on your condo board.
The finesse of the operation was universally applauded. The qualities displayed -- the regard for the other guy's sensibilities, the willingness to forgo credit, are ones that can be successful in foreign policy negotiations. Bush could never send Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton to represent him in the deadly and proliferating tension in North Korea -- he blames them for coddling Pyongyang. But he might send Karl Rove. He knows how the game is played.