Pragmatism Trumps Ideology on North Korea

The deal cut with North Korea is only a first step toward a grander bargain that will require White House pragmatists to win out over the ideologues.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her team — led by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill — deserve credit for scoring a major victory in negotiations with North Korea last week. Trading one million tons of heavy fuel oil for North Korea’s plutonium production program, which Pyongyang likely used to produce the fissile core for the atomic weapon it tested late last year, is akin to swapping a journeyman fullback for a star quarterback.

After all, the U.S. and its partners in the negotiations — China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — can get their hands on one million tons of fuel oil any time they need. Gaining international control over North Korea’s budding nuclear weapons program is an altogether different opportunity.

Still, the deal cut in Beijing last week is only a first step towards a grand bargain with North Korea. Whether that grand bargain is achieved over the next few years will depend on North Korea’s sincerity about nuclear disarmament, which is by no means certain. But ultimate success will also require that national security pragmatists within the Bush Administration prevail over the conservative ideologues who blocked or sabotaged negotiations with Pyongyang for six fruitless years.

Former and even current administration officials wasted no time attacking the deal with North Korea, including former UN Ambassador John Bolton, who thoroughly trashed the very idea of negotiations, and deputy national security advisor Elliott Abrams, who objected to a provision of the plan that would remove North Korea from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. These attacks highlight policy divisions that continue to dog the Bush administration and its conservative supporters across Washington.

For more than six years, the Bush administration has been divided between ideologues who think the best way to deal with nuclear weapons proliferation is to overthrow regimes or squeeze them into collapse, and pragmatists who think this approach backfires. The ideologues view negotiations as a reward for bad behavior that will encourage further proliferation. Vice President Cheney and his inner circle, civilian leaders at the Pentagon, and Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph hew to this line.

This faction won most of the internal debates in President Bush’s first term, as the United States either rejected negotiations outright or imposed unrealistic conditions on U.S. participation. In the case of North Korea, the United States had insisted that North Korea freeze its plutonium program before receiving any incentives.

That strategy clearly failed. Proliferation problems worsened almost across the board. North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and tested a nuclear bomb; Iran continues to build uranium enrichment centrifuges; and global confidence in the nuclear nonproliferation regime is waning.

The ideologues’ strategy of confrontation failed because it strengthened the determination of North Korea (and Iran) to acquire nuclear weapons in order to deter military action by the United States without offering countervailing incentives and disincentives.

The credibility of a U.S. threat to overthrow offending regimes, however, dissipated as the insurgency in Iraq began to metastasize. And while the United States can squeeze regimes, it cannot suffocate them without the help of partners, such as China. China, however, rejects the regime change strategy and opposes measures that could end the Kim dynasty in North Korea.

In contrast, pragmatists in the Bush administration view negotiation more practically. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, “You can’t negotiate when you tell the other side, ‘Give us what a negotiation would produce before the negotiations start’.” This means offering a country both incentives and disincentives for renouncing nuclear arms.

He is right. Countries must be backed into a corner, but they must also be offered an attractive way out. That’s what happened with Libya, the Bush administration’s lone success at convincing a country to renounce nuclear weapons. Years of sanctions and isolation had backed the Gaddafi regime into a corner, and the United States and its allies offered it an attractive way out — a grand bargain whereby Libya verifiably renounces nuclear weapons and terrorism in exchange for normalized relations with the United States and Europe.

Last week’s deal with North Korea — which if implemented, will look very much like the deal struck with Libya — appears to put Secretary Rice in this latter, pragmatic camp. But will her faction prevail in the end? According to press accounts, Secretary Rice circumvented the normal interagency policy process to get the deal, knowing that hardliners led by Vice President Cheney and his inner circle would oppose it.

President Bush supports the deal for now, but contentious negotiations with Pyongyang over the core issue — the dismantlement of North Korea’s entire weapons program — lie ahead. We can expect North Korea to drag its feet while raising its demands. Over time, this misbehavior might stoke well-founded doubts that it will ever come clean on its nuclear program. The inevitable bumps along the way will likely present skeptics with ample opportunities to press their case that negotiation is futile.

They may be right. But pragmatism means that we should at least try, knowing that the alternative to negotiation is an ever-growing North Korean stockpile of plutonium for bombs or sale on the nuclear black market.

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