[OUTLOOK]Bush’s 2nd term holds promiseIn February 1972, President Richard Nixon, who had risen to national prominence as a red-baiter in the 1950s, went to China and shook the hand of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, setting in motion the eventual normalization of relations between the United States and China.
Less than a decade later, half a world away, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had cut his teeth in the Irgun, a pre-independence political organization associated with anti-Arab violence, signed a peace treaty with Egypt, establishing for the first time normal relations between Israel and an Arab state.
Although it was greeted with gnashing teeth in many quarters, the re-election of President George W. Bush advances the potential for a negotiated resolution of the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Bush is in a strong domestic political position to make a deal with North Korea should he decide to do so. His hard-line credentials are unimpeachable after his first term, so no one can credibly accuse this president of being “soft.”
Bush will never again run for president. Even the minor consideration of clearing the way for his vice president in 2008 isn’t an issue, as Vice President Dick Cheney has explicitly taken himself out of the running.
And even if they do not like the particulars of any deal with North Korea that the president might propose, the Republican-dominated Congress will not block it.
The recent American elections have reinforced all of these considerations, which would have been absent had Senator John Kerry prevailed. In domestic political terms, the president has free rein. The issue is whether he wants a deal with North Korea.
Neither Nixon’s decision to reach out to China nor Begin’s to settle with Egypt were Pauline conversions. These acts reflected hardheaded assessments of each leader’s political interests and those of their countries. Could something similar be at work with respect to Bush and North Korea?
Arguably, yes. The president’s second-term agenda is ambitious, and if he succeeds in enacting it, that will be his political legacy.
Regardless of how Iraq turns out, it will not resolve itself quickly. Moreover, with the death of Yassir Arafat, the president will be under renewed pressure to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A crisis on the Korean Peninsula could be a major, and wholly unwelcome, distraction from these priorities. While one response would be to temporize ― doing just enough to keep the situation from boiling over ― Bush faces a real political incentive to achieve a lasting resolution of the Korean issue and get Korea off the agenda so that he is free to address other imperatives.
Yet even if the United States is ready to deal, there is no guarantee that North Korea would reciprocate. The issue is how to encourage North Korea to respond affirmatively.
In this regard, it is critical that the other participants in the six-party talks present a united front to convince the North Koreans to re-engage and that they have nothing to gain from attempting to drive wedges between the United States and the others, or seeking “separate peaces.”
Although the relatively consistent position presented by the five partners at the recent APEC meeting in Chile is a start, maintaining a united front is easier said than done, most obviously with respect to South Korea. While the interests of South Korea and the United States generally coincide, they are not identical: Seoul views the situation in primarily peninsular terms, while Washington must balance its peninsular interests and its global anti-proliferation concerns.
Although there may also be an element of “good cop, bad cop” diplomatic theater in the two countries’ positions, the reluctance of South Korea to condition its assistance to North Korea on that country’s behavior or to consider sticks as well as carrots in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue is worrisome. The complement to the notion that hard-liners may be particularly effective peacemakers is that appeasement may court disaster. Mixed signals may encourage miscalculation on the part of the North and increase the likelihood of something truly catastrophic occurring on the peninsula.
Of course, the world is not governed by paradox. Sometimes things are as they seem. Despite his overtures to China, Nixon continued the Vietnam War. After reaching peace with the Egyptians, Begin authorized the pre-emptive strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor and ordered the invasion of Lebanon to root out the Palestine Liberation Organization. There is no guarantee that Bush will resolve the conflict with North Korea. Yet his re-election increases the likelihood of achieving a lasting settlement.
* The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington D.C.
by Marcus Noland