More Rumsfeld



Don Rumsfeld is not my neighbor, and I do not get a walk-on in his papers as a famous political scientist. So maybe I am more grumpy than my good colleague, who recently took a first pass at the Rumsfeld papers. I agree with Noland on two things: Rumsfeld has done us a great service by sharing these documents, even if selectively; and that he comes off about as one would expect: a hawk with a highly skeptical view of negotiations. But I draw somewhat less favorable conclusions from these revelations. A few nuggets.

During Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly’s visit to Pyongyang in October 2002, Rumsfeld writes a scolding note to National Security Advisor Condi Rice: “I thought you told the President in my meeting that there weren’t going to be any meals at the North Korean event. I notice they had one or two dinners.” What is the Secretary of Defense doing micromanaging US diplomacy? Whatever the intelligence the US tried to deliver, the meeting was a disaster that contributed to the onset of the crisis. (In the spirit of fairness, Victor Cha and Jim Kelly have offered up a defense even though it is hardly their fault that things went so wrong; had they only been in charge from the outset!).

In a memo dated December 26, 2002 with a wide distribution among the top leadership of the administration,  Rumsfeld responds to the expulsion of IAEA inspectors by arguing against negotiations. “Getting to the table is what Pyongyang seeks; for us to grant it in response to the latest nuclear provocations would only reinforce Pyongyang’s weak hand and prove that bad behavior pays.” Rumsfeld argues for aggressive economic-cum-political diplomacy, including pursuit of sanctions against missile exports through IAEA and UN action, cutting off funds North Korea receives from abroad, including from pro-North Korean groups in Japan (the Chosen Soren, mentioned by name), and “pressing China and Russia to ratchet up diplomatic pressure and constrict economic aid and development projects.” The ultimate objective of these sanctions was to “train Kim Jong Il to understand that blackmail tactics that worked with the previous administration will no longer work.”

In one of the more revealing memos, Condi Rice circulates a set of talking points on North Korea on March 4, 2003 as the crisis is deepening, and we have Rumsfeld’s comments on the draft:

Rice: The United States seeks a peaceful diplomatic solution. The President has said that while all options are on the table, the United States has no intention of invading North Korea.

Rumsfeld edits: The United States seeks a peaceful diplomatic solution; however, all options remain on the table.

Rice: We have proposed multilateral talks to North Korea and we remain prepared to engage in such talks. In this multilateral format, we are prepared to discuss all issues, including DPRK interest in security assurances.

Rumsfeld strikes the second sentence.

Few inducements are on offer unless the North completely denuclearizes, but Rice does hold out the possibility of humanitarian assistance. Rumsfeld or his assistant—to his credit on this one—inserts a line that such aid should be conditioned on access to the vulnerable groups.

Fast forward to 2006, only days before the first nuclear test. In a memo to the president dated October 5, Rumsfeld wants to shift US declaratory policy on nuclear questions to hold proliferating states fully accountable for the transfer of nuclear materials to terrorist groups. No problem with that. But he leads with a pretty damning assessment of the course of US diplomacy up to that point:

“Increasingly it appears that it is not only difficult, but possibly impossible, for the US to gain the diplomatic support sufficient to impose the leverage on Iran and/or North Korea required to cause them to discontinue their nuclear programs. While one or both conceivably might stop, as did Libya, for example, it seems probably that neither will stop. Therefore, we need to face the reality that one or both likely will have nuclear weapons sometime before or in the next decade.”

“Increasingly impossible?” Where was the evidence that it was possible from the outset?

Its easy to take potshots at those in the hotseat. We are certainly cynical about North Korean motivations and things might have well turned out as they did regardless of US diplomacy. But the missed opportunities of 2002 bear pretty careful study and reflection; we will be rolling out a long study on the history of US sanctions in the next month or so.

The Rumsfeld papers: we read them so you don’t have to.

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