The Long Road to Pyongyang

At first glance, the outcome of the North Korean nuclear standoff might appear to be a positive one for the United States. Under the February 2007 nuclear deal negotiated by the Bush administration, North Korea will freeze its main nuclear reactor, at Yongbyon, and allow the return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. The agreement also reawakens the slender hope that Pyongyang is on the road to nuclear disarmament.

More broadly, Bush officials have pointed to the outcome of the North Korean saga as evidence that the administration has defied -- or, as some would have it, never deserved -- its caricature as a bellicose, preemption-obsessed neoconservative clique. After the initial confrontation over North Korea's nuclear program, the diplomacy quickly assumed a multilateral dimension and never lost it. Japan has been a valued partner of the administration, its voice influential on North Korea policy; China was fully engaged. Outright military solutions were never seriously considered, and the process was built around negotiations designed to test North Korea's willingness to surrender its nuclear ambitions.

But a look back at the history of the Bush administration's approach to North Korea highlights a somewhat different aspect of the White House's foreign policy. The portrait that emerges is not one of a confrontational, militaristic administration; what instead becomes apparent is an image of a White House with extremely poor conceptual strategies and decision-making processes.

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