October 14, 2006

October 14, 2006 | Commentary on Asia

Democrats Jettison 'Multilateral' Process, Blast Bush Over North Korea

The radioactive glow had barely worn off Kim Jong Il's face when liberals began to lay the blame for North Korea's detonation of a small nuclear device (maybe) at George W. Bush's feet. But their criticisms have left many of us downright confused.

On North Korea, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid complained, "the Bush administration … [has] made America less secure." His remedy? "Speak directly with the North Koreans so they understand we will not continue to stand on the sidelines." Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concurred that "the strategy must include direct engagement with the North [Koreans]."

Potential Democratic presidential aspirants also want the U.S. to assume the lead role in this unfolding drama. Sen. Russ Feingold (D.-Wisc.) demanded that the Bush administration jettison its "hands-off approach to North Korea," because "the stakes are too high to rely on others." And Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) noted that "for five years, I have been calling for the United States to engage in direct talks with North Korea" and "for five years this administration has ignored them."

But, rather than ignore the metastasizing cancer in North Korea, the United States has expended considerable diplomatic capital on the so-called six-party talks -- the long-running effort by the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to convince Kim Jong Il to abandon his nuclear program. This multilateral process, moreover, grew out of the failed Clinton-era effort to engage the North Koreans directly. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) recently described that process in scathing terms: "Every single time the Clinton administration warned the Koreans not to do something -- not to kick out the IAEA inspectors, not to remove the fuel rods from the reactor -- they did it. And they were rewarded every single time by the Clinton administration with further talks."

President Bush abandoned the one-on-one approach when he learned that the North Koreans violated their agreement not to enrich uranium (in exchange for a cool $350 million in fuel), opting instead to invite China and the other regional powers into the process. Thus began three years and five frustrating rounds of six-party talks. At first North Korea participated. Then in February 2005 it withdrew in a huff, only to re-engage a few months later for two more grueling rounds. Finally, Kim Jong Il sent a clear message about these talks when he launched two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan in March of this year, then seven more over the 4th of July weekend.

Kerry and his allies dismiss this aggressive form of multilateral diplomacy as nothing more than "cover for the administration to avoid direct discussions."

Hence the confusion. We thought that one of the major foreign policy fault lines separating liberals from conservatives has been whether the United States should reserve the right to act unilaterally to protect its national interests (the conservative position favored by Bush) or whether we should act only after securing the support of our allies (the liberal position embraced by Kerry and virtually all Democrats).

As a presidential candidate, John Kerry summed up the multilateral approach: "Alliances matter. We can't simply go it alone." We must exhaust all avenues of diplomacy, persuade rather than bully, and "assemble a team." The Bush administration's "blustering unilateralism," he concluded, is "wrong, and even dangerous, for our country." And nowhere, Kerry said, is the need for multilateral action more "clear or urgent" than when it comes to preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction.

And that leads us to North Korea. It appears Kerry favored the multilateral approach before opposed it. In a major foreign policy address at Georgetown University in 2003, he actually praised Bush's engagement in the six-party talks: "Finally, the administration is rightly working with allies in the region -- acting multilaterally -- to put pressure on Pyongyang." And, he added, "the question is why you'd ever want to be so committed to unilateralist dogma that you'd get on [that merry go round] in the first place."

So what gives? Isn't it time for lawmakers to transcend the finger-pointing and focus on the real issue?

Let's give Sen, Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) the last word: "The president's political opponents attack him for a 'unilateral' approach to Iraq. Now they attack him over a multilateral approach to North Korea. Listening to some Democrats, you'd think the enemy was George Bush, not Kim Jong Il."

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events Online