Tuesday, March 08, 2005


America’s foreign policy bumbles along in a darkly funny vein, a bit of Evelyn Waugh poking through the Franz Kafka.

It’s funny, for instance, that its primary successes are the product of inactivity, such as Israel and Palestine (where the policy could best be summed up as “Waiting for Arafat to die”), Libya and Lebanon. It’s funny to see President Bush lecturing Russia’s Vladimir Putin on democracy and the State Department denouncing torture in such nations as Saudi Arabia and Syria. Certainly Russia, Saudi Arabia and Syria would have a hard time taking this seriously.

It’s funny also to see the United States trying to get China to pay attention to North Korea’s nuclear program, and that China’s response to reporters Sunday, courtesy of foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, was an arch “I think that here you may know more than I do. Or to put it another way, I definitely don’t know any more than you do.”

This is mainly funny because, as The New York Times said yesterday:

President Bush last month sent a high-level envoy to Beijing to present fresh intelligence data that the Bush administration contends shows that North Korea’s nuclear program is more advanced than previously thought and that it has been selling nuclear materials around the world.

North Korea has been stomping around in short pants screaming as loud as it can that, in fact, it does have nuclear weapons. The United States is drawing attention to it, presumably with satellite imagery and transcripts from electronic eavesdropping, and China’s taking it no more seriously than, well, as if it had already sat through Colin Powell speaking to the United Nations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction with satellite imagery and transcripts from electronic eavesdropping.

China’s amused ignorance, though, is no stranger than the reaction of the United States, top officials of which routinely sound the alarm about North Korean weaponry and simultaneously shrug off its importance. They were doing so even before Feb. 10, when North Korea officially started its screaming, and even during Bush’s election debates with John Kerry last year, probably the best articulation of the intriguing tactic that “Now that we’ve beaten Iraq, North Korea should be really scared ... of China.”

“China’s a got a lot of influence over North Korea, some ways more than we do ... And so if Kim Jong-il decides again to not honor an agreement, he’s not only doing injustice to America, he’d be doing injustice to China, as well,” Bush said Sept. 30, during the first debate, seemingly unable to fathom China’s complete lack of interest or motivation in backing him up. China: an economy growing at 8 percent a year, likely to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest by mid-century, and North Korea’s best friend.

“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. It will cause the six-party talks to evaporate. It will mean that China no longer is involved in convincing, along with us, for Kim Jong-il to get rid of his weapons. It’s a big mistake to do that,” Bush said.

And what did China say on Sunday?

That the United States and North Korea should have bilateral talks.

“These are both sovereign countries,” Li told the Times. “They are the two major parties concerned. So it is for those two countries to increase trust and build mutual understanding.”

Funny, funny stuff.

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