When it comes to foreign policy, John McCain is more of a neocon than President Bush.

When it comes to foreign policy, John McCain is more of a neocon than President Bush.

When it comes to foreign policy, John McCain is more of a neocon than President Bush.

Military analysis.
May 28 2008 11:26 AM

Worse Than Bush

When it comes to foreign policy, McCain is more of a neocon than the president.

John McCain and George W. Bush. Click image to expand.
Sen. John McCain and President George W. Bush

Many foreign-policy mavens have wondered which John McCain would step to the fore once he started running for president in earnest—the McCain who consorts with such pragmatists as Richard Armitage, Colin Powell, and George Shultz; or the McCain who huddles with "neocons" like Robert Kagan, John Bolton, and William Kristol (before he started writing op-eds for the New York Times).

Last month, the Times published a story about the battle for McCain's soul that's being waged by those two factions.

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On Tuesday, McCain cleared up the mystery: He's with the neocons. He is, fundamentally, in sync with the foreign policy pursued by George W. Bush for his first six years in office. The clincher is that he has now broken with the president on the one issue where Bush himself reversed course more than a year ago after realizing that his policy had failed. In two op-ed articles and a speech—all of them published or delivered on Tuesday, May 27—McCain called for a return to Bush's original, disastrous approach.

The issue is nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

First, a quick recap (taken mainly from Chapter 2 of my book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power):

In 1994, top officials for President Bill Clinton and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il signed the Agreed Framework, an imperfect, interim accord that nonetheless froze Pyongyang's plutonium program, kept its nuclear fuel rods locked up and monitored by international inspectors, and thus prevented the tyrant from developing an A-bomb for the next eight years.

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When Bush took office, his secretary of state, Colin Powell, wanted to pick up where Clinton left off—the two sides were on the verge of hammering out a treaty banning the production and export of long-range missiles—but Bush shut him down. The principle, as stated by Vice President Dick Cheney: "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it."

So, the North Koreans kicked out the inspectors, unlocked the fuel rods, reprocessed a half-dozen A-bombs' worth of plutonium—and Bush did nothing. Finally, in August 2003, Bush agreed to set up "six-party talks" on the North Korean problem—along with China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea—but stopped short of offering Pyongyang any incentives to reverse their course. His position was that Kim Jong-il must dismantle his nuclear program as a precondition to negotiations—an absurd stance on its face, since plutonium was Kim's only bargaining chip, and he wasn't about to cash it in before talks even began.

In October 2006, the all-but-inevitable took place: The North Koreans set off a nuclear explosion at a remote test site.

Nobody said so at the time, but what happened here was that Bush had gone eyeball-to-eyeball with the pygmy of Pyongyang—and lost. He and most of his aides had figured that all they had to do was to hold out—that Kim Jong-il's monstrous regime would collapse before it managed to set off a bomb. They were wrong.

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So, at the beginning of last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convinced Bush that it was time to negotiate for real. She sent her emissary Christopher Hill to Berlin to conduct one-on-one talks with his North Korean counterpart—something Bush had said repeatedly that he would never do. Within a few days, the two struck a deal that did not require the North Koreans to dismantle their program as a prerequisite—another violation of earlier principles.

Former Bush officials hit the ceiling—especially John Bolton, who, during the first term, had tried to disrupt the six-party talks, limited as they were. (Some aides still in office also rebelled; Eliot Abrams, Bush's deputy national security adviser, sent out e-mails to his neocon comrades, rallying them to protest.)

But guess what? The deal has worked out pretty well. The North Koreans have halted their plutonium program, shut down and started to take apart their nuclear facilities, and handed over 18,000 pages of documentation on the program to date.

Things are far from perfect. There are still outstanding—and important—questions about North Korea's role in assisting Syria and perhaps Iran in developing a nuclear program. We don't yet know how complete those 18,000 pages are. And nothing has been worked out on how to verify any future North Korean claim that they have destroyed all their nuclear materials.

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Then again, it was Bush who forfeited his leverage when he stood by and let North Korea build an A-bomb to begin with. Unable to take military action (the risks of North Korean retaliation against South Korea or Japan were deemed too dreadful) and unwilling to pursue diplomacy, he instead did nothing—and the consequences were inevitable. The deal that Hill worked out isn't great; it's not even as tight as Clinton's Agreed Framework; but the North Koreans hadn't reprocessed their plutonium when Clinton was president. Hill's deal might be the best that could have been negotiated under the circumstances. In any case, it's better than nothing.

McCain wants to undo the deal; he wants to go back to nothing. In an op-ed for the Asia edition of the Wall Street Journal, McCain and his co-author, Sen. Joe Lieberman, wrote, "We must use the leverage available from the United Nations Security Council resolution passed after Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear test to ensure the full and complete declaration, disablement and irreversible dismantlement of [North Korea's] nuclear facilities, in a verifiable manner."

Absent knowledge of the historical context, this sounds reasonable. (Even with such knowledge, it's desirable.) The U.N. Security Council did pass a resolution that condemned the nuclear test and called on North Korea to dismantle its facilities.

However, the members of the Security Council knew, soon enough, that the resolution was unenforceable. Even Bush realized that, contrary to McCain and Lieberman's premise, the resolution gave them no "leverage" whatever.

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In a similar op-ed for the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, McCain and Lieberman urged using the six-party talks "to press for a full, complete, verifiable declaration, disablement and dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program."

However, the fact is, the six-party talks really don't exist anymore, except as a ratifying body for bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea. (Hill, in fact, is reportedly in Beijing today, continuing these one-on-one sessions.) Bush decided, realistically, that demanding dismantlement as a first step was a nonstarter and that a freeze followed by a gradual disabling—prodded by the delivery of free fuel oil and other economic aid—was more feasible and imminently worthwhile. He had tried cutting off economic aid before, but it had no effect in weakening Kim's hold on power.

As Daniel Sneider, assistant director of the Shorenstein Asian-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, put it in a phone interview Tuesday night: "The policy that John McCain proposes is the policy that George W. Bush pursued—and that policy failed. There's not much to be said for going back to a policy that failed to contain North Korea's nuclear program."

Finally, in a speech at the University of Denver, delivered the same day that the op-eds were published, McCain suggested that his demand for nuclear dismantlement was contrary to the position of the Democrats' likely presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama. "Many believe," McCain said, "all we need to do to end the nuclear programs of hostile governments is have our president talk with leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, as if we haven't tried talking with the governments repeatedly over the past two decades."

In effect, McCain was really criticizing George W. Bush. It was Bush who dropped the demand for North Korean dismantlement as a first step, much less as a precondition to talks. And as for McCain's snide aside—"as if we haven't tried talking with the governments repeatedly"—well, in fact, we haven't, or at least Bush hadn't, until he let Hill talk directly with the North Koreans. And, as it happened, that was all we needed to do to end (or at least to halt and start to tear down) their nuclear program.

And so, if John McCain is elected president, it's not quite true that he'll continue the policies of George W. Bush, as Sen. Obama charges. When it comes to controlling and disarming North Korea's nuclear program, McCain would set back Bush's policy several years.