The shadowy “critics” who set the record straight on the North Korea deal

Victory Lap

In Sunday’s New York Times, David E. Sanger took to the front page to give the skinny on the North Korean government’s decision to shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, after five years of talks between the United States, South Korea, China, Russia, and North Korea.

This is great news, no way around it. Sanger writes that the deal is also a victory for President Bush, since it “constitutes a rare diplomatic victory for an administration besieged on many fronts…the shutdown of the reactor and readmitting inspectors gives him an opportunity to argue that a five-year-long strategy of negotiating alongside North Korea’s neighbors — China, Japan, South Korea and Russia — is finally bearing fruit. Mr. Bush’s innovation in dealing with the North Koreans has been an insistence that all of those countries must be party to any deal.”

Well sure, but let’s not forget that the deal basically gets us back to where we were when Bush took office in 2000—thanks to a deal the Clinton administration hatched with Pyongyang in 1994. That deal was effectively scuttled in 2002 when the Bush administration charged that the North Koreans had started a secret uranium enrichment program, which led the North to eject nuclear inspectors on New Years Day 2003. Since then, the Bush administration has practiced a start and stop diplomacy with the North until arriving at the present deal, getting us back to where we were in 2002—except for the fact that North Korea most likely has become a nuclear power in the intervening years.

If that’s a victory, I’d hate to see what a foreign policy defeat looks like to this administration, and the reporters who cover it.

To be fair, Sanger does mention this a little further down in the piece, but in keeping with the he said/she said style of contemporary American journalism, he delves into the history of the Bush administration’s bumbling by relying on nameless “critics” to do his dirty work: “The administration’s critics also noted that… [the deal] bore a strong resemblance to the 1994 accord between the North and the Clinton administration that Ms. Rice had denounced at the beginning of the Bush administration as an ill-conceived giveaway, and that hardliners in the administration dismantled in 2003.”

Sure would be nice to hear what some of these “critics” have to say about the whole thing, (or who they might be), or maybe just be told the facts of the situation without pinning the historical record to a group of shadowy “administration critics” who seem to speak with one voice. Sanger isn’t getting his facts wrong here, he’s merely taking the easy way out by presenting the historical record as another way in which some foes of the Bush administration are piling on.

These “critics,” whoever they may be, are right. The Times should have enough respect for its readers to tell them the facts, without feeling obliged to create some false balance between a Bush administration “victory,” and the less-glowing reality of that accomplishment.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.