GEORGE BUSH’S HOT BUTTON….Whenever I watch George Bush talk, I try to figure out what he really cares about by listening to how excited he gets on various topics. That was hard during Thursday’s debate because he was so generally peevish throughout, but finally, toward the end, there was one point where he became genuinely animated by something that wasn’t just a preformulated talking point. And it was on the oddest, most technical diplomatic subject imaginable: the precise structure of negotiations with North Korea.

Basically, the candidates had descended into the bowels of wonkville, arguing about whether we should have bilateral talks with North Korea or whether we should have six-way talks that also include China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. I doubt that one viewer in a hundred had the slightest idea what they were talking about, but there was no question that Bush felt strongly about it. Here’s the exchange:

KERRY:….I’m going to [secure Russian nukes] in four years, and I’m going to immediately set out to have bilateral talks with North Korea.

LEHRER: Your response to that?

BUSH: Again, I can’t tell you how big a mistake I think that is, to have bilateral talks with North Korea. It’s precisely what Kim Jong Il wants.

If you were listening you could tell that Bush felt frustrated beyond endurance at the foolishness of bilateral talks. “I can’t tell you how big a mistake I think that is,” he fumed. But why? Of all things, why did he get so worked up about the possibility of one-on-one talks with North Korea?

It’s hard to say, but it probably has something to do with the very next sentence: “It’s precisely what Kim Jong Il wants.” In other words, Bush just doesn’t believe in negotiation at all. If the other guy wants something, that’s reason enough to deny it to him, even if it’s something that would benefit us too.

More importantly, though, this exchange sheds a light on Bush’s almost supernatural ability to judge diplomatic situations incorrectly, consistently following precisely the opposite of whichever strategy would be most effective. Iraq and Iran, for example, cried out for multilateral action because the issues at hand fundamentally affect lots of countries ? but in both cases Bush has largely spurned genuine multilateral cooperation. (Although, in fairness, the Europeans haven’t exactly gone out of their way to make multilateral action an attractive option.) North Korea is exactly the opposite.

The case for multilateral action with Korea is simple: if we make a deal of our own with North Korea, nobody else has a stake in it. If the North Koreans renege, the rest of the world will shrug and wait for us to fix it.

That’s a good argument for getting other countries involved, but it’s not a good argument for refusing to also deal with North Korea directly. The reason is simple: although the rest of the world has a stake in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, North Korea’s demands are aimed almost solely at the United States. What they want (and what they’ve always wanted) is a nonagression treaty with the United States and diplomatic recognition from the United States. Other countries can help with things like economic assistance and monitoring, but we’re the only ones who can deal with the primary negotiating points. That’s best done in bilateral talks.

Thus, John Kerry has by far the better of the argument here: we should have both multilateral and bilateral talks. What’s more, all the other countries involved in the talks agree, because they understand the reality of the situation. But George Bush refuses. After all, that would be giving Kim Jong Il something he wants.

In the meantime, the multilateral talks have ground to a halt, North Korea is busily building nuclear weapons, and we’ve lost two years in which it’s just possible we could have put a stop to it. Sure, maybe bilateral negotiations wouldn’t have worked, but we’ll never know because Bush stubbornly declined to try based on little more than personal pique.

In this, he’s following the path of conservative hawks who have derailed progress with North Korea for the past decade. For the definitive story, read Fred Kaplan’s “Rolling Blunder” from the May issue of the Washington Monthly. It’s a grim recital of error.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!