As the mid-term elections approach, you're bound to see more articles like this one, by Fred Kaplan in Slate. Mr. Kaplan, who writes the "War Stories" column for Slate, seems to be waxing nostalgic for the good 'ol days of the Clinton Administration, and the Agreed To Framework with North Korea.
According to Kaplan, the U.S.-North Korean framework, "however flamed," kept Pyongyang from building "dozens of A-bombs" during the 1990s. He also finds it ironic that the Bush Administration appears to be going along with European efforts to provide similar incentives to Iran, in hopes of curtailing Tehran's nuclear ambitions. More on that in a moment.
As you'll recall, the deal between Washington and Pyongyang was supposed to have the same effect on North Korea's nuclear program. In exchange for the North giving up its nuclear weapons program, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to provide a package of incentives, including light-water reactors for Pyongyang, oil shipments, and assurances that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons against North Korea. There was also an agreement for Washington and Pyongyang to move toward normalized relations, and for an expanded talks between North and South Korea.
The Agreed To Framework never lived up to expectations, and Kaplan puts most of the blame on Washington and Seoul. The "right-wingers" who then occupied the Blue House pulled out of the deal after a North Korean commando submarine washed up on the ROK's eastern shore. Influential members of Congress also opposed the notion of "rewarding" Kim Jong-il's regime, claiming that the north could not be trusted.
Turns out that the conservatives in Seoul and Washington were right. While Kaplan notes that the IAEA kept monitoring North Korea's heavy water reactor, the North was not living up to its end of the bargain. Shortly after the Bush Administration took office in 2001, our intelligence agencies discovered that Pyongyang had been secretly enriching uranium, and had probably produced a small inventory of nuclear weapons. The "observed compliance" at the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex (where the IAEA observed inactivity) was nothing but a ruse.
Ditto for the "negotiations" between the U.S. and North Korea on ballistic missile production. Kaplan claims that the two sides were close to reaching a deal on halting Pyongyang's missile program. History records that North Korea's missile programs continued apace during the late 1990s, with Pyongyang exporting SCUD technology to additional customers in the Middle East, and developing more advanced, long-range missiles like the TD-1 and TD-2. In fact, while the Clinton team was trying to strike a deal with Pyongyang, the North Koreans test-fired a TD-1 that sailed over Japan before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. Tokyo was understandly upset, but the U.S. kept talking--exactly what Pyongyang wanted.
When the Bush Administration took office, they (rightfully) abandoned the tatters of the Agreed To Framework, opting instead for a regional approach, involving the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. True, these talks haven't produced any real progress, but (most importantly) they haven't produced a flawed agreement that rewards Pyongyang for bad behavior. If Bush had followed Clinton's lead, we'd still be shipping fuel oil to North Korea and pressuring South Korea to complete those light-water reactors, while Pyongyang simply smiled and kept building more nuclear weapons.
Kaplan is right about one thing (in a rather indirect sense). Given the colossal failure of the Agree To Framework, it is surprising that the U.S. and its European allies are proposing a similar deal with Iran. I'll also agree with his supposition that the lack of viable alternatives is driving the the current policy. But there should be a major distinction in dealing with Iran in contrast to past negotiations with North Korea. While Mr. Clinton was happy to give North Korea wide latitude in complying with the agreement, Mr. Bush and his partners cannot give the same discretion to Tehran. "Don't trust--and verify" should be the mantra governing any potential deal with Iran.
What would that mean? For starters, full, unfettered access to all Iranian nuclear facilities, surprise inspections at all known and suspected sites, and implementation of any other measures deemed necessary for ensuring complete compliance. And those conditions are just for the nuclear issue; any "real" deal with Tehran should also address Iran's support for terrorist groups that pose a direct threat to regional security, and require that Tehran sever those ties as well.
In return, delivery of any promised "carrots" should be carefully calibrated to verified compliance by Iran. One the great failings of the framework with North Korea was the fanciful belief that Pyongyang would eventually comply, if we delivered enough fuel oil and the South Koreans built those reactors. The U.S. kept delivering fuel oil to North Korea throughout the Clinton years, long after questions about Pyongyang's compliance began to surface. Kim Jong-il must have been tickled pink; not only was American oil was flowing into his ports (giving him a chance to expand stockpiles of that badly-needed commodity), North Korea was also able to expand its nuclear arsenal, while supposedly complying with the Agreed To Framework. From Pyongyang's perspective, it was a Win-Win-Win deal.
Talk of a similar deal with Tehran is ominous, to say the least. Iran has obviously studied the North Korean model, and adopted similar strategies in dealing with the west on the nuclear issue. The first rule from Pyongyang's playbook is simple: Open a dialogue and stretch the talks out as long as possible. Rule Two: When you finally get an attractive deal, take it, and make sure the terms favor you. Rule Three: Don't give up anything in return; maintain an illusion of compliance, while continuing your nuclear efforts in secret. Rule Four: When your fraud is finally exposed, be defiant, make threats and demand more talks. When the west meekly complies, start the process all over again.
According to a recent poll, a surprising number of Americans are now equating the Clinton Administration with "The Good Old Days." But a clear analysis of his "policies" reveals that Clinton created his Era of Good Feeling, by merely postponing hard decisions on emerging threats (such as terrorism and Iran), or enterring into the poorly-conceived agreement with North Korea, that eventually blew up in our face. Confronting the Iran threat, the Bush Administration may feel that diplomacy is its only viable, short-term option. But brokering an "Agreed To" deal with Iran (long on carrots, short on sticks) would be an unmitigated disaster. No matter how much Mr. Kaplan may long for the halcyon days of Madeline Albright and the Clinton State Department, the Agrred To Framework with Pyongyang represented a low ebb for U.S. diplomacy in the post-Cold War era, and it is a model to be avoided, rather than duplicated.