By Dan Froomkin
2:40 PM ET, 05/26/2009
North Korea's nuclear test Monday is fresh evidence that President Obama's problem is not that he's taking on too many big issues at the same time -- it's that he can't leave even one on the back burner.
Administration officials thought they could afford not to focus too intently on North Korea, in favor of other even hotter spots around the globe. No such luck.
Indeed, there are several other significant issues Obama has tried to avoid dealing with, quite possibly only making things worse for himself in the long run. Two that come to mind are gay rights and torture. This is a consequential president, coming to power at a consequential time, and ducking things is ultimately going to get him in more trouble than addressing them head on.
As Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration, which said the North's action invited stronger, unspecified international pressure, has consistently called for Korean denuclearization but seemed not to have anticipated a deepening nuclear crisis.
"Just two weeks ago, the administration's special envoy for disarmament talks with North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said during a visit to Asian capitals that 'everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process.' If so, they are no longer."
Yesterday morning, Obama was out in the Rose Garden declaring that "North Korea's actions endanger the people of Northeast Asia, they are a blatant violation of international law, and they contradict North Korea's own prior commitments."
Non-proliferation expert Joe Cirincione writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "Obama followed the advice of staff who recommended ignoring North Korea. The argument was that North Korea had no place to go and would eventually come back to negotiations. This was a strategy endorsed by many former Bush officials. There was nothing like the diplomatic approaches that Obama has started with Iran--and North Korea noticed.
"Obama officials even put preconditions on renewing negotiations, reportedly blocking Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth from going to North Korea until that country promised not to conduct another missile test. Officials also backed the tough line taken by South Korea, including curtailing fuel shipments to the north. Worse, some officials seem to have concluded that North Korea's program cannot be stopped, that the best we can do is 'manage' the problem.
"But North Korea will not be ignored. Or managed. Or coerced into compliance or collapse. These approaches were tried in the Bush administration. They failed. They only gave Pyongyang time to increase the threat of its nuclear and missile programs and export of sensitive technologies.
"It is time to shift gears. We need a coordinated effort with China that combines pressure with incentives. Not just promises to talk, but a clear description of what North Korea could gain from stopping and then rolling back its program, coupled with sustained engagement that carries through on the commitments we make and gives the North Korean government the attention it thinks it deserves--however repugnant that may be."
Despite the facts, some critics and their enablers will inevitably try to cast the North Korean nuclear test as a negative verdict on Obama's policy of engagement.
But the real problem is that Obama is once again inheriting a dire situation made worse by the Bush administration. And at this point, few experts share even Cirincione's small glimmer of optimism.
Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Setting the right tone will be critical now, analysts said, because the Bush administration frequently veered between tough talk and concessions, largely because top officials were split on the right response. Bush initially labeled North Korea part of an 'axis of evil' and let lapse a deal that had kept North Korea's nuclear reactor shuttered.
"During the Bush years, North Korea built a stockpile of plutonium that could fuel at least a six weapons until it finally conducted its first test in 2006. The U.N. Security Council backed Bush's demands for a tough response, but then the president abruptly dropped efforts to impose a new sanctions regime after other nations resisted. He instead shifted to intense diplomacy, including offering concessions such as dropping North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, if it began to disable its nuclear program."
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that Obama's aides are "[a]cutely aware that their response to the explosion in the mountains of Kilju, not far from the Chinese border, [will] be seen as an early test of a new administration....
"But as they had meetings every few hours — including a lengthy session in the Situation Room on Monday evening — some of Mr. Obama’s aides acknowledged that the administration’s options were limited."
Joe Klein blogs for Time: "[L]et's not kid ourselves: the military option is off the table, unless North Korea starts firing those missiles at someone. The sanctions option is also of limited utility because the Chinese are afraid that if North Korea is squeezed too hard, hundreds of thousands of refugees will stream across the border into their country. That leaves diplomacy--and seduction. There is a chance that if we make the North Koreans dependent on our food, fuel and consumer goods, we will have more leverage over them. But that is only a chance and the Kim family has shown a remarkable willing to allow its people to suffer and starve. There are no good options here--some are vaguely plausible and others are disastrous."
Neoconservatives Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan, writing in the Washington Post op-ed page, grudgingly admit that direct military action isn't an option -- only because we aren't prepared "to protect our allies against possible North Korean retaliation." In the meantime, they advocated missile defense.
The Washington Post editorial board recommends... ignoring things. "What Kim Jong Il's latest provocation should not cause, however, is the response he is seeking: a rush by the Obama administration to lavish attention on his regime and offer it economic and political favors....
"Mr. Obama should simply decline to treat North Korea as a crisis, or even as a matter of urgency."