The Slime Talk Express
McCain is dead wrong about Bill Clinton and North Korea.
Sen. John McCain has skidded his Straight Talk Express off the highway into a gopher's ditch of slime. The moment came Tuesday, when he responded to charges by Sen. Hillary Clinton, his potential rival in the 2008 presidential election, that George W. Bush bears some responsibility for North Korea's newborn status as a nuclear-armed power.
Here, according to the Washington Post, is what McCain said in a campaign speech near Detroit:
I would remind Senator Clinton and other Democrats critical of Bush administration policies that the framework agreement her husband's administration negotiated [with North Korea] was a failure. Every single time the Clinton administration warned the Koreans not to do something—not to kick out the IAEA inspectors, not to remove the fuel rods from their reactor—they did it. And they were rewarded every single time by the Clinton administration with further talks.
McCain's version of history goes beyond "revisionism" to outright falsification. It is the exact opposite of what really happened. Let's take a look at the plain facts.
In the spring of 1994, barely a year into Bill Clinton's presidency, the North Koreans announced that they were about to remove the fuel rods from their nuclear reactor (as a first step to reprocessing them into plutonium), cancel their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (which they had signed in 1985), and expel the international weapons inspectors (who had been guarding the rods under the treaty's authority).
Did Clinton "reward" them for doing these things, as McCain claims? Far from it. Not only did he push the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctions, he also ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up plans to send 50,000 additional troops to South Korea—bolstering the 37,000 already there—along with more than 400 combat jets, 50 ships, and several battalions of Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, multiple-launch rockets, and Patriot air-defense missiles. He also sent in an advance team of 250 soldiers to set up logistical headquarters for the influx of troops and gear.
He sent an explicit signal that removing the fuel rods would cross a "red line." Several of his former aides insist that if North Korea had crossed that line, he would have launched an airstrike on the Yongbyon reactor, even knowing that it might lead to war.
At the same time, Clinton set up a diplomatic backchannel, sending former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang for direct talks with Kim Il-Sung, then North Korea's dictator and the father of its present "dear leader," Kim Jong-il. (The official Washington line held that Carter made the trip on his own, but a recent memoir by three former U.S. officials, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, acknowledges that Clinton asked him to go.)
This combination of sticks and carrots led Kim Il-Sung to call off his threats—the fuel rods weren't removed, the inspectors weren't kicked out—and, a few months later, to the signing of the Agreed Framework.
McCain called the accord a "failure." This appraisal isn't quite as dead wrong as his claim that Clinton did nothing but toss Kim flowers. But it's highly misleading, to say the least.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of John McCain by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.