In an earlier post on Dick Cheney’s autobiography, we focused on his advocacy of bombing the Syrian reactor. This stance was related to a more general aversion to bilateral diplomacy with the North Koreans, of which he offers a scathing indictment.
According to Cheney, the purpose of establishing the Six Party Talks was to move away from one-on-one negotiations to a multilateral coalition that would pressure North Korea; as Cheney acknowledges, China was the crucial player in this regard. But in the wake of the first nuclear test in October 2006, Cheney believes the US started to “slip back into the old pattern” of bilateral negotiations in which we offered “concession after concession to the North Koreans and turned a blind eye to their misdeeds.”
Cheney is critical of the BDA settlement, saying that the North Koreans walked out of talks in March 2007 until the frozen funds were returned to them. Unfortunately, however, that was what the US had promised to do and we had not delivered because of the technical difficulties of transferring the funds.
Cheney is also critical of the two roadmap agreements of February and October 2007. He details the way in which the North Koreans evaded core components of those agreements, including the weakness of their declaration and their failure to openly address HEU and proliferation concerns. He also walks through the verification debacle: the introduction of verification issues by the US in response to the weakness of the declaration and the verbal agreements that the North Koreans made with Hill but refused to commit to paper. He ignores the steps--however small--to halt production of fissile material at the Yongbyon complex, particularly through the removal of fuel rods from the reactor.
In his recounting, Cheney repeatedly portrays Rice and Hill as gullible dupes of the North Koreans, including with respect to HEU in particular. In one interesting tidbit, Cheney reveals that Rice proposed that she should go to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Il to keep negotiations on track, an idea with which Cheney and others in the administration strongly disagreed.
Cheney closes the section with a list of all the actions North Korea has taken since April 2009 missile launch, a pretty straightforward “I told you so.”
So what is wrong with this account? With the benefit of hindsight, isn’t Cheney vindicated? Well, not exactly. First, the perennial divisions within US policy—which Cheney shows continued well into the second term—no doubt had some influence on North Korean perceptions of US credibility. It was pretty clear that important parties in the US government—namely, the Vice President himself—had no interest or faith in a negotiated solution.
But the real problem with Cheney’s account is the lack of alternatives. Cheney thinks that bombing the Syrian reactor would have sent a signal. But it was bombed by the Israelis and seemed to have little effect on the overall strategic equation one way or the other. It is highly dubious that if the US had bombed the reactor it would have had a different effect on the Six Party Talks.
The only option that Cheney offers is the proverbial outsourcing of policy to the Chinese and “standing with our allies.” Cheney claims that following the first test in October 2006 and the discovery of the Syrian reactor, we should have taken the information to the Chinese and gotten their cooperation. But we did precisely that in getting the Chinese to sign on to UNSC 1718.
It is clear that the Chinese would not have done anything more on the Syrian reactor than they did with respect to the equally if not more egregious Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents.
And we have "stood by our South Korean ally" over the last two years around the strategy of strategic patience. This strategy has certainly imposed costs on the North Koreans, but has hardly led them to cease and desist.
In retrospect, it is easy to say that the 2007-8 efforts at engagement had limited effect, as we ourselves have noted. But the idea that the Chinese will come to our rescue seems no less naïve than the gamble Rice and Hill took in trying to get Yongbyon shut down. The fact that diplomatic efforts sometimes, or even often, fail is not sufficient reason to avoid them if other alternatives are lacking.