Where's the Cowboy Talk Now?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 19, 2006; 1:00 PM

What is the single greatest security threat facing our country today?

If you believe esteemed security analysts like Harvard University's Graham Allison , it is that a terrorist organization gets hold of a nuclear weapon and sets it off in an American city.

In the wake of North Korea's nuclear test, that threat has been dramatically heightened. Kim Jong Il is the only leader of a nuclear weapons state who might conceivably consider it in his interests to sell a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden.

So forget for a moment how we got here. Put aside partisan politics. Wouldn't this be a good moment for the American president to draw a very distinct line in the sand?

Wouldn't it be appropriate for him to make clear to the North Koreans that if they do any such thing, they will suffer cataclysmic consequences? Wouldn't this be a good time for some of that famous cowboy talk?

President Bush seemed to be building up to it the day after the North Korean nuclear test, when he said in a statement : "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action."

But at a news conference two days later, on October 11, Bush weakly ducked the question of what the new "red line" was for North Korea. He just wouldn't say.

Last night, ABC News's George Stephanopoulos aggressively questioned Bush on that issue. Here are some video excerpts .

Bush seemed appropriately stern, promising that North Korea would be "held to account" for any transfer of nuclear weapons, and would suffer "grave consequence[s]."

But then he seriously undermined his own rhetoric by likening those consequences to the sanctions recently imposed against North Korea -- sanctions whose implementation, not to mention effectiveness, are very much in question.

Said Bush: "I want the leader to understand, the leader of North Korea to understand that he'll be held to account. Just like he's being held to account now for having run a test."

That's a far cry from, say, threatening a devastating military attack.

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