The Bush position on North Korea is in total collapse. In less than a month we have gone from "tailored containment" to shoeless appeasement. It usually takes longer.
It began when the Bush administration responded to North Korea's brazen nuclear breakout by immediately -- and explicitly -- taking the military option off the table. This was a serious mistake. There was no need to bluff, but there was equally no need to advertise our helplessness. Not even Bill Clinton did that when he tried to buy off Kim Il Sung nine years ago. Clinton at least held out the possibility of destroying the plutonium plant in Yongbyon.
Instead, the Bush administration came up with a new policy of "tailored containment." One has the image of a nicely trimmed, neatly hemmed, shoulder-padded straitjacket for the deranged Kim Jong Il.
Economic sanctions and political isolation were not bad ideas. Yet when South Korea and China criticized them and North Korea threatened war if sanctions were imposed, the administration took a huge dive. Within days, the vaunted program of nonmilitarily squeezing North Korea into compliance went down the memory hole. You hear not a word about it today.
Instead, we went into high appeasement mode. As in the classic kind of the 1930s, every violation, every threat from the enemy was met with yet more conciliation. The logic for taking the military option off the table was not just that our preoccupation with Iraq would make the threat not credible -- in which case we should at least have said nothing about it, rather than explicitly renouncing it (ambiguity, even implausible ambiguity, is preferable to renunciation) -- but also that the North Koreans were motivated by paranoia and fear of American power and thus would be reassured and more pliant if we told them they had nothing to fear.
On the contrary. When President Bush went out of his way -- repeatedly, in fact -- to promise that the United States would not invade, North Korea became decidedly, aggressively more bold and threatening. The North Korean leaders may be crazy but they are not stupid. They know we're not going to invade. So our public renunciation of force wasn't reassurance, it was a sign of weakness -- not only to the North Koreans but, even more important, to our allies.
When the allies, accordingly, then came out against even "tailored containment," our new line of resistance became: no rewards, no talks until North Korea stops its nuclear program. The Maginot Line held longer than this one. North Korea having expelled nuclear inspectors and declared that it would restart its plutonium reprocessing plant, the administration announced that it was, after all, willing to talk with the North Koreans.
In the very midst of these talks, North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The next day, it got bolder and threatened to resume testing and exporting missiles, and, just to emphasize who is dictating terms to whom, North Korea threatened "holy war," a true innovation for an officially atheist country.
Our response? On Monday, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly announced that if North Korea plays nice it can count on assistance "in the energy area." So much for no rewards.
It gets worse. The day after Kelly's cave-in, the president quadrupled the ante, offering a "bold initiative" of not only energy assistance but also economic aid, and eventually even diplomatic agreements and security guarantees.
This goes far beyond carrots. This is cake with the cherry on top. Moreover, it is futile. No carrot or confection will stop the North Korean nuclear program. Hitler said he wanted Lebensraum. He did. He was not looking for reassurance. Pyongyang says it wants the bomb. It does. It is not looking for reassurance. Of course North Korea will take blackmail money, too. Why not? But it will not give up its nuclear program in exchange. Some of us said that when the last phony deal was struck in 1994. How many times does Lucy get to pull away the football?
What to do? It is obvious that, at least until Iraq is settled, nonbelligerence is warranted. We simply cannot handle two military crises at once. But there is a difference between avoiding war and total collapse. We should be talking about sanctions, not rewards. John McCain, calling (with other senators) for sanctions, warns against "fail[ing] to grasp the danger of rewarding threats with retreat and concession." The abject Korea cave-in is a threat to American credibility everywhere.
Giving up ground every three days -- sanctions threatened, then sanctions withdrawn; a pledge not to talk, then talks initiated; a pledge of no rewards, then rewards offered and then quadrupled -- is disastrous. Better to say nothing than to keep moving backward.