February 15, 2007
THERE were no celebrations in Washington when it was announced North Korea had agreed to begin dismantling its nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy products which it desperately needs.
For a start, the deal was called into question when North Korea's State News Agency said suspension of the nuclear program was only temporary and made no mention of the part of the deal involving a permanent halt and the dismantling of any nuclear weapons.
Then there was the fact that for many supporters of the Bush Administration, the deal is a huge backdown from the hardline position it took three years ago when President George Bush included North Korea in his "axis of evil" and made it clear that what the US was aiming for was regime change.
John Bolton, the former Bush-appointed US ambassador to the United Nations who failed to get Senate confirmation to continue in the post, said the deal was a victory for North Korea and represented a reward for bad behaviour. It would send a message to Iran that it too could flaunt international demands that it abandon its nuclear program and get away with it, he said.
Mr Bolton's criticisms reflected the view of many conservatives who believe the Administration has caved in on North Korea and accepted a deal much like the agreement reached by the Clinton administration in 1994, which Pyongyang did not honour.
Mr Bolton, once very close to the Administration, was clearly upset when he told reporters the deal made him the "saddest man in Washington", which is not surprising given that he fervently believes the only solution to the North Korean threat is regime change.
That was, and probably still is, the view of Vice-President Dick Cheney, who has had nothing to say about the deal just days before he starts a trip to Japan and Australia during which it is bound to be a major topic for discussion.
Democrats welcomed the pact, but pointed out that the sort of deal the Bush Administration was now calling a breakthrough was available in 2002 but was rejected because, then, regime change remained the only acceptable outcome.
As Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden put it: "North Korea's program is much more dangerous to us now than it was in 2002."
The agreement shows how much the Administration has been forced to retreat from the "axis of evil" rhetoric that implied regime change in Iraq, Iran and North Korea was the goal of US policy.
Bruce Klinger, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the deal "reflects America's abandonment of several previously intractable negotiating positions".
What's more, there are doubts it will hold. The deal will be implemented over a number of years and, given Pyongyang's track record on sticking to deals, this is no time for sighs of relief. But the big difference between the 1994 pact and this one is that the draft for this one came from China, the only country with the influence over Pyongyang needed for there to be a serious chance North Korea will stick to the deal.
So no one is celebrating in Washington, not even those who say the agreement is as good as is possible. For some Bush supporters, not reaching a deal would have been better than reaching this one.