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May 25, 2006

Why Can't the US Apply Its New North Korea Policy to Iran?


by Leon Hadar

The conventional historical narrative of U.S. President George W. Bush's foreign policy has traced the ascendancy of the neoconservative ideologues in his administration to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the ensuing war in Iraq. The common assumption among analysts is that if it were not for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the current White House's approach toward the world would have followed the more traditional internationalist stance adopted by former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush.

Moreover, most observers assume that the foreign policy hardliners in the Bush administration have focused most of their attention on the Middle East. In fact, that the neoconservatives were emerging as players in devising and implementing President Bush's foreign policy was becoming quite obvious before 9/11 and had nothing to do with Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East.

It was in shaping Washington's policies in East Asia – first on the North Korean issue and later with regard to China – that the neocons demonstrated their willingness to challenge the policies of Mr. Bush's predecessors. Indeed, within days of taking office, the foreign policy hawks in the Bush administration succeeded in making it clear that they were in charge when they humiliated then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had stated that the new administration would continue the Clinton-era policy of engagement with North Korea by providing incentives to Pyongyang in exchange for verifiable steps to end all military nuclear activity.

The hardliners in Vice President Dick Cheney's office and in the Pentagon achieved their first political-bureaucratic victory by getting President Bush to publicly repudiate Mr. Powell and by insisting that the North Korean regime could not be trusted and needed to be "changed." Mr. Powell and the realists in the administration were checkmated by the neocons, to the chagrin of South Korea and China. And that uncompromising stance toward Pyongyang was highlighted a year later during President Bush's State of the Union address when he labeled North Korea, together with soon-to-be-occupied Iraq and (soon-to-be-bombed?) Iran, as a member of the "Axis of Evil."

Six years following that first neocon triumph, it is becoming clear that U.S. policy toward North Korea has proved to be a major diplomatic loser. North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The six-party talks have been going nowhere, and South Korea and China have rejected U.S. demands to isolate the North Koreans. Moreover, North Korea's ability to continue pursuing its nuclear program has led many observers to conclude that Pyongyang has already become a nuclear military power and is now in a position to deter the U.S. from attacking it (a move that, in any case, both Seoul and Beijing oppose).

In a way, Iran's current policy is based on the assumption that all it needs is "to do a North Korea," that is, to be in a position where its nuclear military program has reached a point of no return, thus making it even more costly for Washington to attack it. So the time has apparently come to face the harsh reality of a U.S. diplomatic flop. According to a recent report in the New York Times, the Bush administration has decided to – oops! – reverse its course on North Korea in a way that makes even the Clinton approach seem dovish. (And we're so, so sorry Secretary Powell.)

For all practical purposes, the neocons have already lost the North Korea portfolio, which now seems to be in the hands of the diplomats in the State Department who have persuaded President Bush to accept the Chinese formula of negotiating with the North Koreans on returning to the NPT and a verified scrapping of their nuclear military program in exchange for various "carrots," including security guarantees and the normalization of relations.

Now the Bushies, according to the Times, suggest that Washington is ready to open direct negotiations aimed at reaching a comprehensive peace accord with Pyongyang (a long-standing North Korean demand) as part of the effort to get Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks and end its nuclear military program. It is not clear yet whether the North Koreans will agree to return to the talks. And it is not inconceivable that the hawks in the Bush administration, led by Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, will refuse to admit that they were checkmated and will try to place obstacles in the way of the realists in the State Department.

The question that will probably be raised in the coming weeks in Washington and other world capitals is, if the U.S. is ready to take regime change off the table when it comes to nuclear talks with North Korea and Libya, why not apply the same approach toward Iran?

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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