Friday, March 02, 2007

Emperor Tomato Ketchup

The President of the United States is an excessively imprudent leader. OK, that might be somewhat hyperbolic, but there is ample evidence to suggest that the Bush administration has continued to implement a foreign policy that is unduly influenced by political capriciousness and a partisan pettiness that belies the seriousness of the issues in play.

The most recent glimpse of this unseemly underbelly comes courtesy of Bush administration statements regarding North Korea's uranium enrichment program - or, interestingly enough, lack thereof. The short story is that the Bush administration used the discovery of a covert uranium enrichment program five years ago as an excuse to walk away from the Agreed Framework arrangement with North Korea implemented during the Clinton administration. The recent deal with North Korea struck by the Bush administration closely mirrors that same Agreed Framework that Bush abandoned five years ago on the pretense of North Korea's improper uranium enrichment activities.

Bush administration sources are now admitting that evidence of an actual, functional uranium enrichmnent program is, and always was, rather dubious and uncertain.

Rather than based on North Korea's malfeasance (even if true, it would have made more sense to make the Agreed Framework more muscular rather than scrap it altogether), the Bush administration's rejection of the Agreed Framework was rooted in an almost child-like view of foreign policy - as enunciated by Dick Cheney: "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it." In addition to this naive bravado, there was an almost monomaniacal preoccupation with rejecting anything that the Clinton team had done simply because it had the Clinton taint, regardless of the merits of the actual policy.

The implications of this fecklessness are enormous, because after we pulled out of the Agreed Framework, North Korea amassed a nuclear arsenal that did not exist beforehand. Josh Marshall gives an excellent rundown (hilzoy's also worth a look):

The big issue with North Korea has always been their plutonium production. Back in 1994, they were on the brink of being able to produce bombs with the plutonium they were making. The US came close to war with the North Koreans over it. But the two countries settled on something called the 'Agreed Framework' in which the North Koreans' plutonium production operation was shuttered and placed under international inspection in exchange for fuel oil shipments and assistance building 'light water' nuclear reactors.

We don't need to get into the details of the agreement at the moment. The relevant point is that from 1994 to 2002 the North Korean nuclear weapons program was frozen in place. The strong consensus judgment was that they had not yet made any nuclear weapons. And during that period they could not access the plutonium they had already produced.

It was on the basis of this alleged uranium enrichment program -- which may well not even have existed -- that the US pulled out of that agreement. This allowed the North Koreans to get back into the plutonium business with a gusto. And they have since produced -- by most estimates -- at least a hand full of nuclear weapons, one of which, albeit a rather feeble one, they detonated last October.

So now let's review that quote from the senior administration official: "The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently."

Frankly, it's not much of a question.

Because of a [uranium based] weapons program that may not even have existed (and no one ever thought was far advanced) the White House got the North Koreans to restart their plutonium program and then sat by while they produced a half dozen or a dozen real nuclear weapons -- not the Doug Feith/John Bolton kind, but the real thing.

It's a screw-up that staggers the mind. And you don't even need to know this new information to know that. Even if the claims were and are true, it was always clear that the uranium program was far less advanced than the plutonium one, which would be ready to produce weapons soon after it was reopened. Now we learn the whole thing may have been a phantom. Like I said, it staggers the mind how badly this was bungled. In this decade there's been no stronger force for nuclear weapons proliferation than the dynamic duo of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

Fred Kaplan (via Kevin Drum) also takes note of the counterproductive results of the Bush administration approach - one that has led to a nuclear North Korea (or, under the most generous interpretation that speculates that North Korea had one nuclear weapon already, a North Korea with many more nukes). But he goes further in describing the broader damage done to our credibility, and one of the root causes of the error: the inverted emphasis of politics over policy. A disturbing dynamic that former Bush administration insiders John DiIulio and Paul O'Neil warned us about so many years ago to little avail.

...[This revelation] shows that Bush and his people will say anything, no matter whether it's true, in order to shore up a political point. It means that U.S. intelligence has become completely corrupted.

It would be nice to know whether Iran is supplying Iraqi insurgents with particularly deadly explosives. It would be nice to know how far along the Iranians are coming with their (quite real) enriched-uranium program. It would be nice to know lots of things about this dangerous world. Or it would, at least, be nice to have a true sense of how much our intelligence agencies know about such things.

But we don't know how much these agencies know, because we can have no confidence in what the Bush administration tells us they know.

Why are senior officials suddenly saying that North Korea might not have an enriched-uranium program? No new information has come to light on the issue. They are saying this for one reason: President Bush recently agreed to a nuclear deal with the North Koreans; the deal says nothing about enriched uranium (it requires them only to freeze their plutonium-bomb program); so, in order to stave off the flood of criticism from Bush's conservative base, senior officials are saying that the enriched uranium was never a big deal to begin with.

It's unclear whether it was, or is, a big deal or not. But President Bush and his aides consistently claimed it was a big deal from October 2002 until just this week. It was such a big deal to them that they cited it as justification for pulling out of President Clinton's 1994 "Agreed Framework" accord, which had kept North Korea's nuclear reactor under constant monitoring by international inspectors and its nuclear fuel rods kept under lock and key. [...]

It is indisputable that North Koreans had centrifuges. It is not known—and has never been known—whether they've assembled these centrifuges into a cascade that could enrich uranium or, if they have, whether they've enriched any.

However, in October 2002, when Bush was looking for any excuse to back out of the Agreed Framework, senior officials said the evidence of enriched uranium was strong.

Now, four and a half years later, when Bush is looking for reasons to justify a deal that's remarkably similar to the Agreed Framework (except it's not quite as tight, and the North Koreans have since become a nuclear-armed nation), senior officials are saying the evidence of enriched uranium is weak.

The evidence has always been ambiguous. Before, they hyped it to justify what they wanted to do. Now, they're downplaying it to justify what they've done.

The most chilling thing that Kaplan mentions, though, is that this administration still has 690 days to go. Does anyone know if Ambien makes a pill strong enough to knock me out that long?

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