Rare Bush success leaves sour taste

Posted in Koreas , United States | 01-Jul-08 | Author: Jim Lobe| Source: Asia Times

U.S. President George W. Bush gestures while giving a statement on North Korea at the White House in Washington June 26, 2008.

WASHINGTON - While, in his dreams, US President George W Bush might have seen a "Mission Accomplished" banner unfurled as the cooling tower at North Korea's plutonium-producing plant was blown up, Friday's internationally televised fireworks at Yongbyon offered merely a glimmer of possible success in a foreign policy legacy that seems to be getting darker by the day.

Indeed, a week that was supposed to end on the bright note of Friday's demolition produced instead a steady drumbeat of more bad news from overseas, not to mention the steep slide in US stock markets fueled in part by the continuing rise in the price of oil.

Increased North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)casualties in Afghanistan and the admission by a top US general that violence there has mushroomed by 40% this year have added to the impression that Washington and its NATO allies are losing the war there and that Bush's decision to divert resources and manpower from Afghanistan to the Iraq invasion constituted a major strategic error.

Reports from Pakistan have added to that impression. Growing friction between the US and Pakistani militaries, the latter's failure to prevent infiltration by the Taliban into Afghanistan, and the apparent extension of the influence of Pakistan's own Taliban beyond the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to the very outskirts of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, have persuaded a growing number of experts that South Asia, rather than Iraq, is indeed the central front in Bush's "war against terror".

Even in Iraq, the news over the past week has not been kind to Bush. A major new study by the US Congress' investigatory arm charged that the apparent progress made by the "surge" strategy in reducing violence over the past year remained highly fragile. Key concerns are the government's continuing failure to implement legislation designed to promote national reconciliation and the Iraqi army's inability to fill the security vacuum left by the withdrawal of some 25,000 "surge" troops by the end of this month.

Indeed, the last week witnessed a sudden resurgence of deadly attacks by mainly Sunni insurgents targeted at key US-backed tribal chiefs and local officials after a period of almost unprecedented calm. US casualties also rose sharply, suggesting that the administration's claims that it has turned the corner in Iraq remain premature at best.

Meanwhile, the virtual collapse of hopes for cementing a groundbreaking nuclear accord with India that the administration has long touted as one of the greatest geostrategic achievements in its seven-and-a-half years in power marked yet another major - if not little-noticed - setback to Bush's foreign policy legacy.

The one relatively bright spot in last week's events was in North Korea, one of the three charter members of Bush's "axis of evil", which, despite the president's pledges to prevent it from obtaining atomic weapons, exploded a nuclear device in October 2006.

Friday's demolition culminated a choreographed series of reciprocal and parallel measures that began when North Korea submitted a 60-page account of its plutonium program to China on Thursday. However, even Bush himself clearly recognized that it constituted only a wary, if spectacular, start to what will be a protracted and highly uncertain process that will take much, much longer than the seven months he has left in his presidency.

Announcing that he will remove Pyongyang from the US State Department's blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism and exempt it from the sanctions required by the "Trading With the Enemy" Act, Bush on Thursday acknowledged that the latest moves brought the US only "one step" in a "multi-step process" closer to its goal of de-nuclearizing the North.

"The United States has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang," he said. "We remain deeply concerned about North Korea's human-rights abuses, uranium-enrichment activities, nuclear testing and proliferation, ballistic missile programs, and the threat it continues to pose to South Korea and its neighbors."

Bush's decision to go along with the deal - and especially to personally announce it in the White House Rose Garden - constituted a major victory for the administration's "realist" faction over the hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who has long favored "regime change" in Pyongyang and repeatedly blocked efforts by secretaries of state Colin Powell and then Condoleezza Rice to engage North Korea bilaterally.

Bush, who, after taking office announced that he "loathe[d]" North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, sided with Cheney, although he later went along with the formation of the six-party talks. The talks, a multilateral mechanism chaired by China that also includes Russia, South Korea and Japan, were aimed at negotiating an accord under which the North would dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for aid, security guarantees and eventual normalization of relations with the US and Japan.

Despite early agreement on its goals, the talks only gained traction after the North exploded its nuclear device, an action that clouded Bush's pledge to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power.

In January 2007, Rice persuaded Bush to permit her chief Asia aide, Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill, to meet directly with a senior North Korean envoy to hatch a deal that was formalized in a new six-party accord the following month.

The deal provided that Pyongyang would deliver a full accounting of its nuclear weapons program and disable the Yongbyon plant by the end of 2007 as the first stage of the de-nuclearization process. In exchange, Washington would remove it from the terrorism list and lift several other sanctions, enabling it to receive much more and much-needed external aid. After many delays and more bilateral meetings, that initial accord was finally completed - more or less - last week.

But the reaction in Washington has been less than enthusiastic, not only because of the delay, but also because Pyongyang's accounting reportedly does not include several items which critics on both the right and the left believe are critical to a credible de-nuclearization process.

High on the list are specifics regarding the number of nuclear weapons the North has developed; the details of what Washington believes is or was a uranium-enrichment project distinct from the Yongbyon plutonium program; and an accounting of any transfers of nuclear technology to other countries, including Syria, where a suspected nuclear plant was leveled by Israeli war planes last September.

Smith and the State Department insist that these items will be addressed during the next stage of the six-party talks, which are expected to get underway in the coming weeks.

They will focus on the terms for Pyongyang giving up its nuclear equipment and, ultimately, its weapons, which, the administration has said, will be a pre-condition for full normalization of relations. But the North has indicated that it won't even discuss surrendering its weapons - of which there are believed to be as many as eight - until after the US normalizes ties.

All analysts agree that the road ahead will be long and hard, making North Korea yet another major foreign policy problem - and potential crisis - that Bush will leave to his successor.

Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

(Inter Press Service.)