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Monday, March 10, 2003

The Prime Mover

I have this theory. It's in its early stages, so I'm not sure what to call it. Reading many press reports of current events, one gets the idea that the US is the Prime Mover.[*] That is, only the US can actually act; all other entities can only react to US actions. Often the reports, while critical of US actions, fail to note that others' reactions are not the only ones available. Actors are subject to criticism; those who can only react get a pass. Let's look at a specimen from the BBC:

Bush's struggle over N Korean threat
By Geraldine Carroll in Washington DC

The background here is the the US has been shipping fuel oil to North Korea, which burns it to generate electricity. That way, see, the North Koreans won't have to try to restart their nuclear reactor, which might accidentally produce plutonium, along with the electricity.

But last fall North Korea admitted (and, if I recall, then denied, then sort of hemmed and hawed) that it had a secret nuclear weapons program. So the US stopped the oil shipments. (It sounds as if they didn't need the plutonium from their reactors to make their nukes, if indeed they actually have nukes, rather than just a nuke program.)

Since then North Korea's been making a bunch of threats, vows, and demands. The Dear Leader has called the Cowboy-in-Chief out, now what's Bush going to do?

Poised to unleash war on Iraq, the Bush administration is under siege at home and abroad over its failure to ease the growing North Korean nuclear crisis.

This sets the tone for the article. Note the implication that the Bush administration is somehow responsible for the crisis, and therefore must be the one to ease it. By this I don't only mean the American administration as opposed to Japan, say, but also as opposed to North Korea.

Mr Bush is also being accused of standing by as Pyongyang prepares to crank up a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon which could churn out up to six nuclear bombs by midsummer, according to CIA estimates.

Ahh...our old friend, the passive voice: Bush "is accused", and furthermore "under siege", and "critics say"... Besides the ambiguous Carl Levin, below, only one other critic (former SecDef William Perry) is actually quoted, in a sentence I've snipped.

While it might be argued that this article is about Bush, and therefore it's not surprising that the (in-)actions of China, Russia, Japan, or South Korea are kept in the background, I'm left to wonder why this is about Bush, and not about, say, the failure of China to rein in its client, or whether the South Korean "sunshine policy" has softened or hardened North Korea's stance.

I'll also point out that Bush does not have many choices other than "standing by". Bush might talk to the North Koreans, but if they are determined to go ahead with their nuclear effort, then there's not a lot he can do.

Oh, sure, he could try a military solution, but somehow I don't think that would meet with the BBC's approval.

But US efforts to convene a regional forum on the crisis, including China and Russia, have so far appeared to make no progress.

Mr Bush himself did little to still criticism in a prime time news conference on Thursday night, simply repeating that North Korea was not a US problem alone.

"This is a regional issue. We've got a stake as to whether North Korea has a nuclear weapon. China clearly has a stake as to whether or not North Korea has a nuclear weapon," he said.

US officials see China and Russia as key to pressuring Pyongyang. But Beijing and Moscow want direct US-North Korean talks and have balked at a regional strategy.

Now here we see at least a slight hint that other countries can act, too; or in this case not act: Russia and China have balked.

But critics of the administration point out that Mr Bush's determination to use diplomacy to stop North Korea acquiring weapons of mass destruction sits at odds with the policy against Iraq.

There are also fears that allowing North Korea to go nuclear could ignite a domino effect.

Democrat Senator Carl Levin said Mr Bush could "send a horrendous message not just in Asia, but also to Iran and to other countries that are contemplating nuclear programmes."

Here the author trots out a critic for our inspection, but it's a rather vague criticism. Levin could as easily be criticizing the President for not being more bellicose, rather than more diplomatic. (Here is an article with a slightly longer quote, which doesn't really clear it up. We also see that Levin is always worried about sending horrendous messages to various groups.)

Analysts are particularly worried that Japan may feel compelled to match North Korea's nuclear aspirations, causing a suspicious China to look to augment its own modest atomic arsenal. That could prompt new atomic power grabs in chronically unstable South Asia.

This was the paragraph that spurred my interest. Japan feels compelled...causing China...prompting new power grabs... It's as inevitable as an avalanche, and all because of Bush! Bush does nothing, and this destabilizes an entire region, possibly, in the end, triggering a nuclear war! Tremble before the terrible inertia of Bush!

Mr Bush has given indications that the issue is personal, telling US journalist Bob Woodward in a recent book that he "loathes" Kim Jong-il.

"Cause he tried to kill my daddy. Wait, or was it that other fella. Drat, I always get these tyrants mixed up. Let me call Condi, she'll know..." It's always "personal" with Bush in the eyes of the European press, isn't it? How simplistic, loathing the Dear Leader and his merry band of butchers. I'll bet Bush's "faith" has something to do with that. A sophisticated man would simply "deplore" him (you have to wave your hand languidly when you say "deplore", for maximum sophistication).

The US president's outspokenness has damaged US relations with South Korea, which under former President Kim Dae-jung pioneered a "sunshine policy" of engaging the North.

Of course, the South Koreans have no choice but to consider the relationship "damaged".

Either the US president will have to do a deal with what he sees as the devil and decide to approve talks with North Korea - or see the isolated Communist state acquire a doomsday arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Well, this is fair enough, although they do neglect to mention any military option.

Basically, there's no way for George to win here. The US has been giving the North Koreans freshly-scrubbed carrots for not developing nuclear weapons. Now they want the weapons, but they want the carrots, too. So the US withdraws the carrot, and North Korea whines and screams and threatens to hold its breath until Japan turns blue.

At this point Bush's options seem to be: 1) do nothing, and let NK develop nukes; 2) give up stuff, and let NK develop nukes; 3) prevent NK from developing nukes by, um, nuking them. Or something.

None of these is a very good option. Option 3 is pretty extreme (technically, we wouldn't have to nuke them, we'd just have to do an Israelis-at-Osirak, and hope they don't actually have nukes yet), which wouldn't be real popular either.

For Bush to deal on Kim's terms would not be doing "a deal with the devil", but furnishing Hell to gain entry to Heaven. Now, since none of Bush's options are any good, he should go with that one. He'll give up stuff, and it won't slow the North Koreans down one damn bit, but he'll look like a Good Man Who Tried. This is a ticket to one free Peace Prize and a lifetime's supply of tedious impotent moralizing.

The trick, when you are the Prime Mover, is not to move.

[*] For those interested: Yes, I did try to find a cite which a) wasn't from a refutation page, and b) did not have godawful orange background, and also c) wasn't from a scary New Age website, but didn't have much luck.