I understand skepticism about the prospects for successful diplomacy with North Korea, I really do. Still, I must say I’m surprised at former UN Ambassador John Bolton’s remarks on the tentative agreement reached in the six-party talks. According to today’s Washington Post, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill (the chief U.S. negotiator in the six-party talks) says all six countries are expected to confirm the draft accord later today. That includes the U.S.: “We feel it is an excellent draft, so I don’t think we would be the problem.” But later in the same article, John Bolton has this to say:
“This is a very bad deal,” former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton told CNN. “It contradicts fundamental premises of the president’s policy he’s been following for the past six years. And second, it makes the administration look very weak at a time in Iraq . . . when it needs to look strong.”
One begins to understand how John Bolton could come over time to be viewed as a liability in diplomatic circles.
Of course, Bolton has a point. There are reasons for skepticism about any deal with North Korea. But there are reasons for skepticism about most deals with most people. The key question is always “Compared to what?” and in the case of North Korea our non-diplomatic options are notoriously limited. In this particular case, we had some limited success with diplomacy, none at all with belligerence, and perhaps a little improvement with a return to diplomacy. This deal may cost us twice as much as it would have cost us ten years ago, but that’s water under the bridge.
In addition, I understand that Mr. Bolton is now a private citizen, and is surely as entitled to express criticisms of U.S. policy as any of the rest of us are — notwithstanding various attempts over the past six years to portray the administration’s critics as traitors. Still, Mr. Bolton left his diplomatic position only two months ago, and the President let it be known publicly that he wished Congress would have permitted Bolton to stay. That is serious cachet in Washington, and I should have thought the President was entitled to a little more circumspection. It strikes me as extremely unhelpful to give the North Koreans as much reason to doubt our commitment to the deal as we have to doubt theirs, and I suspect Assistant Secretary Hill agrees.