The Magazine

Kim's Choice--and Bush's

What price will the North Korean dictator pay?

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"There's a choice for [Kim Jong Il] to make. He can verifiably get rid of his weapons programs and stop testing rockets, and there's a way forward for him to help his people. I believe it's best to make that choice clear to him with more than one voice, and that's why we have the six-party talks. And now that he has defied China and Japan and South Korea and Russia and the United States--all of us said 'don't fire that rocket.' He not only fired one, he fired seven. Now that he made that defiance, it's best for all of us to go to the U.N. Security Council and say loud and clear, 'Here are some red lines.' And that's what we're in the process of doing."

--President Bush, at a press conference in Chicago, July 7, 2006

There's a choice for him to make? Hasn't Dear Leader made his choice? All of us said don't fire that rocket. He fired seven rockets. As President Bush put it, "he made that defiance."

Having made it, what price will the North Korean dictator pay? Well, five of the six parties to the six-party talks are going to go the Security Council to set forth some new "red lines." (They'll be more like pink lines, thanks to the Russians and Chinese playing their usual role at the U.N.) And when Dear Leader again chooses defiance-what then? Some new mauve lines?

The red lines, pink lines, and mauve lines of U.S. foreign policy seem increasingly to be written in erasable ink. What was "unacceptable" to President Bush a week ago (a North Korean missile launch) has been accepted. In retrospect, according to a draft Security Council resolution, the missile launch turns out merely to have been "regrettable." Our assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Christopher Hill, visited China at the end of last week, where he was rebuffed by Beijing on sanctions for Pyongyang. He settled for an agreement that we should all return to the six-party talks.

China, it bears emphasizing, has refused to use its leverage to change Pyongyang's behavior (North Korea continues to function only because China provides most of its energy). Yet President Bush praised China last Friday as "a good partner to have at the table with us." Japan, with a ringside seat for the missile launches, looks on in horror, seemingly alone in actually being provoked by the North Korean "provocation."

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, at the center of our global war against jihadist terrorists, Iran, perhaps the prime state sponsor of terror, is sitting pretty. The pursuit of nuclear weapons by the clerical regime in Iran has also been deemed "unacceptable" by the president. Yet, as the Iranian regime has resumed uranium enrichment, threatened to obliterate other nations, and scorned offers to negotiate, it has been rewarded with gestures by us that certainly seem to be concessions. Now, watching North Korea, the mullahs must be feeling even less intimidated. And despite Syrian and Iranian complicity in killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq--detailed by our generals--neither has paid a price.

The one "red line" the president seems to be holding to is that we will not cut and run in Iraq. But even there, there seems to be no interest in rethinking a counter-insurgency strategy (or nonstrategy) that is not working. Indeed, the president took pains at his press conference Friday to reiterate that he would not insist on changes: "General Casey will make the decisions as to how many troops we have there. . . . I told him this, I said, 'You decide, General.'" So we have a Rumsfeld-Casey decision to plan for a not-too-embarrassing withdrawal from Iraq, rather than a Bush decision to insist on a strategy for victory in Iraq.

But hey, we're in sync with the EU-3 and the U.N.-192. And our secretary of state--really, the whole State Department--is more popular abroad than ever. Too bad the cost has been so high: a decline in the president's credibility around the world and sinking support for his foreign policy at home.

A few weeks ago, Michael Rubin lamented in this magazine that Bush's second term foreign policy had taken a Clintonian turn. But to be Clintonian in a post-9/11 world is to invite even more danger than Clinton's policies did in the 1990s. The real choice isn't Kim Jong Il's. It's President Bush's.

--William Kristol