Why Can't the US Apply Its New North Korea Policy to Iran?
by Leon Hadar
historical narrative of US 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 was not for the terrorist attacks on New York and
Washington, the current White House's approach towards the world
would have followed the more traditional internationalist stance
adopted by former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush.
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 in the earlier weeks of the
administration and had nothing to do with Iraq, Iran and the Middle
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
when he 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
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 towards 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 US policy towards
North Korea has proved to be a major diplomatic loser. North Korea
withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The six-party
talks have been going nowhere and South Korea and China have rejected
US demands to isolate the North Koreans. Moreover, North Korea's
ability to continue in 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 US 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 and thus making
it even more costly for Washington to attack it. So the time has
apparently come to face the harsh reality of a US 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.
the Bushies, according to the Times, suggest that Washington
would be 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 would 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 try to place obstacles on
the way of the realists in the State Department.
that would probably be raised in the coming weeks in Washington
and other world capitals is: if the US 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 towards Iran?
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit
© 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.