Bush running out of time to end impasse



With just 2 years left in office, he will find it hard to tackle Pyongyang.

THE Bush administration, despite tough talk in the face of North Korean intransigence over the nuclear issue, will be hard put to sustain an international effort against the Pyongyang regime.

Distracted by domestic politics, the quagmire in Iraq and festering problems in the Middle East – and hindered by China’s continued ambivalence towards hardline measures – Washington is in danger of remaining rudderless on the North Korean issue.

Reacting to Pyongyang’s claim of a successful nuclear test, President George W. Bush has warned the regime that the US would honour its commitments to protect its Asian allies.

US officials were also quick to declare on Monday that they will push for an “extremely strong UN resolution against North Korea that would make it illegal to transfer missile and missile-related items, materials, goods and technology for North Korean weapons of mass destruction programmes”.

But observers such as Dr Michael Green, a former senior Bush aide on Asia, point out that there will be no quick fix to the problem.

“The US will take the lead,” said Dr Green. “The challenge is not the next two weeks, but rather the next few months and years. Can Washington sustain this international effort without any distractions at home and abroad?”

Certainly, one key driver in the long run will be domestic politics.

Mr Bush has made national security a key issue in the upcoming mid-term congressional elections but Monday’s test is seen as a failure of his non proliferation policy.

With mid-term polls next month, the Democrats are likely to point to the North’s success in raising the stakes in the nuclear stand-off as evidence that Mr Bush’s hardline policy towards it is flawed.

If the Democrats win the House and Senate, as the polls now indicate, there could be “paralysis in policymaking”.

US presidents have traditionally held the initiative in foreign policy but, given the bipartisan nature of US politics today – and the splits within the Republican and Democrat camps – the North Korea issue, among others, will be subject to internecine battles.

Mr Bush will have little or no room to manoeuvre even if he wants to.

Bogged down by the war in Iraq, and worried about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other Middle East issues. Washington might waver midway against the North.

Dr Kurt Campbell, a former defence official in the Clinton administration, said: “This administration is overly focused on the Middle East and the war on terror. Everything else, including Asia, falls behind.”

Indeed, this is reflected in the lack of Asian expertise in the second term of the Bush government, said Mr Douglas Paal, who served as a senior director for Asian affairs in the White House under former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the father of the current President.

Current senior administration officials are Cold War experts or seasoned European hands with no deep knowledge of North Korea or other issues in Asia. Ultimately, China will be the most critical factor in any US effort to punish North Korea.

China, a neighbour and traditional communist ally of North Korea, has denounced the nuclear test in unusually strong language and demanded that Pyongyang stop any action that could make matters worse.

But the view here is that the Chinese are never going to burn their bridges with the North Koreans.

China will resist any attempt to push through all-encompassing sanctions that might bring down the Kim Jong Il regime for fear that it could destabilise its own border.

For the US, the China card will be critical for any sanctions to take effect. If Beijing does not play ball, sanctions will fail.

Given the prevailing uncertainties, it appears that Mr Bush has lost the opportunity to resolve the North Korean impasse with just two years remaining in his term.

No doubt, Mr Kim will also be looking to the next occupant of the White House to get what he wants.

“This administration is overly focused on the Middle East and the war on terror. Everything else, including Asia, falls behind.”
-DR KURT CAMPBELL, a former defence official in the Clinton administration

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