Worse Than Bush
When it comes to foreign policy, McCain is more of a neocon than the president.
Many foreign-policy mavens have wondered which John McCain would step to the fore once he started running for president in earnest—the McCain who consorts with such pragmatists as Richard Armitage, Colin Powell, and George Shultz; or the McCain who huddles with "neocons" like Robert Kagan, John Bolton, and William Kristol (before he started writing op-eds for the New York Times).
Last month, the Times published a story about the battle for McCain's soul that's being waged by those two factions.
On Tuesday, McCain cleared up the mystery: He's with the neocons. He is, fundamentally, in sync with the foreign policy pursued by George W. Bush for his first six years in office. The clincher is that he has now broken with the president on the one issue where Bush himself reversed course more than a year ago after realizing that his policy had failed. In two op-ed articles and a speech—all of them published or delivered on Tuesday, May 27—McCain called for a return to Bush's original, disastrous approach.
The issue is nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
First, a quick recap (taken mainly from Chapter 2 of my book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power):
In 1994, top officials for President Bill Clinton and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il signed the Agreed Framework, an imperfect, interim accord that nonetheless froze Pyongyang's plutonium program, kept its nuclear fuel rods locked up and monitored by international inspectors, and thus prevented the tyrant from developing an A-bomb for the next eight years.
When Bush took office, his secretary of state, Colin Powell, wanted to pick up where Clinton left off—the two sides were on the verge of hammering out a treaty banning the production and export of long-range missiles—but Bush shut him down. The principle, as stated by Vice President Dick Cheney: "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it."
So, the North Koreans kicked out the inspectors, unlocked the fuel rods, reprocessed a half-dozen A-bombs' worth of plutonium—and Bush did nothing. Finally, in August 2003, Bush agreed to set up "six-party talks" on the North Korean problem—along with China, Russia, Japan, and North and South Korea—but stopped short of offering Pyongyang any incentives to reverse their course. His position was that Kim Jong-il must dismantle his nuclear program as a precondition to negotiations—an absurd stance on its face, since plutonium was Kim's only bargaining chip, and he wasn't about to cash it in before talks even began.
In October 2006, the all-but-inevitable took place: The North Koreans set off a nuclear explosion at a remote test site.
Nobody said so at the time, but what happened here was that Bush had gone eyeball-to-eyeball with the pygmy of Pyongyang—and lost. He and most of his aides had figured that all they had to do was to hold out—that Kim Jong-il's monstrous regime would collapse before it managed to set off a bomb. They were wrong.
So, at the beginning of last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice convinced Bush that it was time to negotiate for real. She sent her emissary Christopher Hill to Berlin to conduct one-on-one talks with his North Korean counterpart—something Bush had said repeatedly that he would never do. Within a few days, the two struck a deal that did not require the North Koreans to dismantle their program as a prerequisite—another violation of earlier principles.
Former Bush officials hit the ceiling—especially John Bolton, who, during the first term, had tried to disrupt the six-party talks, limited as they were. (Some aides still in office also rebelled; Eliot Abrams, Bush's deputy national security adviser, sent out e-mails to his neocon comrades, rallying them to protest.)
But guess what? The deal has worked out pretty well. The North Koreans have halted their plutonium program, shut down and started to take apart their nuclear facilities, and handed over 18,000 pages of documentation on the program to date.
Things are far from perfect. There are still outstanding—and important—questions about North Korea's role in assisting Syria and perhaps Iran in developing a nuclear program. We don't yet know how complete those 18,000 pages are. And nothing has been worked out on how to verify any future North Korean claim that they have destroyed all their nuclear materials.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Sen. John McCain and President George W. Bush by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.