“If North Korea were to end up with a nuclear weapon, it would be very destabilizing and very troubling for all of us.”
— President Bush, July 30, 2008, Interview with China Central Television (Yes, this week he really said that)
“If” –?? What is Bush talking about? That ship has sailed. That train has left the station. That bomb is out of the bag.
North Korea already has a nuclear weapon, and more likely it has a number of them. According to the Bush administration’s own State Department, North Korea in 2003 was ranting away about bolstering its “nuclear deterrent force.” In 2005, North Korea declared it had “manufactured nuclear weapons,” declared itself a “nuclear weapons state,” and in 2006 tested a “nuclear explosive device” (which, in non-diplomatic English, we call a nuclear bomb).
Surely Bush knows all that. So why, in this interview released Wednesday by the White House, would he utter this bizarre rewrite of reality?
Part of the answer might be that this interview — in which Bush mainly discussed his excitement about going to the Olympics in Beijing — was already such a triple-helping of diplomatic mush that it was easy to conflate North Korea (which has the bomb) with Iran (which is racing to get it). Asked about the former, Bush gave the potted response for the latter.
But there’s a bigger problem here, which encompasses both North Korea and Iran, and slops into plenty of other places as well. Bush was simply speaking the language of “soft power,” which his second-term team has been whispering into his ear for the past three years. In this approach to the prospect of malign, terror-loving governments (and their terrorist pals) acquiring weapons of mass destruction, there is no more “axis of evil,” no more “dead or alive,” no more “with us or against us,” no more “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”
Instead, there is the lingo of Secretary of State Condi Rice; or special envoy to the Six-Party Talks, Chris Hill; the jargon of the Annapolis conference and the ever-proliferating UN resolutions. America now speaks with the voice of a fretful nanny, scolding a naughty child even as she stuffs his pockets with sweets. Or — in the holistic spirit of this eco-era — carrots.
In these realms, what matters is “stability” and “process.” You don’t confront threats, or defeat enemies. Instead, you express your “disappointment” and “concern” over “destabilizing” and “troubling” developments… such as their missile tests, rapidly advancing nuclear weapons programs, or the test explosion of a nuclear
bomb device. If North Korea turns out to have been building a secret nuclear reactor in Syria with no clear purpose other than to crank out plutonium for weapons, you don’t immediately congratulate the Israelis for their courage in destroying it, and move swiftly to punish the proliferators. Instead, you let the story age quietly in the White House fridge for a couple of months, and then issue a statement that the reactor was “not intended for peaceful purposes,” and — here comes the penalty — you are “seriously concerned” (which is, of course, much more ferocious than being “concerned,” but not “seriously” so).
And if you must bring up such ideas as freedom and democracy, you go out of your way not to offend those who actively deprive their people of these abstractions. Thus, in this same interview with Chinese state TV, Bush explains that he is going to the Olympics in Beijing because “It’s much more likely a Chinese leader will listen to my concerns if he knows I respect the people of China.” Again, what is Bush talking about? He’ll be paying his respects to China’s dictator-in-chief, President Hu Jintao (in this interview, he already did: “I respect the man a lot”). Meantime, Hu’s secret police are busy censoring the internet and sweeping up democrat dissidents, lest the people of China interfere with the Olympic festivities.
And on all these soft fronts, after all the carrots, sticks and diplo-babble, the Bush administration is stuck in the mud. That may seem less and less relevant, as he prepares to leave office in less than six months. But in some of the worst hotspots, the world is moving fast right now — and not in a good direction. North Korea has been raking in cash, aid and political concessions; but apart from shutting down the aging Yongbyon reactor (again), there’s no sign that Kim Jong Il has surrendered an ounce of plutonium, or given up his uranium enrichment projects, or abandoned or even begun to disclose his proliferation networks. In Iran, the centrifuges are spinning, and Ahmadinejad is thumbing his nose — a model for fellow despots.
As for the interview Bush gave this week to the state-controlled CCTV of the People’s Republic of China, I can think of a number of reactions it might reasonably inspire, but respect is not on the list.
There is, of course, one important arena in which Bush, to his great credit, has not gone soft; in which he has stuck by his original promise and principles: Iraq. That, as it happens, is where America is now winning.