North Korea and Iran are getting aid from unexpected allies in the international negotiations over their illicit nuclear weapons programs. Meet the new superpowers of diplomacy: Katrina and Rita.

A decision by the Bush administration not to press for economic sanctions against oil-producing Iran was sealed by the destructive force that the two hurricanes targeted on U.S. refining facilities and the resulting leap in crude oil and gasoline prices.

"We were already moving toward asking the Security Council to do no more than put Iran's nuclear program on its agenda for constant review and prodding," says a senior European official. "The prospect of a call for sanctions driving oil above $100 a barrel seemed to kill any lingering enthusiasm in Washington for such a move now."

North Korea also benefits from nature's violent intervention in power politics. When push came to shove last week in efforts by China to keep the six-party talks in Beijing alive, a distracted White House, engulfed in the human, economic and political disasters created by Katrina and threatened by Rita, had neither the stomach nor the time for new confrontation in Asia.

That left room for diplomats to reach a slippery "agreement" that commits the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia to keep on talking, even if only to argue over what they said at their last meeting. Buying time is probably the best outcome available at this point. But the hiatus is not likely to endure.

Don't bother arguing whether North Korea's Kim Jong Il would "keep" the more binding but theoretical accord that the Chinese outlined and that Washington and Pyongyang did not reject immediately. He would not.

The North Korean leader uses his nuclear arsenal as a tool of economic blackmail. He must constantly cheat just enough on his current deal to ensure future payments. Isolated and somewhat loony, Kim is not suicidal. That was the news out of Beijing last week.

So the real debate for U.S. foreign policy is not whether the Bush administration can trust Kim but whether it can trust its four partners in the talks -- or rather induce them to share the costs of renting Kim until history bypasses him, or to help enforce a collective program of punishment if and when he relapses. That is the framework for viewing the next steps to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions as well.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice succeeded in making Iran and North Korea, rather than the Bush administration, the focus of attention and blame for the lack of real progress in the separate negotiations. She had enough self-confidence to get out of the way -- to let China take the lead on North Korea and to support Britain, France and Germany on Iran. Keeping those countries implicated in successes or disasters to come is key to reworking a global strategy against proliferation.

As hard as it may be to remember now -- after the administration's frequently shifting rationales for its behavior and the agonies of a misbegotten occupation -- the invasion of Iraq was intended to launch an assertive new doctrine of counterproliferation. It was intended to reshape international behavior and prevent "axis of evil" countries or their allies from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies.

The nuclear genie was out of the bottle, President Bush was saying in 2002 when he designated Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an axis. What was important was the nature of the regime that had the weapons. That was the key variable for Bush.

But the draining experience of Iraq -- exacerbated by the disastrous hurricane season of 2005 -- leaves the Bush administration less ready and able to take on new confrontations abroad and more ready to give diplomacy and international cooperation new latitude. That was the bigger picture that last week's diplomatic maneuverings helped form.

Bush was not wrong about the dangers of turning a blind eye to proliferation. After all, the charges that the Europeans and Asians level against Iran and North Korea form precisely the legal case that the administration made against Saddam Hussein: The Iranians and North Koreans also have hidden evidence and lied about their unconventional weapons programs in defiance of U.N. obligations.

Other countries argue that Iraq showed that Washington alone could not bring into being a workable new global strategy against proliferation and then force the rest of the world to accept it. They have a point. But they also now have an obligation to produce an effective alternative to the obsolete U.N. controls as well as to the Bush approach.


The German fertility rate used in Thursday's column should have been stated as 1.5 children per couple, not as 1.5 percent. The replacement rate is therefore 2.1 children per couple.