YANGPYUNG, South Korea — “It makes sense to put somebody who’s skilled and who is not afraid to speak his mind at the United Nations.” So said U.S. President George W. Bush during his spirited defense of his nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. With all due respect, Mr. President, I think you missed the point.
The biggest problem with Bolton is that he does just that, he speaks his mind. As an under secretary of state these past four years, Bolton was supposed to be speaking the mind of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and his department’s — not his own. Yet the tales of him openly disagreeing with, and on more than one occasion attempting to undermine, State Department policy are legend. This is the real reason that his nomination should be opposed, not his egregious bedside manner.
As U.N. ambassador, Bolton will again be expected to speak for his boss, in this case Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, through her, the president. Should Bolton get confirmed, Rice will have her hands full trying to keep him on message.
This having been said, however, I feel I owe Bolton an apology. Several years ago, I described him as “America’s most undiplomatic diplomat.” I was wrong! That title must go to the diplomat-in-chief, Bush. He earned it, once again, during the same April 28 press conference in which he defended the Bolton nomination.
During this internationally televised event, Bush expressed his commitment to a diplomatic solution to the North Korea nuclear crisis, citing in particular the need for consensus among the other five participants in order to bring Pyongyang to the table. But he could not resist throwing in a gratuitous personal attack against North Korea’s leader, calling him “a dangerous person . . . who starves his people” and “a tyrant.”
All told, he mentioned the reclusive North Korean leader by name 12 times. While this falls far short of Bolton’s record — he once castigated the “Dear Leader” by name more than 40 times in a speech that many South Koreans still cite as a principle cause for the breakdown in the dialogue process — it was sufficient for North Korea to call Bush a “hooligan bereft of any personality . . . and a Philistine whom we can never deal with.”
Bush no doubt believes all the nasty things he says about Kim Jong Il (and they have the added benefit of being true). But to repeatedly say them publicly does not help the diplomatic process, especially at a time when his chief negotiator, newly appointed Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, was visiting China, Japan and the Republic of Korea to build the consensus that the president himself acknowledged was critical for his diplomatic approach to succeed.
The primary concern here is not what North Korea thinks. At the end of the day, it has more to gain from cooperating than from not cooperating and will likely allow itself to be bribed back to the negotiating table. The real concern is the impact that Bush’s statements are having on other six-party participants: China, Japan, Russia and, most importantly, South Korea.
As the president has repeatedly stressed, the other members need to stick together and speak with one voice in pressuring Pyongyang to come back to the table. For this to happen, they have to believe that Washington is seriously committed to achieving a negotiated solution.
I have spent the last week traveling through five South Korean cities, speaking to college students and professors, security specialists, and nongovernmental organization representatives. I have met few people who believe that the Bush administration is serious when it says it is prepared to cut a deal with the current leadership in Pyongyang. I was not surprised.
At a recent Pacific Forum conference on U.S.-ROK relations, I asked how many, in a group of about 40 American, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese regional specialists, believed that the Bush administration was actually pursuing regime change and would not negotiate with Kim under any circumstances. More than 90 percent raised their hands, despite the fact it is the stated position of the Bush administration, as reiterated by Bush, Rice and even Bolton, that it does not seek regime change in North Korea.
The repeated personal attacks lead both the man on the street (especially in Korea) and the seasoned security analyst alike to the same conclusion: Washington’s aim is to drive North Korea away from the negotiating table. This makes gaining an international consensus (and building the public support needed in democracies such as South Korea to sustain a bilateral relationship) increasingly difficult to achieve. How this serves America’s immediate, much less long-term, national security interest is perplexing.
If the president truly wants a diplomatic solution, he must surround himself with true diplomats . . . and he must speak and act diplomatically. Otherwise he will not only lose the diplomatic standoff with North Korea but will lose the hearts and minds of the South Korean people as well.
P.S.: I was among the 10 percent who did not raise his hand. I still believe that the Bush administration is prepared to “hold its nose and deal with Pyongyang,” as many are advising it to do. But I am finding it increasingly difficult to convince even myself, much less anyone else, that this is really true.