Romney II: Re-Enter the Neocons



We are now feeling guilty about coming down so hard on Mitch Reiss. As we noted in an earlier post on Romney's foreign policy, the candidate had taken a generally centrist line with help from Scowcroft-style Republicans like our friend Elliot Cohen at SAIS. Mitch Reiss purportedly had the North Korea portfolio. We were concerned with a few minor details in the policy document, such as completely ignoring the Six Party Talks process and calling for sanctions that were unlikely to yield much result.

But the overarching framework did not replay the neo-con follies, and that was at least some relief. As we suggested in looking at the rest of the Republican field--Gingrich and the group Marc Noland labeled the pygmies --it can get a lot worse.

Unfortunately, it can get worse with the shape-shifting Romney himself. According to a gossipy piece in Politico, Romney is remaking himself with respect to foreign policy. The candidate has thrown Reiss under the bus and is taking on neocon advisors to contest President Obama on foreign policy from the right.

So if Reiss is down, who is up? According to Politico, Romney’s “newest, highest-profile foreign policy enforcer is the mustachioed face of unilateral American clarity and unambiguous strength, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.”

Oy vey! The issue that sparked Romney’s public denunciation of Reiss was whether to negotiate with the Taliban, but both Reiss and Bolton have things to say about North Korea, and you can probably guess which of these two we would prefer to have the President's ear. If you want to get the flavor of where we might be headed, our summary of Vice President Cheney’s views on the issue is a good introduction (here and here.)

But we decided to take a closer look at Bolton’s tendentious memoir, Surrender is Not an Option; it really is worth a read and is available at Amazon at a discount. Two features of Bolton’s personality come through: he has a lawyer’s analytic “gotcha” smarts; and he is angry. The latter is exactly what you don’t want in a diplomat. But he is not angry at our enemies; he is angry at the appeasers and High Minded multilateralists (his capitalization).

The central theme of Surrender is that multilateralism and negotiations are largely a waste of time and that the US should be unshackled to do exactly as it pleases to confront the forces of evil. The problem is that this approach is often little more than posturing. It not only fails to accomplish its objectives but is completely counterproductive.

The two chapters on North Korea—one on the first Bush administration, the other on the second--are loaded with examples. Bolton makes it clear from the outset that his main objective while at State was to scuttle the Agreed Framework. This objective preceded—rather than followed—the growing intelligence that the North Koreans were securing information on HEU from the A.Q. Khan network and then shopping around for inputs and components. As he writes in a revealing passage, “this [intelligence] was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”

Bolton works the administrative details of an issue with tenacity, securing support not to certify that North Korea was in compliance with its Agreed Framework obligations. His crusade was continually set back by what he calls the EAPeasers, the State Department officials such as Jim Kelly who actually knew something about North Korea and how they were likely to respond to such tough talk.

As is so often the case, Bolton’s victories are largely symbolic, even Pyrrhic. His “success” in scuttling the Agreed Framework led directly to the North Korean withdrawal from the IAEA, the restarting of Yongbyon and the nuclear test of 2006. But of course, according to Bolton, the North Koreans had wanted to restart the reactor anyway (p. 121), so the bellicose posture of the Bush administration—for which he was the point man--had nothing to do with it.

Let’s be perfectly clear. The North Korean acquisition of information and even the smallest component for an HEU effort were unambiguous violations of the Agreed Framework. That was never really the issue, although the quality of US intelligence on WMD issues is controversial to say the least. Bolton never really provides any detail on what was known at the time. And Haggard and Noland hardly need a lecture on the vicious nature of the North Korean regime. The question was always what to do about it. Given all of the threatening noises coming out of Washington post-9/11 what did Bolton expect the North Koreans to do? Roll over and play dead?

The remainder of the first North Korea chapter provides a very interesting overview of the PSI, an effort—by the way—that “appeasers” like Haggard and Noland fully support.

The second chapter of the book on North Korea can only be described as strange. For the first time in its history, the US had an Ambassador at the UN whose main attitude toward the organization was utter and complete contempt; only the European appeasers come of worse. The chapter provides a fascinating blow-by-blow account of Washington’s efforts to secure tough-minded resolutions on North Korea (1695 and 1718). These were good resolutions; we are all for them.

But as Bolton should be the first to point out, they are UN resolutions for heaven’s sake. One section of the chapter is called “North Korea Goes Nuclear: We Prevail Again.” I think this belongs among our “not satire” tags. First, it is not “prevailing” to pursue a policy that results in the North Koreans going nuclear; it is a failure. And second, a UN resolution is not “prevailing,” particularly when the Chinese had absolutely no intention of taking any action that would really bite (as we have argued elsewhere in detail). At several points in the chapter, Bolton talks about the efforts to corral the Chinese to vote for the resolution saying that they should be “exposed to the costs of a veto.” What costs? Ironically, it is Bolton who ends up suckered by the multilateral process.

Not in his eyes. The Epilogue is entitled “The Munchkins Win on North Korea.” If we had only continued to squeeze the North Koreans through UN and financial sanctions, and not capitulated to the negotiations of 2007, the North Koreans would have cried “uncle” and abandoned their nuclear weapons programs. But we have a natural experiment on that one: it is precisely what the Obama administration has been doing, thank you. Where is the evidence of "prevailing"? It may be the best you can do, but let’s get real: we have a China problem as Bolton himself repeatedly admits. What are you going to do about that?

As we always argue, dealing with North Korea is usually second best. But it is important to realize why: strategies such as those advocated by the Boltons of the world don’t work.

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