[VIEWPOINT]The U.S. election and Northeast Asia

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[VIEWPOINT]The U.S. election and Northeast Asia

With the U.S. elections just a year away, it is a good time to consider the president’s prospects for re-election, and the impact the campaign may have on U.S. policy in Northeast Asia. While most U.S. presidential elections turn on pocketbook issues, foreign policy concerns occasionally have been decisive. This could be such a year, because we are involved in a war. The public is deeply polarized, and the campaign may well exacerbate the deep partisan divide.
Democratic hopes for recapturing the White House appear to rest heavily on these suppositions. The electorate remains more or less evenly divided between the major parties ― Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 ― and, with President Bush’s job approval ratings falling, leading Democratic candidates see no reason why they cannot do the same in 2004.
While the economy is showing some signs of life, few jobs are being created, and the anxieties that still accompany a “jobless recovery” may help Democrats mobilize their political base. The continued fighting in Iraq is turning the president’s apparent strength on national security issues into a potential liability.
Yet Karl Rove, President Bush’s closest political adviser, is probably having more good days than bad. The Republicans control the White House, Senate and House, and the Republican Party did well in the 2002 midterm elections. All signs suggest that the economy should be strong next year, which favors the incumbent.
While the Iraq situation has been slipping badly, the administration hopes that its plans to accelerate training of Iraqi security forces and transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis by next June will provide a plausible basis for stabilizing the situation. Thus, while neither peace nor prosperity is assured next year, most of the visible advantages favor Mr. Bush’s re-election.
What might this mean for U.S. policy on Korea? The Democrats see this as a potential issue, and if the North continues to cross “red lines” en route to a visible nuclear capability, they will naturally criticize the administration for its preoccupation with Iraq, where no weapons of mass destruction have yet turned up, and its passivity, aside from rhetorical hyperbole, toward North Korea. Further North Korean provocations pose potential political as well as strategic risks for the administration. When things go wrong, it is the incumbent who bears the responsibility.
The administration has emphasized its determination to resolve the North Korean issue peacefully, and can point to some diplomatic success in shifting the venue to six-party talks and prodding North Korea’s neighbors, especially China, into playing more active roles. The need to energize its generally conservative party faithful will probably limit the administration’s options in coming months. It must avoid steps that raise the risks of conflict at a time when it has its hands full in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Yet Mr. Bush will presumably wish to avoid any impression that he is considering any deal that looks very much like the 1994 Agreed Framework, which its critics have characterized as akin to “blackmail” and, worse yet, “blackmail” that did not work. Thus the administration may wind up playing a defensive, diplomatic “waiting game” on this issue through election day. Will conditions on the Korean Peninsula permit this? Stay tuned.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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