The ho-hum catastrophe?

11 October 2006, 1617 EDT

Yesterday, October 10, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked a number of questions about the apparent North Korean nuclear test. Here’s my favorite:

Q …when you have a President who draws a red line three years ago and says, we will not tolerate nuclear weapons, and now you have a country that just tested a nuclear weapon — you don’t think it’s fair to ask for some accountability as to what happened, or that there were mistakes made?

MR. SNOW: David, the accountability lies in North Korea, not in Washington.

Snow made many remarkable comments at that press conference, including this series about US leverage:

So rather than having something going wrong, what you really have is the emergence of a process now in which the people who have the most leverage over the North Koreans — and let’s face it, the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Japanese, they all have more direct leverage over the North Koreans than we do — the people who have the greatest ability to influence behavior are now fully invested as equal partners in a process to deal with the government of North Korea.

…What is new is that you do have, I think, a much more effective mechanism, or at least a more promising mechanism for dealing with them, because the people who have direct leverage, the people who can turn the spigots economically and politically, are now fully engaged and invested in this.

…Point of fact is, if we’re going to deal one-on-one, we’d be playing a weaker hand, and the President is not going to play a weaker hand…Let me emphasize again, we do not have extensive ties of trade or anything else with North Korea. We have less leverage than these guys do.

In addition to the remarkable words Snow voiced, notice what he didn’t say?

Snow ignored military power as a lever! In fact, the entire press conference was surreal, as the Press Secretary virtually refused to take very seriously either the danger of a North Korean bomb or the ability of the US to do anything about it.

Remember, as a point of contrast, President Bush’s bold claims about Libya abandoning its weapons programs? From a speech on July 12, 2004, when the President inspected Libyan nuclear parts stored at the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge National Laboratory:

Libya is dismantling its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile programs. This progress came about through quiet diplomacy between America, Britain and the Libyan government. This progress was set in motion, however, by policies declared in public to all the world. The United States, Great Britain, and many other nations are determined to expose the threats of terrorism and proliferation — and to oppose those threats with all our power. (Applause.) We have sent this message in the strongest diplomatic terms, and we have acted where action was required.

Every potential adversary now knows that terrorism and proliferation carry serious consequences, and that the wise course is to abandon those pursuits.

Moreover, Bush credited the Libyan surrender to the lesson of the Iraq invasion. And he bragged that it was American leadership — not deference to other states — that caused Libya to give up its plans to proliferate:

America is leading a broad coalition of nations to disrupt proliferation. We’re working with the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and other international organizations to take action in our common security. The global threat of terrorism requires a global response. To be effective, that global response requires leadership — and America will lead.

Remember the way the 2002 National Security Strategy phrased this? “The United States possesses unprecedented— and unequaled—strength and influence in the world.”

This was another interesting and bold declaration from that pre-Iraq war NSS:

Our enemies have openly declared that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and evidence indicates that they are doing so with determination. The United States will not allow these efforts to succeed….History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act. In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action….

Throughout history, freedom has been threatened by war and terror; it has been challenged by the clashing wills of powerful states and the evil designs of tyrants; and it has been tested by widespread poverty and disease. Today, humanity holds in its hands the opportunity to further freedom’s triumph over all these foes. The United States welcomes our responsibility to lead in this great mission.

That statement, by the way, was in a cover letter signed by George W. Bush. He had placed North Korea firmly in an “axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq in his January 2002 State of the Union address.

Allow me to return to that speech:

North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.

Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.

Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror….States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

…all nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.

We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.

Don’t you love history?

Speaking of history, Press Secretary Snow pointed out yesterday that North Korea is different from Iraq:

Because in the case of Iraq we had exhausted all diplomatic possibilities. We’re just exploring them now in the case of North Korea.

Just exploring them now? He said this a bit later:

Keep in mind, the agreed framework — as early as 1992, North Korea was being brought to the table to talk about nuclear weapons proliferation.

Hmmm, mutually exclusive statements in the scope of just minutes. Impressive.

Off-handedly, Snow also said yesterday that “the old policy of appeasing these guys apparently isn’t going to work anymore.” When asked directly if that meant that the Clinton administration had appeased North Korea, he said “No.” However, he said their approach, which “was worth trying” emphasized carrots, whereas now the policy is both “carrots and sticks.”

However, again, the administration isn’t emphasizing any sort of military leverage:

The sticks would be economic pressure on the government of North Korea, but the carrots are even more important, because you’ve got millions of people there who are starving, who are in agony, who have been living under an oppressive regime, who deserve better. And what the United States and the allies have been offering are ways in which those people can enjoy a better quality of life, North Korea can enjoy more security, and the region generally will be able to enjoy security.

Ah, how times change.

Tony Snow, yesterday:

I think the biggest leverage they have is their own self-interest. This is important for them. If North Korea were to have a nuke, it certainly would have a lot more impact in the capitals — in Seoul and Beijing and Tokyo and even Moscow than it would here in Washington. Here’s what the Chinese said just a little bit ago: said, North Korea must face “some punitive actions for testing a nuclear device.” This from the U.N. Ambassador.

The point is that there is agreement that there needs to be punitive action, and I’m sure that there’s going to continue to be debate. It is natural to ask yourself what is the least punitive action we can take. That’s always going to be the natural tendency. And so people are going to look for what is the very least you need to do to be effective. And I’m sure there’s going to be a debate about that. And there will eventually come, I assume, some set of punitive actions. One hopes they work.

Again, it is amazing what they are not saying.

Read the transcript of the entire session.

Q Tony, in 2003, the President said very clearly that we will not tolerate North Korea with nuclear weapons.

MR. SNOW: Right.

Q And here we are in 2006 operating on the assumption, as the government is, that, in fact, they tested a nuclear devise. So what went wrong?

MR. SNOW: I’m not sure anything went wrong. The failed diplomacy is on the part of the North Koreans because what they have done so far is turn down a series of diplomatic initiatives that would have given them everything they have said they wanted…

What are those carrots again? And what are the sticks?

More importantly, just how serious is this administration about various US security interests? What does it think about the danger of proliferation — specifically from North Korea?

Perhaps this is the better question: Will this administration say anything, or the opposite of anything, at any time, or even at the same time, to justify whatever it is doing?